Coover, Robert. "Literary Hypertext: The Passing of the Golden Age." Conference on Digital Arts and Culture, Atlanta, Georgia. 29 October 1999. Keynote Address. Rpt. at
Critical Article Presentation (model)

Kenneth Sherwood


In this 1999 talk, hypertext author and critic Robert Coover writes about the earlier history of hypertext. His "golden age" before the web has hypertexts authors writing and thinking in novel ways. This golden period is celebrated by a sense of discovery or, perhaps, creation in terms of: form and structure, authorial performance, and readerly experience.

According to Coover, the best Golden age hypertexts were preoccupied with "architecture, mapping, design, and navigational procedures, with the centrality and variety of links and how to make them more transparent, or less so, with organicity, problems of closure, indeterminacy, with the interactive role of the reader, intentional networks, the redefinition of the "author." Discrete objects, shared on disks, yet golden hypertexts thought about space, linearity, networks, and links in ways more radical than the web; they took fiction beyond the habits of the book. In terms of the readers, their experience of the labyrinth brought new pleasures of immersion. As an author, and for a reader as well, he posits the notion that "we were able to read and write in the way that we think, creating and/or accessing the various elements of a narrative the way one accesses the fragments of one's life story held in memory. . . making hypertext not the latest fantasy tool, but a kind of neorealism."

Paradoxically, Coover wants both to defend new electronic writing on the web from charges that it has murdered literature -- and also to assert that the purest form of new literature has already passed. Youth's "silver" age tendency (or the fashion of the web) is to " abandon the slow but demanding word and rush into sights and sounds."


Golden Age hypertext writers often began as writers; they brought literary writing practices into electronic space. Here Coover's argument is irrefutable. Further, my own first hypertext reading allows me to share his nostalgia for these great works, and the potential for expressivity and innovation in the simple "link" and the non/multi-linear navigational structure. But, I am less persuaded by the claim that electronic literature could or does“suck the substance out of a work of lettered art, reduc[ing] it to surface spectacle." Coover worries that the dazzling array of "features" electronic environments bring to the readerly experience crowd out the text. But, as writers and readers grow accustomed to the interactive, these surface phenomena again become nearly invisible, and the text in its new media environment can be rendered at least as expressively as ever.

For Discussion

Has the exciting and disorienting immersion into the pure hypertext lost its allure for readers in 2012? Have digital artists succumbed to the superficial "bling" of sight and sound shows or have the tools of the web experience been put in the service of something like literature? Coover would probably say not ... but where do we part ways with him?