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  There's probably some pithy generalization to be made about what exciting applications popped into people's minds when they first got a look at the Internet. Adolescent boys probably thought of networked games. Retailers saw visions of e-commerce. AOL's Steve Case, it's said, anticipated chat from day one. Academics dove into dial-up card catalogues and came up with new methods of peer review. And every geekish uncle and staffer in HR no doubt flashed on e-mail.

Then you get to the category of writers, of which I'm one, who pictured literature reborn. A rash of digital epistolary novels have appeared, as have a number of hypertext experiments.

But if I were to gauge how all these dreams have so far panned out, I wouldn't have high hopes for the writers'. E-commerce, yes, it'll likely to change our lives. The Web, however, will probably not fuel the return of the serial.

Literature is the killer app of the paperback. The Net, with all its extraordinary potential, can't deliver a narrative like a book can, with its pillow-friendly shape and high-res printed page. For all the practical reasons naysayers were enumerating years ago--"Who wants to stare at a monitor for hours?" "But I can't take it on the subway"--plus a few more, the Web has not transformed novels. On the contrary, by inserting the possibility of choosing, hypertext can ruin the seduction of control that comes with the relationship between reader and authorial voice, and serials defer for no arguable reason the satisfying closure that novels supply.

Moreover, along with the comforts of consumption, the different media also have commercial imperatives that determine their best uses. At this moment in the development of publishing technologies, there's no such imperative for the serialized book. The 19th-century newspaper reader had no choice but to wait for the next installment of Bleak House, since the cost of a bound version was prohibitive. But today, it's only for the sake of novelty, for the fun of the gimmick, that you'll convince readers to hold out for more Maupin. Fans have little reason to wait around for Stephen King chapters when the six-dollar paperback is forthcoming. Besides, from the point of view of publishers, the promise of a commercial return on Pat Dillon's San Jose Mercury News serial in its 20-dollar book form no doubt outstripped its value in the paper.

When I wrote my novel for the Web, I was taken with the notion of time, the implications of withholding from my reader, the possibilities of immediate feedback, and the effect the proximity of modern technology would have on the whole experience. These elements were compelling to me and hopefully to those surfers who read it. But the discomforts of reading online haven't subsided, and the Web serial has not found its commercial justification. Instead, since the run of As Francesca on the Web, what has become much more interesting to me than the development of fiction on the Net is the gradual and ineluctable way objects find their forms, forms find their mediums. I wonder, for instance, if morning traffic reports or drive-time news, as applications for radio, will ever be topped. Or whether the sitcom has found its ideal in the half-hour slot. Or even, when you get right down to it, for instance, what about applications for spoons? Will they ever perform anything so well as they do stirring soup?
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Copyright © 1997 Martha Baer.