Johns Hopkins Magazine - September 1994 Issue



By John Barth '51, MA '52

A mere 13 years ago, in 1981, the staff of the Hopkins Writing Seminars received its first word-processed manuscript in an application to our graduate program in fiction-writing. Although the piece itself was not extraordinary, I was impressed by its virtually published look; it was, in fact, an early specimen of "desktop publishing." Remembering how instructively chastened I had been to see my own apprentice efforts first set in official, impersonal print--which seemed to me to make manifest both their small strengths and their large shortcomings--I imagined that this novel mode of manuscript-production might afford our apprentice writers some measure of that essential critical detachment. The farther their words were removed from autograph longhand, I reasoned, and even from homely old-fashioned typescript, the more objectively the author could assess them.

I showed the handsome specimen to our senior fiction-visitor that year, Leonard Michaels, and expressed my pedagogical sentiments: wave of the future, etc. Michaels took one suspicious look at the justified right-hand margins, the crisp print and handsome typefaces, and said, "This is terrible! They're going to think the stuff's finished, and it only looks that way."

He was right, of course. Indeed, I have repeated this anecdote annually to each new crop of Writing Seminarians by way of cautioning them against fancy presentations of what is, after all, still work in process. No justified margins, please; no designer typography (unless it's part of the sense of the script). Just give us and your future editors tidy, well-copyedited pages, I advise them, remarkable only for their author's manifest talent. Leave publishing to the publishers.

Then last year we had our first ambassador from the vertiginous realm of Hypertext: interactive computer-fiction in which the "author" designs a matrix of "lexias" through which the "reader" navigates more or less freely, perhaps entering or exiting the fiction at any of many available doors and steering the plot along any of many optional waypoints. Our young pioneer (Ho Lin, some of whose work is already available on disk) had worked with Robert Coover and George Landow in Brown University's vigorous program in hypertext; we welcomed him into the Seminars (as did the Eisenhower Library into its burgeoning CD-ROM/hypertext operation) as a genial and knowledgeable harbinger of things inevitably to come. Fortunately for us--as we have neither equipment nor expertise nor for that matter sufficient departmental enthusiasm, yet, to deal with this novel medium--it turned out that Mr. Lin's Hopkins project was a straightforward, engaging, traditionally linear novel about young Chinese-Americans dreaming of Hong Kong and heisting computer chips to get there. At my urging, however, he obligingly arranged computer-fiction demonstrations for us at the library, and we did a certain amount of software-swapping.

A book-person myself, I nevertheless keep an open mind and a mindful eye on the parameters of the medium, the edge of the envelope. I had already read, with interest, Coover, Landow, and others on the subject of hypertext; if I were 24 instead of 64, I dare say I'd be vigorously exploring its possibilities for my fictive purposes. I rather expected our roomful of talented apprentices, who after all grew up with PCs, to take to computer-fiction like grade-schoolers to Nintendo. Is it not their job, after all, to render their senior mentors gently obsolete? To my surprise, however, I found that I was doing the prodding--"Better expose yourselves to the virus, if only to build up your antibodies," etc.--and that they, for the most part, were taking the Lennie Michaels role. Reading and writing literature in the normal way is interactivity enough, most of them felt; when we're being writers, we'll plot the course for you; when we're being readers, leave us alone and steer the boat yourself. My feelings exactly--more or less exactly, anyhow--but it was a touch dismaying to hear them voiced by youngish apprentices.

In any case, their sentiments are sound, if unadventurous. Note that their reservations were not to the tiresome business (as many of us find it) of reading for pleasure off a video display terminal rather than curled in a comfortable chair; we agreed that by the century's turn, the hardware for hypertexties will likely be as portable and maybe even no harder on the eyes than that jim-dandy item of technology, the printed book. Nor had they anything against hypertext as a high-tech mode of library-browsing, as in the wonderfully manipulable new CD-ROM reference guides to certain art collections. What they objected to, and in this I'm much more with them than not, was mucking around with the traditional job-descriptions of Writer and Reader. You don't like the restaurant? Let the chef know, or eat elsewhere, but stay out of my kitchen, please, and I'll return the favor. (You ought, however, to try the hypertextual menu before making up your mind.)

I mention these two instances as straws in the potentially much bigger wind of Electronic Virtual Reality. Although few of us still prefer to compose our sentences in longhand before turning them into pixels on a VDT en route to their returning into print on a page, and a few more still prefer to bang away at an old-fashioned typewriter and eschew computers altogether, the superconvenient word-processor has become, in only a dozen years, the production mode of choice for most writers of most kinds of writing, whether or not it affects the quality of the product. Although interactive computer-fiction (especially as it comes to include whole repertories of graphic, cinematic, and auditory effects) is too fascinating not to become yet another competitor for audience attention, one doubts that it will have nearly the market-share effect on "straight" fiction-reading that movies and television have had. Those who still read literature for pleasure at all (no more than 10 percent of the adult U.S. population, says the New York Times) are likely to go on preferring, most of the time, the customary division of labor between Teller and Told. Granted, the chief agenda-item in the Authors Guild Bulletin these days is the protection of authorial electronic rights down the Infobahn, when all our sentences will be more or less floating out there in cyberspace--but this is more of a commercial problem (by no means insignificant) than an aesthetic/ontological one: a threat more to copyright than to readership.

The real new game in town--combining elements of interactive computer-fiction with wraparound sight and sound and feel (and surely taste and smell, too, in time)--is Virtual Reality, and it dismays the bejesus out of me. Extrapolating not very far ahead from the remarkable flight simulators used to train pilots, the electronic gloves with which one manipulates (with real tactile feedback) "fictional" objects on the VDT, and the currently cumbersome elaborations of such gadgetry in high-tech amusement arcades, we may wonder who'll bother to read Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, for example, when we're able (virtually) to sleep with those heroines and/or their male counterparts, serially or simultaneously, and at our pleasure either save them from the train and the arsenic or indulge in a bit of reader-assisted suicide earlier in the narrative game than Tolstoy's and Flaubert's scripts call for. For that matter, who'll bother to shlep to Russia or Rouen when, each of us a wired Mohammed, we can make the (virtual) mountain (virtually) come to us?

The answer to these questions is, I believe, "Fewer and fewer of us, but still quite a few." What television had done to newspaper reading and videocassettes to movie-going, the ever-more-sophisticated apparatus of Virtual Reality is likely to do to all of these and perhaps to literal touring and "exterior experience" in general, not to mention what it will do to the reading of, say, novels: It will diminish the market-share of these activities overall while at the same time perhaps increasing it in some precincts or aspects, just as high-fidelity audio recording has simultaneously decreased live concert-going overall, increased general listener-sophistication, actually promoted attendance at certain sorts of musical events, and, for many, enhanced our appreciation of the difference (even the auditory difference, not to mention other differences) between a very high fidelity recording and in situ live performance.

In the case of Electronic Virtual Reality versus literature, the difference is so enormous as to be a matter not of apples and oranges but rather of lotuses and rhinoceri, or perhaps hawks and handsaws. More precisely, it is the difference between virtual reality, which deals in real virtualities, and the purely virtual virtuality of literary texts. The sights and sounds and feels of EVR are literal physical sensations generated by artificial stimuli. The printed page, on the other hand--except for illustrated texts and scratch-and-sniff kiddy books--is strictly anesthetic, however incidentally appealing to the eye and hand its typeface, paper stock, and binding. Even in the greatest, most spirit-stirring novels there are no literal sights/sounds/feels/tastes/smells: only their names, artfully invoked in silent language. The virtual worlds of literature are unencumbered by literality. It is both their great limitation and their indispensable virtue that their virtuality is virtual; that they exist not in our nerve-endings but in the pure hyperspace of our imaginations.

John Barth '51, MA '52, who won a National Book Award in 1972 for Chimera, most recently wrote, Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera (1994). A longtime member of The Writing Seminars faculty, Barth retired in 1992.

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