The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Hypertext: In computing, a document retrieval network or database system that permits the user to access any of a group of documents by clicking on a link (hyperlink). Links may connect to other places within a given document or to other documents, allowing the user to jump within and among linked documents at will, as on the World Wide Web.

Adapted to the literary arena, hypertext refers to writing that is nonsequential. American information technology pioneer Ted Nelson coined the term in 1963 to emphasize that linked documents represent ideas in a nonlinear way, contrasting hypertext with the authorially organized linear mode of presentation typically used in other media, such as books, movies, and speeches. As Nelson explained in his seminal paper “A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate” (1965): “Let me introduce the word ’hypertext’ to mean a body of written or pictorial material interconnected in such a complex way that it could not conveniently be presented or represented on paper.” While the author retains some control, by choosing the content and setting up the links, the nonlinear format of hypertext invests the reader with a much more active role.

Contemporary literary critics have explored the connection between hypertext and literary theory generally, as well as between hypertext and specific theoretical approaches, such as cultural criticism, deconstruction, narratology, and the new historicism. Most agree that the very existence and concept of hypertext alters our conception of the text, which traditionally has been thought of as a linear construct with a beginning, middle, and end determined by the author. As digital media scholar Gunnar Liestøl wrote in an essay entitled “Wittgenstein, Genette, and the Reader’s Narrative” (1994), the “facilities of manipulation, individual navigation, and freedom from given, authoritative structures provide us with new practices of reading and writing.”

The development of hypertext has also had a tremendous and growing impact on the study of many literary texts, enabling scholars to store and link textual editions and variants, not only with one another but also with contextual materials. Jerome J. McGann’s “hypermedia environment” archival edition of The Complete Writings and Pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti is an example of hypertextual scholarship.

A distinction is sometimes made between hypertext and hypermedia, another term coined by Nelson, with the former referring specifically to text formats and the latter also encompassing audio, graphics, and video formats.