The Liberator’s Labyrinth
: Stand-alone, Read-only Hypertext Fiction and the Nature of Authority in Literary & Hypertext Theory

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Theorists as diverse as Roland Barthes, Wolfgang Iser, and Stanley Fish have identified interpretation (the meaning derived from a fictional work by a reader) as distinct from the intentions of the author. This dissertation explores a common claim made in the first wave of hypertext fiction criticism: that the existence of authored choices created greater levels of interpretative freedom for the reader than in cinematic, theatrical, or traditional print works. Drawing primarily on literary theory, but selectively supported by computer and information science scholarship, this poststructuralist, antiauthorist position suggested that stand-alone, read-only hypertext systems could further the so-called “death of the author” when used for literary purposes.
Does the introduction of an additional authored layer (in the form of hypertext markup) really shift the balance of power between author and reader, and if so in what direction? Using concepts first articulated by Isaiah Berlin, this dissertation argues that the theoretical discussion has hitherto been based on a distancing, “negative” conception of liberty, while practice within early networked computer systems favoured the more coercive form, which Berlin termed “positive”. This disjunction highlights that an effective strategy for liberating knowledge in information science can have the inverse effect when applied to literary theory, despite sharing broadly compatible philosophical goals.
The following study will foreground the contradictions between these two concepts of liberty. Technology, not formal discourse represents the genesis of a new medium, but hasty theoretical consensus led to an essentialism, even a formalism within hypertext fiction scholarship which confined intellectual horizons, a distortion which resonates today in scholarship around literary hypertext fiction and other interactive media. The second wave of criticism questioned empowerment on an empirical basis, but did not fully undermine the first wave’s initial assumptions.
Having outlined the argument in the introductory chapters, the twin genealogies of hypertext fiction will be explored in greater detail: literary theories of authorship in Chapter 3, hypertext in Chapter 4. The fifth chapter draws these strands together, demonstrating that the project of literary hypertext fiction is in fact at odds with the versions of liberty found in its progenitor theories, before the sixth chapter looks at how this contradiction continues to haunt contemporary experiments with interactive narrative.
Date of Award2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorFaith Lawrence (Supervisor) & Hugh Denard (Supervisor)

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