Rebooting Electronic Literature, Volume 4

Critical Essay on Carolyn Guyer's "Quibbling," by Mariusz Pisarski

"Hypertext Lake: Carolyn Guyer’s Quibbling or Lessons in Hypertext Reading"
by Mariusz Pisarski

If Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story is the Yin of hypertext literature, then Carolyn Guyer’s Quibbling is the Yang: perhaps the ultimate hypertext of female sensitivity, poetics, and politics. Published in the autumn of 1992, Quibbling seems to be everything that afternoon, a story wasn’t. Instead of a single protagonist on a paranoid knowledge quest about those close to him and himself through a labyrinth of his fear and desire, the “digital rhapsody” [1] by this woman American author gives voice to a group of characters, four couples, without a distinct narrative centre towards which other voices would gravitate. As readers we are invited into their stories, their intellectual horizons, and into uncovering relations between these characters in the past and in the present. The whole work is broadly feminist, and as such it represents an innovative form of l'ecriture feminine [2] from the early 1990s with a fascinating, added value of experimentation with form in the electronic realm of hypertext. A male perspective is consistently rejected as something too linear to give way to a fragmentary poetics, small narrations, and sensual dimensions of language and the body.

In fact, the main goal of the project––as the author admitted during her Traversal [3]––was to show how women tell stories to each other. And they do tell them differently than men: in passing, with spicy detail, digression, quotation, gossip, as a part of the daily flow of impressions, images and snippets of information. The text resembles water: You can shape it as you want, draw from it, like a hand drawing water from a stream, to which water, like text, adjusts itself. A sense of totality, a sensation of having one’s feet more firmly on the ground might break through these freely drawn fragments only later, because at the initial stage we first need to taste it. Indeed, the number of colors, textures, and shades

in the world represented in Quibbling speaks to the reader much more than the number of hypertext links, nodes, and pattens generated by our navigation through the text. Radically breaking with literary patriarchy, with rigid literary taxonomies (is it a novel or not?), Guyer’s grand hypertext paves the path toward the literature of the future: the era of Web 2.0, microblogging, and of writing as everyday activity shared with others.

The hypertext––containing 662 writing spaces, 1064 links, and 352 KB of data [4]––begins with a nine-segment sequence in which one of the main characters, Heta, walks along the lake and collects colored stones on the beach. Apart from the descriptions of water, waves, shore and sky, nothing happens in this sequence. Heta collects the pebbles and places them in a cigar box that she will give to Priam. When we compare this type of narrative exposition with the hypertexts of Michael Joyce or J Yellowlees Douglas, where the most dramatic episode breaks into the very beginning of the story (car accident), we can feel like viewers of a European or Iranian art-film introducing its own, slow, mesmerizing rhythm. Each of the nine segments of the initial sequence contains, of course, links that will lead us deep into the forest of fictional and meta-fictional breadcrumbs, which will take the reader onto dozen or so plot lines.

The beautiful aquatic metaphors and allegories that Guyer uses in interviews and in metafictional fragments of the work, as well as even more popular tailoring metaphors (stitching, quilting), are used as a guideposts for those of us who might get lost in the radically open formula of this hypertext. Open forms, by turning against readers’ expectations, demand such visual allegorizations. It is thanks to them that literary experiments in hypertext made us feel welcomed and comfortable. We also read about “oulipopo soup”––full of various ingredients but nevertheless made according to a recipe; there is the cigar box with colored stones inside; and also Borgesian Aleph––the magical device for building entire worlds. In Quibbling, Aleph appears in a conversation between Heta and Priam, a protagonist who writes a hypertext novel. Interestingly, it is interpreted as a mechanism of passing from one place to another, where:

A gate opener walks through the gate to open it and thus becomes what has been opened to

This, according to Guyer in yet another short, gnomic lesson on literature of the future, is what reading a hypertext feels like, or should feel like. To treat each lexia as a fragment of separate world, connected to any other fragment in a way not necessarily planned in advance. The links, the author tells, should be treated only as suggestions:

Excessive linkage might actually be seen as something of an insult, and certainly more directive. When I make a link, I'm only expressing my sense of the story (or one of my senses). This is the same for any reader. How dare I, just because I have first go at it, try to make connections for everyone else too? [5]

This is why when reading Quibbling, readers are encouraged to leave the default mode and freely wander around, either by exploring Storyspace maps and their numerous layers, by following a text link or a destination chosen from the menu of links. Segments encountered this way are associated with each other on the basis of adjacencies, contiguity, and thematic categorization––always elusive and never fully established. Such a mode of reading, when one encounters fragments of fiction, diaries, letters, excerpts from source literature (feminist anthropology, medieval studies, postmodern canon), enact yet another, perhaps the most fitting, visual metaphor for the work: a journey through a lake with many coves:

A cove of a lake is more comprehensible than the lake itself. Yet a cove does not exist separately from the lake, flowing out into and being filled by it. Whatever we can understand about a cove may be held in one's hand, but the lake remains blessedly incomprehensible, coming out and going in.

Because links exists in Quibbling both on implemented and virtual levels (Guyer assists readers with “words that yield” not only mechanically––within the work––but also intertextually, within the whole docuverse of sources), in readerly and writerly mode, the act of swimming, rowing and diving in the lake of this inexhaustible text can last for years and decade to come – an will never be the same .


[1] Term borrowed from a customer review of Quibbling from the Amazon listing of Quibbling: reviewerType=all_reviews.
[2] See Helen Cixous' The Laugh of the Medusa (1976).
[3] The event took place on Thursday, November 12, 2020 and was hosted by the Electronic Literature Lab.
[4] For an extensive overview of Carolyn Guyer’s hypertext, download Bernd Wingert's “Quibbling or Riddling the Reader" in Dichtung Digital:  
[5] Guyer, Carolyn. 1993. “'Quibbling': A Hyperfiction.” Leonardo 26 (3): 258–258.


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