A pioneer in the art of electronic literature, American wordsmith Judy Malloy (born 1942) created the first well-known piece of hypertext fiction in 1986. Called Uncle Roger, Malloy's fictional prose was the first of its kind with a storyline that relied on reader input. In the ensuing decades, as the information age burst forth, she remained at the forefront of developing online interactive and collaborative fiction.
Judy Malloy was born Judith Ann Powers on January 9, 1942, in Boston, Massachusetts. Her father, Wilbur Langdon “Ike” Powers, played football and hockey at Dartmouth College. He also served in Europe during World War II, taking part in the Normandy Invasion and the Battle of the Bulge. Malloy's mother, Barbara Lillard Powers, graduated from Radcliffe College and worked as a journalist, serving as editor or managing editor at Massachusetts-based newspapers such as the Cambridge Chronicle, Somerville Journal, and Watertown Press.
After Ike Powers returned from military service, the family settled in Winchester, Massachusetts, where he worked as a trial lawyer and assistant district attorney. Later, he served as chief assistant U.S. attorney for Massachusetts and taught law courses. Malloy grew up alongside two younger brothers: Steve was born in 1944, and Andy, who was autistic, followed in 1949. For entertainment, Ike Powers read the Odyssey and the Iliad to his children, and these epic poems provided a solid footing for Malloy's later storytelling. She would employ Homer's poetic structure in her early 1990s hypertext classic its name was penelope. Meanwhile, she began writing as a child and drifted toward expression in many forms, including playing the violin. The Powers family spent summers in Wellfleet, Cape Cod, where Malloy enjoyed exploring the landscape. She drew images of the rocks, trees, and water and wrote about the craggy ocean-side vistas. She especially liked undertaking painting expeditions with her best friend and sought to capture the lure of the Cape harbors. As an adult, Malloy would create art pieces and accompanying narratives based on landscapes.
In 1960, Malloy graduated from high school in Winchester, Massachusetts, and entered Middlebury College in Vermont; meanwhile, her parents divorced. At school, she played tennis and was on the ski team. During a tennis trip to New York City, Malloy experienced a defining moment when she slipped away to visit the Guggenheim and ended up joining two artists in their studio as they tossed back sips of whiskey and played chess. Malloy left intrigued and inspired by the artist's life.
After graduating from college in 1964, Malloy wanted to work as an artist but was forced to take odd jobs to ensure a steady income, and her career path soon veered into information technology. For a time, she worked as an information specialist with the Library of Congress, doing research for the National Union Catalog (NUC). The NUC was a massive bibliography of book titles and manuscript collections held at libraries across the United States. The purpose of the NUC was to document every major book published in the United States along with a record of where it could be obtained for reading and research purposes. In this way, Malloy began her work with databases and indexing.
In 1968, she married Jim Malloy and in 1972 gave birth to a son, Sean. Jim Malloy worked in the emerging computer-chip industry and by the mid-1970s, the family were living in Sunnyvale, California. At this point, Jim and Judy Mallory decided to divorce. Now, Malloy began to meld her two universes together, finding ways to integrate her artwork and her database structures. As she explained on the web-based Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link—better known as the WELL: “Initially, there was no relationship between these jobs and the work that I created in my studio, but gradually the idea of the structures of information systems as shaping narrative began to seep into my work.”
Malloy's database-building work gave her the vision to create literature in a non-chronological way, and during the 1970s, she produced a series of card-catalog “artist's books,” which combined visual art and literature. These works included images and pictures on a topic (for example, she created one on itching). The imagery and text were placed on 3x5 index cards and stuffed in a card catalog tray. As a “reader” flipped through the cards, the story was unfurled. Malloy's card-catalog art books went on display for the first time in 1978 at a branch of the San Francisco Public Library. She followed with an exhibit titled “Judy Malloy 3X5” which opened at Artworks in Venice, California, in 1979.
Next, Malloy moved into crafting “electronic” books with reader interactivity. This was considered cutting edge at the time because the technology for affordable, screendriven personal computers did not then exist. Computers of the 1970s were large, oversized machines used mainly by big business and industry. To enable her “electronic” books to have interactivity, Malloy used electromechanical push-buttons, which a reader pressed on order to bring up different pages of photocopied text and images.
During the 1980s, Malloy designed performance art and text-based installation art. One of her better-known works from this era was “Bad Information,” which explored digital collaboration and was one of the first pieces of net art produced. The purpose of the piece was to get the audience to question the fidelity of computergenerated information. During the 1980s, as computers became more commonplace, Malloy believed that the general public was inclined to accept as fact whatever a computer spit out. She wanted people to become critical thinkers with regard to technology.
Logging on to the WELL, Malloy opened a discussion thread for “bad information.” The WELL was a bulletin board system affiliated with the Art Com Electronic Network (ACEN). A bulletin board was a place where users could log in and post information. Malloy invited WELL users to submit “questionable” advice for the database. In a year's time, she received more than 400 pieces of bad information, which she cataloged under headings such as “Health,” “Horoscopes,” “Miracle Cures,” “Pets,” “Relationships,” “Religion,” “Salt,” “Sex,” “Success,” and “Toilet Paper.” She then entered this information in a computerized database. When a user selected a topic, the program searched its database to generate a piece of “bad advice” for display. For example, if a user selected the topic “body odor,” a screen popped up stating: “Halitosis is a defective but valid form of extrasensory perception.” Designed like a box with a screen, “Bad Information” got its start as installation art, earning its first exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1987. As “bad advice” was printed out on a long roll of paper, museum goers were instructed to tear off a piece of the bad advice to take for themselves, or to trade with others. The “Bad Advice” database was eventually placed on the ACEN Datanet, making it available to a wider audience, and it hit the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s.
In 1986, Malloy delved deeper into the intersection of technology and literature, releasing “Uncle Roger,” an online narrative database or “narrabase,” as Malloy described it. Here the reader interacted with the text by inputting keywords into a command prompt. To create the structure for this piece of electronic literature, Malloy wrote hundreds of pages of screen-sized units of text that could stand alone but also contributed to the larger story. Each unit was called a “lexia.” At this point, technology did not permit graphics on a computer screen, so there was only text on a black background.
The story developed as the reader dove through the database of lexias, meaning that the fictional environment for the story emerged differently for each reader. “Uncle Roger” contained three separate files, each with hundreds of lexias. Each file contained distinct storylines that were accessed by keyword. Depending on the keyword selected, a different storyline would emerge. Because no platform existed for this type of literature, Malloy had to write both the text and the programming language that allowed her concept to work. This three-part hypertextual narrabase was the first of its kind, relying on keyword searches and Boolean operators to bring up text. The overall arching storyline involved computer chip espionage. When “Uncle Roger” appeared on the ACEN it was the first full-length piece of electronic literature published online.
“its name was Penelope” was dubbed an early classic of electronic literature. Malloy wrote the software to make the piece available on floppy disk for both Windows and Mac users. In this way, the electronic narrative gained a large reader base. Chicago Tribune online book editor Jimmy Guterman praised this early piece of literary hypertext for giving the reader the ability to inform the narrative. He also applauded the randomizing effect of the software and the fact that the program allowed readers to generate their own narrative and connections, depending on their choices. “Every time you read it, it's a different story,” Guterman noted. “The reader decides when the text is over. That's what a successful work of hypertext-based literature can do that paper-based writing can’t: share power.” An iPad version of “its name was Penelope” was released in the 2010s.
In 1993, Malloy became an artist-in-residence at the research and development company Xerox PARC, located in Palo Alto, California. Xerox PARC was trying to bring scientists and artists together so the two communities could communicate. During her time there, she worked with scientist Cathy Marshall to create a collaborative hypertext memoir about their lives. The piece, written through e-mail collaboration, was released in 1996 as “Forward Anywhere: Notes on an Exchange between Intersecting Lives.”
Each passage of “Forward Anywhere” was written in response to a narrative received from the other. The passages were spliced together to reveal each woman's voice concerning similar events in their lives. As with Malloy's other electronic works, the reader got to influence the narration. In “Forward Anywhere,” reader choices included “forward” (which moved forward with the current storyline); “anywhere” (which brought up a random page); or “lines” (which allowed the reader to search for keywords within the narrative).
Over the next decade, Malloy continued her exploration of hypertext literature. In 1994 she wrote and coded the poetic “10ve0ne,” which contained screens of shorter, dreamy prose. The epic hyperpoem “The Roar of Destiny Emanated from the Refrigerator” followed in 1996. That same year, Toronto Globe & Mail contributor Robert Everett-Green lauded Malloy's work, saying that reading her fiction was like “stepping into a labyrinth in which you're lost and finding things at the same time. Inevitably, you wonder about the paths not taken, and about whether your own journey through the fiction is more a matter of chance than choice.”
In 1996, Malloy became editor of the electronic magazine Arts Wire Current. She also edited 2003's Women, Art, and Technology, a book that examines the history of new media through essays written by those who shaped the field. To honor Malloy's lifetime innovation in e-literature, a retrospective of her work was featured at the 2012 Electronic Literature Organization Conference in Morgantown, West Virginia. The following year, she served as the Anschutz Distinguished Fellow in American Studies at Princeton University, teaching courses on social and electronic media. In 2014, her work was featured in an exhibit titled “Pathfinders: 25 Years of Experimental Literary Art,” which debuted at the Modern Language Association convention in Chicago. As of 2016, Malloy was still teaching, serving as the Digital Studies Fellow at Rutgers University.
Cherny, Lynn and Elizabeth Reba Weise, editors, Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace, Seal Press, 1996.
Malloy, Judy, editor, Women, Art, and Technology, MIT Press, 2003.
Afterimage, May-June 2014, Anuradha Vikram, “A Brief and Incomplete History of Art and Technology Ventures in the Bay Area, 1970–2010,” pp. 8–9.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), January 30, 1996, Robert Everett-Green, “Networds: Hypertext Fiction Is Still a Novel Experiment.”