Critical Voice by Terry Locke

Literature and hypertext

Let’s distinguish between two kinds of artistic impulse. Let’s call the first convergent. Its natural outcome is a kind of singularity: a single line of narrative development, a single causal sequence, a line of linear argument, the lingering close-up. Its correspondent response is the sense of enclosure: a defined sense of being enrapt in a particular space and being taken, gently or roughly, in a particular direction.

Let’s call the second divergent. Its natural outcome is multiplicity: multiple lines of narrative development, complex and contextualised causalities, multiple points of view, parallel montage. Its corresponding response is a sense of exclosure: a diffuse sense of prospects being opened up, sometimes discomfortingly, so that one finds oneself circling around a centre which may or not be fixed
The second of these impulses does not demand hypertext for its artistic instantiation. But it’s as if hypertext is its long awaited bride (or bridegroom).



Genre is not an easy concept to pin down. Here are some definitions:

  • Genre: A particular type of text, having specific and distinctive characteristics arising from its purpose, function, and audience. Genres are not fixed or discrete categories. (Ministry of Education. [1994]. English in the New Zealand curriculum. Wellington: Learning Media.)
  • Genre refers to the different literary types, classes, sets, or categories of writing, each featuring its own group of attributes – in content, style, and form….The attributes of each genre are conditioned by the purpose for the writing and, except in a limited number of genres, are not obligatory – there is no one way to write a novel, for example, but there are common expectations of what a novel will contain. (Ministry of Education. [1992]. Dancing with the pen: The learner as a writer. Wellington: Learning Media.)
  • Genres are categories set up by the interaction of textual features and reading practices, which shape and limit the meanings readers can make with a text. (Brian Moon. [1992]. Literary terms: A practical glossary. Scarborough, W.A.: Chalkface Press.)

What these definitions have in common is the central idea that genre relates to social practice. Furthermore, it is difficult to get away from the idea that genre is the formal outcome of a set of social and cultural imperatives: the purpose of a speaker, the expectations of an actual or envisaged audience, the content of an utterance.

There is something attractively straightforward about the definition from Dancing with the pen. What it needs is to have its range widened to include more kinds of text (including oral texts) and a recognition that genres are not only fixed but can be extremely fluid and capable of transformation. What it does do is introduce the idea of obligatory (and hence optional) features or elements. Personally, I find this a useful idea, since it reinforces the idea that (if we do accept the definition of genre as a social form) genres can be thought of as occupying a position on a closed-open continuum. (The letter to the editor is a relatively closed genre in terms of the number of stipulated constraints pertaining to its various elements.)

Implicit in Brian Moon’s definition is the idea of genres as promoting “…certain values by shaping our reading practices,” and hence privileging particular ways of viewing the world (discursive positions). That is a key idea in any approach to reading texts that claims to be critical in some way.

A useful discussion of the evolution of “genre” as a term can be found in Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway’s introduction to their book, Learning and Teaching Genre (1994. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook). They write:

While recognising that genres can be characterised by regularities in textual form and substance, current thinking looks at these regularities as surface traces of a different kind of underlying regularity. Genres have come to be seen as typical ways of engaging rhetorically with recurring situations. The similarities in textual form and substance are seen as deriving from the similarity in the social action undertaken.

In their view, genres have “…come to be seen not just as text-types but as typical rhetorical engagements with recurring situations.” Personally, I like this idea because it retains the idea of recurrent forms while seeing these forms as inextricably linked to a particular kind of social engagement (underpinned by a particular discourse).

Genre and hypertext

But how does hypertext impact on genre?

One approach to this question is to make use of some categories I customarily use (in working with my students) as a way of coming up with a set of descriptors for a print-based text-type.

  • Explaining a genre
  • Context of culture
  • Context of situation
  • Function/purpose
  • Typical content
  • Features: layout
  • Diction
  • Punctuation
  • Syntax
  • Structure

Such a system of categories is open to contestation. Still, to give an example of how a description might be generated, here I go applying them to a magazine feature article.

Explaining a magazine feature article

  • Context of culture: Magazines have a prominent place in Western culture nowadays. You’ll often find them lying around waiting rooms or on coffee tables. Feature articles are the “staple” genre to be found in most magazines.
  • Context of situation: Feature articles tend to be topical and deal with issues, people and events of interest to a magazine’s readers.
  • Function/purpose: Feature articles fulfil a range of functions. They often inform. They are often investigative. They can also describe and take up a position on something.They also need to sell so they need to be stylish, engrossing, amusing or entertaining.
  • Typical content: Feature articles will contain such things as background to a topical issue or the profile of a prominent or newsworthy person. Depending on the magazine, there may be an emphasis on researched information or reliance on hearsay and gossip.
  • Features: layout: Bold headlines, subheadings and sections, photographs and captions, columns, usually two fonts and text justification.
  • Diction: The degree of formality is affected by the pitch (i.e. the audience aimed at). Depending on pitch and content, diction may be more or less figurative, embellished, plain or colloquial.
  • Punctuation: In general, punctuation follows formal conventions. The presence of direct speech will necessitate speech markers (inverted commas, usually).
  • Syntax: Again, this will be affected by the level of formality. In general, however, syntax tends to follow formal, correct usage with plenty of instances of subordination and coordination and cohesive devices.
  • Structure: Here is a typical structure: Begins with an initial focus which sets the scene. Moves to the general topic which is being written about. Topic is dealt with at length, often with a variety of points of view and focuses drawn upon. Article is rounded off by revisiting the initial focus.

Referring to these categories and the print example given, we can speculate on the various ways in which the html medium might affect a genre.

In the WWW context, the context of culture is necessarily global. There will be a number of implications of this. For instance, one might guess that discourses that are powerful and homogenising in the global context will tend to exert a centripetal pressure on a genre in order to bring it in to alignment. (One might also mount the counter argument. That the global reach of the WWW provides the opportunities for marginalised discourses to find/make a constituency.)

In the WWW context, the nature of topicality and relevance will change. One might guess that the web will tend to privilege texts produced in response to situations that have been constructed (by the way in which powerful discourses operate) as “relevant”. Relevance, in such instances, may tend to become the construction of global marketing or particular versions of media-driven sensationalism. “Local relevance” may tend to marginalised or compromised in the WWW context. (One of my students drew my attention to an American online film review of the New Zealand film Once Were Warriors which was less that adequate in its attempt to communicate to its readers “background information” on the Maori of Aotearoa/New Zealand.)

It is arguable that hypertext in the WWW context will tend to expand the functionality of a text-type. The obvious ability of a hypertext to actualise intertextual links, is a case in point. So is the ability to illustrate an argument by the insertion of a digital movie clip or sound clip. A number of commentators indicate that hypertext profoundly affects the rhetorics of textuality. An implication of this would be that the ways in which texts make cases and position readers will change: a shift from what we might term mono-positionality to multi-positionality.

An expansion in function must undoubtedly be matched by an expansion in typical content, as per the examples in the last paragraph.

Refeaturing a genre

There are, I would argue, two ways in which a print genre might be “refeatured” under pressure from the hypertextual medium.

The first of these is in terms of feature categories. The five categories listed in terms of a print genre above start to break down when used, for example, to describe a print text with certain graphic elements. For example, in respect of a magazine display advertisement, composition is a key category of feature. Should one make this a sixth feature? Or combine it with layout under the category of “Design”? And so on.

What categories might serve for listing the features of a hypertext? I would suggest:

  • Architecture (for three-dimensional aspects of design, for example, patterns of intra-page and extra-page linking);
  • Composition (for two-dimension aspects of design, for example, the nature of the template and the relationship of word-based and graphic-based elements within a page);
  • Verbal diction and syntax (for aspects of diction and syntax within word-based elements on a site);
  • Graphic diction and syntax (for aspects of diction and syntax within graphic-based elements on a site);
  • Sound elements: voiced word language, sound effects and music;
  • Thematic organisation and cohesion (for ways in which elements on a page and between pages are organised thematically).

The second of these refers to the way in which specific features of a genre are changed under the impact of hypertext one the categories themselves are reconfigured.

As I sit here writing this, I’m aware of a number of things. One is that I don’t have a readily accessible “metalanguage” to deal with all of these features. I’m used to thinking of cohesion as something operating in terms of certain kinds of linguistic markers, for example, in the use of pronouns, or adverbials, or conjunctions. I’ve expanded the idea of cohesion to embrace other kinds of markers.

I’m aware that the word “structure” has dropped off and I’m wondering if that’s a good idea? Why have I given that word away? Does “thematic organisation” do the same work or does it signal that in the word “structure” I’m indicating a way of organising a text that is coming under pressure in the hypertextual medium – which may favour juxtaposition and dissonance rather than linearity and logical hierarachy.

As I wrote at the time, this is undoubtedly work in progress.

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