e-Lit Resource
Cybertext Killed the Hypertext Star

In this review - which sparked a heated discussion of fiction's transformation within electronic environments - Nick Montfort credits Espen Aarseth's Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (1997) with freeing e-lit theory "from the chains of a critical-theory-influenced and essentially non-computational perspective." In Montfort's account, rather than a definition that equates electronic literature with hypertext, Aarseth establishes a broader critical category, cybertext, comprised of "text machines" operated by readers, which present "different outputs, different texts for reading" depending on how they are operated. This category includes not only hypertexts, but also forms such as MUDs, interactive fictions, and chat-bots. Montfort explains: "The defining characteristic of these text machines - what distinguishes them from Ulysses, for instance, however allusive and open to sampling that text might be - is that they calculate. They do not, essentially, have links. They essentially have computational ability."

By over-privileging hypertext, Montfort suggests, earlier formulations like those by George Landow tended to treat electronic literature as simply the embodiment of post-structuralist literary theory, and tended to underplay the computational power that an author can bring to bear. In essence, Montfort's review is a defense of both a broader category of electronic literature and the importance of critical categories themselves. "Thanks to Aarseth's book," he writes, "a larger literary category has been declared worthy of critical attention."

Montfort's review is also noteworthy for the medium in which it appeared. His essay, first published in the 11th issue of the Electronic Book Review at http://www.altx.com/ebr/ebr11/11mon/index.html, made use of its electronic format by including two cybertexts for readers to explore – "Eliza," the legendary conversational operator, and an excerpt (designed by Montfort himself) from Marc Blank's interactive fiction Deadline (1982). ebr's editors also made use of the integrative function of the web format by including both "outbound" (http://www.suck.com/daily/97/01/27/) and "ebr-bound" (http://www.altx.com/ebr/ebr1/hayles.htm) links. The essay was also linked to various ripostes and, eventually, ripostes-to-ripostes, several of which were fiercely critical. Montfort's piece was published in the midst of ebr's transition from a periodical publication to one that is updated continuously, and thus gives a window on why this difference matters: the first edition links to three ripostes (http://www.altx.com/ebr/riposte/index.html), the new version links to six (http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/cyberdebates) - with the capacity for new ripostes and new glosses to be added as this conversation continues to evolve.