All three critics do one thing at a more or less successful level: ruin the charm and mystery of reading. It cannot be an easy job to analyze a work critically, be it film, novel, or hypertext, and I suppose someone must take the thankless job of dissecting text and deciphering minutiae. But Terry Harpold in particular just washes away any magic and enjoyment from reading afternoon, a story. Armed with both a thesaurus and zeal to be groundbreaking, he reminds me of why I never especially enjoy Literature classes: so much is reduced to motive and means.
Harpold points out directly the difference between reading a book and a hypertext. Reading a book, he says, involves turning pages and reading from a physical item; you might even be aware on a certain level the lengths of time and distances from page to page. Reading a hypertext, in its extreme, is pointing and clicking your way to navigate a spider's web of nodules and blocks known as lexias. I was paraphrasing, but to quote: "The suddenness of the transition [from lexia to lexia] suppresses your awareness that you have moved between blocks of text that would on paper be inches, pages, or shelves apart, as opposed to, say, only a paragraph or a turned page away.". (pg. 642) But is the difference more than superficial or transitory? Once upon a time, we (any of us over the age of 25, maybe) all had reports to do in school, monolithic science papers about birds or dinosaurs or volcanoes, and we all went to the library to do them. We started with an encyclopedia, looked stuff up, and then based on what we saw there, looked stuff up somewhere else in the book or in other books. In this New Age of Internet, looking stuff up is as simple as a mouse click. But the difference is perhaps marginal. One who is used to dialing a rotary telephone might realize the difference when dialing a touch-tone for the first couple of times, but the effect is the same, and the difference is soon forgotten.
More germane is Harpold's conclusion that "the order of lexias is [not] a reliable indicator of hierarchies of argument or plot development." (pg. 642-43) Linearity is the name of the game in traditional literature, and we learn as early as Fun with Dick and Jane that written stories often occur in very specific sequences or chronologies. The hypertext format has us at a disadvantage in that any mouse click might take us further ahead, take us a step back, or completely sidetrack us from the story, whatever - or wherever - that may be. But the author of a hypertext is just as much in control as in a traditional one, perhaps more. A hypertext, after all, is molded and formed completely at the hands of the author. Through his/her choices in lexian threads, we are manipulated endlessly; no matter how much in control we may feel, it is the author reigning us in or tossing us back after removing a hook. The author of a traditional text merely asks us to follow; the story might have twists and turns, but the narrative will be predictably calm and collected.
Any one of the three critics mentioned could have offered a "satisfying interpretation" of any of the examined hypertexts. Walker and Koskimaa were a bit closer than Harpold, but generally they all fail on some level. The topic of hypertexts is so new and sexy that each critic is pressed into overblown language and superfluous analysis. Harpold: "The historicity of digital narrative is hard to bracket because the disjunctive rhythms of its signifiers can easily mislead you about the when of writing and reading." (pg. 644) Why could he not just say that - heck, I have no idea what he was trying to say. He could have said, "afternoon is a mysterious and wonderful treat, a misadventure of a most unusual nature." I would go along with that.