Interview with Mark Bernstein
About Mark Bernstein
Mark Bernstein is chief scientist at Eastgate Systems in Watertown, Massachusetts, where he develops new hypertext tools including Tinderbox, Twig, and Storyspace. He is the author of The Tinderbox Way, which describes the design philosophy of Tinderbox as a personal content assistant for visualizing, analyzing, and sharing notes, and co-editor with Diane Greco of Reading Hypertext. For over twenty-five years, Eastgate has published original hypertext fiction and nonfiction and pioneered hypertext tools for writers. A graduate of Swarthmore College, Bernstein received his PhD (in Chemistry) from Harvard University.
In addition to his work as publisher and software developer, he is an internationally known lecturer for hypertext learning and literature. In 2010, he was a keynote speaker at the 1st International Conference on Web Studies at Toluca, Mexico, as well as a speaker at The Futures of Digital Studies 2010, the University of Florida and at Hypertext 2010 in Toronto.
In his interesting, informative responses to the interview questions, Bernstein talks about the history of Storyspace and Eastgate. The interview concludes with his lively, educational, sometimes practical, sometimes provocative advice to new writers of hypertext narratives and with a look to the future of computer-mediated literature.
How did you get started working with hypertext literature?
I met Ted Nelson in 1976. Ted was briefly flirting with an academic career. I was in college. Computer Lib had just been published, and Ted was working on what would become Literary Machines.
Years passed; I got my doctorate and went down to DuPont to help set up an AI research group. When that blew up -- DuPont wanted all its AI work to be done in FORTRAN IV -- I came back to Eastgate to work on electronic books. Even in 1987, it was clear that the future of serious reading lies on the screen. I wanted to be part of that, and this seemed to be a research area within the scope of a small, independent firm. We started to publish hypertexts after the second hypertext conference in 1989. In those days, everyone was desperate to know whether people would (or could) read hypertexts. Everyone in the field had built their own hypertext system; they wrote hypertexts themselves, assigned graduate students to perform evaluative studies,and recruited their own undergraduates to serve as test subjects. It was the very definition of a methodological problem, and it seemed a good solution might be to provide some well-known "standard" hypertexts.
And so we published afternoon, and Victory Garden, and then King Of Space and Quibbling and its name was Penelope.
These hypertexts helped focus discussion. For the first time, if you and I wanted to talk about the craft of hypertext writing, we could talk about a specific work we'd both read, a work with some ambition and scope, a work we could admire and with which we might disagree. That gets us beyond the broad generalities and simple-minded media essentialism that still dominates so much discussion of the Web.
You did a great service to the field by being one of the first to publish classic works in the field. In addition to scholarship and research in the field, from a writer's point of view the enrichment of our practice through being able to read what others in the field were/are creating has been very influential in the development of hyperfiction. The continuing role of Eastgate, of your vision in bringing together the writers in this field, publishing their work in a publishing model that includes royalties for writers, is very core to the field. And it has also helped bring literary hypertext to a wider audience. Eastgate's continuing role in developing and publishing authoring software is also important.
Can you talk about the creation of Storyspace? How do you see the role of Storyspace in the field -- past, present, future?
Michael Joyce, Jay David Bolter, and John B. Smith worked together to create the first Storyspace in late 1986-7. I saw a prototype at Hypertext '87, the first hypertext conference. I wasn't part of the original design, though I did make some contributions to the final user interface.
I think Storyspace was shaped by two overriding desires. First, a hypertext system that would truly embrace links. The TINAC Manifesto said, "Three links per node or it's not a hypertext." The other widely-available hypertext tools of that time - GUIDE, HyperCard, Intermedia - were all somewhat ambivalent about undisciplined linking, anxious that readers would be lost and confused. We only gradually learned that readers didn't feel lost, and that at times a little confusion is exactly what we want.
A second desire called for concrete writing spaces that students could pick up, hold, and move around. This grew, in part, from the needs of composition instruction; as Michael Joyce once said, many students in community college composition classes find abstract editorial strictures confounding. They have no difficulty dealing with writing made concrete; many have been battered all their lives by writing -- report cards, probation reports, job applications -- whose material weight and underlying structure was to them, altogether clear.
Storyspace's guard fields, which let the writer change link behavior depending on what the reader has already seen, were tremendously important for the development of serious hypertext, especially hypertext narrative. That let people craft important large hypertexts with meaningful interaction - three links or it's not a hypertext! - and with the scope we associate with the novel. The result was an outpouring of large, ambitious, and beautiful fiction. afternoon of course, and Moulthrop's Victory Garden, and Jackson's Patchwork Girl. But also the miniatures, like Mary-Kim Arnold's "Lust" and Kathryn Cramer's "In Small & Large Pieces". Bill Bly's We Descend, Carolyn Guyer's Quibbling, and Ed Falco's A Dream With Demons are every bit as good.
At the same time, Storyspace inherited the Intermedia legacy, most notably George P. Landow's Victorian Web. There's tremendous scope for writing hypertext in this vein. Bill Bly's got a sequel under way; Susan Gibbs is doing fascinating small pieces; and Steve Ersinghaus's Life of Geronimo Sandoval spring to mind. After a decade or so, the frothy fringe feared that hypertext wasn't shiny enough, while some critics began to lambaste Storyspace as a symbol for postmodernism. They'll all be back, because we're all writing with links; we need to write with links; and we don't understand links. Tools like Storyspace and Tinderbox -- a tool for notes that adopts Storyspace's mission for constructive hypertext -- remain uniquely powerful for crafting, and teaching, linked writing. Adrian Miles has a terrific new essay in Reading Hypertext on hypertext teaching.
Thanks Mark! Storyspace and the works that you mention were important in creating a new literature, in providing new media writers who wanted to create hypertext structures with a flexible creative tool and in making hypertextual writing accessible to a wider audience.
With experience as a database programmer and years of trying to create nonsequential artists books, I came to hypernarrative from a different background. But the advent of Storyspace was of great interest. My copy of Michael Joyce's afternoon came when I was in New Hampshire, I think in the summer of 1992. A Mac, needed to run that copy, was not available at home, so I made a trip to a New Hampshire city library to read the Eastgate publication of afternoon. I still remember the experience of sitting in a library and reading this work. I also remember having lunch with you in Boston to talk about the Eastgate publication of its name was Penelope. Carolyn Guyer came to New Hampshire, and we talked about our work. Michael, Carolyn, Stuart Moulthrop, and I met in New York City at an MLA panel hosted by Terence Harpold. It was an exciting time to be a creating a new kind of literature. And Eastgate was core to this new field!
It is also good to see that new writers are working with Storyspace. Has Tinderbox been used to create fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction? Are there any other Eastgate tools and/or new editions of Storyspace that would be of interest to writers of electronic literature?
Any hypertext system will, sooner or later, be used to make art. Tinderbox was designed as a tool for making and analyzing notes, but that hasn't kept people from doing fascinating things with Tinderbox for crafting hypertexts. Susan Gibb has been writing a big sequence of small hypertexts in Tinderbox, working in a vein that sometimes recalls Deena Larsen's pioneering Web work. Steve Ersinghaus, too, is building terrific work in Tinderbox. Bill Bly is using Tinderbox to construct a new artifactual hypertext, set in the world of his Storyspace classic
We Descend. And there's lots of interesting work behind the scenes. That's the role for which Tinderbox was envisioned, after all: making notes, world building, analyzing connections and experimenting with textual structures. Sarah Smith (
Do you have any advice to new writers in the field as to how to begin?
Know what you want to say. Have something to say.
Some topics seem to suggest themselves to people who want to try their hand at hypertext but don't know what to say. Hypertexts about madness - attempts to use hypertextual fragmentation to suggest paranoia, psychosis, or intoxication - arrive in the slush pile with great regularity. They seem easy, but they're hard to do well. Annotated maps are another refuge of beginners. Nonfiction writers who are losing confidence in work sometimes decide to claim the work is really intended for children. This seldom ends well. Young readers are a demanding audience with strong preferences and sophisticated taste.
Whatever you do in electronic literature, it's not likely to get you on Letterman. This is not a sign of the irrelevance of serious writing: People Magazine has never been rich in serious thinkers in Physics or Philology. Write with ambition, but be sure that your ambitions and your medium are not at war with each other. Read broadly. If you want to write hypertexts, you should know the work of people who have written good hypertexts. That your work might not resemble theirs does not matter; know what they sought to do and learn how they accomplished what they did.
Acquire whatever skills you need to create what you have in mind. Do not rely on vague ideas of collaboration or appropriation to supply what you currently lack. Be prepared to learn new things: computer programming, figure drawing, medieval Italian, narratology, or the intellectual life of Victorian parlor maids.
Master your computer, and know how to use your tools well. Look for new tools and techniques that can improve your work or open new creative opportunities. But don't let the dazzle of fresh software displace your own work; use new tools to make new things, not merely for the sake of using new software. Don't let the accident of having purchased a particular brand of computer limit your horizons; computers are not very expensive, and professionals frequently use two or three computers. Avoid the politics of Open Source or Web standards or DRM or Apple v. Google v. Microsoft. Capitalism is not your fault and these are not your battles. A writer who pledges to use only Open Source is the modern equivalent of the early 20th century writer who took the Temperance Pledge.
Ask questions. Almost no one in the field is so busy that they won't read your email or take your phone call. Get to know the people who are doing the work. Ask for help, and offer it. Invitations are always good, and an audience is always welcome. Arrange a terrific session at a suitable conference or and event at a university or bookseller; this is a gift that almost any writer will welcome. (Some writers are busy, some shy, and everyone has too much to do; make generous offers, and don't read the tea leaves should some people have a previous engagement).
Read criticism. A generation of thoughtful readers have studied electronic writing and have read earlier electronic works with care. But always remember that some critics don't know the subject, and some may at times have been mistaken. Magazine editors know even less, and because referees are often shoddy, the fact that an essay appeared in a good journal (or even a book) does not always ensure that the critic knew their subject.
Even when sound, a critic's taste may not apply to your own work. Balance each critic's views with what you are trying to achieve; if a critic is interested in different things than you, they may not be a reliable guide. Do not concern yourself with demonstrating that your work is unprecedented. Claiming that your work is the first of some sub-genre may impress an occasional newspaper reporter, but that news story will soon wrap fish. The novice shouts that her work is like nothing ever written. I find it preferable to show how your work is influenced by work you admire, since this helps both your colleagues and your own audience to grasp what you are trying to do.
Write criticism. Participate in the discussion, bringing an open mind and generous understanding and, if possible, a sense of humor and humility. Studying other writers' hypertexts gives you a chance to see how they accomplish what they do. Do not hesitate because you think yourself unqualified, but do your best and let the reader assess your judgment. Don't worry about being able to publish your criticism: there are plenty of places to put it, and you could do worse than simply posting it on the Internet and emailing your twenty favorite writers and critics to let them know it's there.
Today's literary world is shadowed by an industry that exploits wannabes and careerists and those who covet the accoutrements of writing. Beware of those who want money from writers and avoid hollow and superficial "literary organizations"; their goals are not yours. Many contests are scams. Readings and signings are at best a marginal proposition for booksellers. Selling books is hard work; if a bookseller asks you to do a reading, try to oblige them as best you can and do your best to fill the store. Ask not what your bookseller can do for you; she has to scramble.
Promotion is part of the business of writing and it can be fun, but this is not where the work is done. Be wary of parties and readings and tours, and if you aspire to have drinks with famous writers, you can arrange this more easily in other ways. Do not be shy of explaining your work. Lead those you meet toward it, describe it frankly and candidly, and always accept that people are busy and not every acquaintance will find every work congenial. Seek out new people to know, introduce your work to them, and be open to fresh reactions.
Don't worry excessively about the size of your audience. If you require an audience of millions, write for television. The serious writer - the writer with ideas - accepts that their audience, though it may be influential, will not be numerous. Let posterity take care of itself. Ignore the archivists; they're thick on the ground right now because the government handed out a bunch of grants, but as soon as those grants expire the pack will be off again, chasing some shiny new thing.
From my point of view, there has been some good work by archivists in making sure that the work of hypertext writers is documented. This is important in the literary field. I'm thinking, among many others, of the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin; the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library; the Dickinson Electronic Archives; and the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas at the Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about the ways in which archivists can be important in the electronic literature field?
Libraries have long been a great supporter of literary hypertext. Good hypertext collections are important. David Durand's work with the 1960-vintage FRESS was terrific. Xerox PARC used to have a fine collection of hypertext for people to read. Jim Whitehead and the UCSD library have built a terrific reading room and lending library for early and contemporary computer games. But not all the work is good. There's been far too much hand-wringing over access and preservation by people who don't actually improve access or preserve very much. In their writing, one senses that they really like to discover that works are endangered or neglected or even lost. What we need is intelligent criticism, but that's very different from book collecting.
But as computer platforms and software change, preservation can be continuing issue for creators of new media art and literature. Do you have any thoughts about how writers can ensure that their work survives?
I think you're mistaken. Preservation isn't an issue for creators: it's not their business. The business of the creator is making wonderful new things that inspire and move us. If you capture imaginations and inspire an audience, your work will be preserved. If not, it might not. The technical issues of preserving new media are not much greater than those that confront conventional media -- and are trivial compared to the challenges of preserving dance and drama. Do your best. Gather your rosebuds, and let the archivists worry about pressing the flowers.Do good work and find the readers who need to hear what you have to say; if you do, people will take care of preserving it.
And looking to the future, do you have any thoughts about how electronic literature will develop?
The future of serious writing lies on the screen. This is now settled beyond doubt, except of course for the doubt that serious writing (or we ourselves, for that matter) have a future. Tomorrow's screens might not look precisely like today's.
I think one great opportunity is historical fiction. Twentieth century critics weren't especially eager to embrace historical fiction, but obviously there's been a tremendous amount of great and important work -- Mailer and Wouk and O'Brian and so much more. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which won the Booker, is obviously historical fiction, but so is McEwan's On Chesil Beach. But historical fiction always fights constraints of size and sequence -- look at Wouk. Hypertext in skillful hands should completely change the equation.
Creative hypertext nonfiction is another great opportunity for hypertext. And we know much less than we ought about managing plot-rich hypertext narrative.
Many people, most notably Robert Coover, have predicted that electronic literature will become more visual. I'm skeptical; artists have been trying to meld film and hypertext for twenty years now, and I don't think we have seen an entirely convincing path.
Writers have indulged themselves for a generation with the illusion that they are somehow above the drudgery of programming and using computers, tasks some wish could be left to technicians and repairmen. This was never a very worthy fantasy, replicating as it did the old, obsolete separation of elite arts and menial crafts. But the fantasy in any case is now insupportable; there is work to be done, and no one will do it for us.
A great deal of energy has been spent on exploring the essence of the digital and the essence of mediated language. This has all been very interesting, but I'm not convinced it has gotten us very far. The chief successes of experiments in electronic language that transcends meaning have been inside the white box of the gallery and institutional exhibitions, and here we have an awkward mix of erudition and what Mamet calls the audience's desire to elect itself superior to reason: "The stockbroker is not going to lie awake worrying about truths or questions raised by a framed canvas painted one shade of green (which is why he or she purchased it)". ("Second Act Problems", Three Uses Of the Knife )
I believe publishers will continue to have a place in the literary ecology. They will not relieve the writer of the responsibility of promotion, but they never did: Sam Johnson worked tirelessly to promote his books and Shakespeare wrote for money. Publishers can praise your genius, which you cannot gracefully do yourself, and they can introduce your work to people you do not know. Publishers sometimes employ editors, and a fresh, experienced pair of eyes can sometimes transform a work. The natural size of the publishing enterprise is small -- we call them publishing houses for good reason - and small, agile publishing houses will be increasingly prominent in the coming years.
What seems most important right now is actually to take the leap and do the work. This requires tremendous faith, since today's writer is called upon to step into the void without knowing whether an audience will come to catch him in their embrace. But in the end, this is true for all art, especially all literature; you cannot be confident you'll find an audience until you have found one.
New media writers are fortunate; they can work without obtaining permission from investors and patrons, where filmmakers (and novelists of a former age) cannot. But if you do not undertake the work, it is certain you will have neither the audience nor the work.
Thank you so much Mark! Eastgate has been at the forefront of publishing literary hypertexts, and it is of great interest to hear not only about the history but also your point of view on the future of the field. The following sources provide more information about Mark Bernstein, Eastgate, Hypertext Literature, Storyspace, and Tinderbox.
This interview was created via email and posted on August 2010