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Scott Rettberg’s Writerly Text, “The Meddlesome Passenger”:
Reading as Writing/Consumption as Production

Robert Ford

It is often noted that hypertext fiction provides a medium through which structuralist and poststructuralist theories can be put into practice. Scott Rettberg’s short story “The Meddlesome Passenger” is an example of such a piece of hypertext fiction. Rettberg, best known for his collaborative work on “The Unknown,” begins his story with Roland Barthes; that is, he begins it with the death of an author. The reader is immediately told by the only witness, the narrator of the text, that he has killed the author. What ensues is a story that pits the intentions and interests of the author, narrator, and reader against one another. The reader looks to the narrator for a story, but the narrator cannot, because of the death of the author, provide one. At least, he cannot provide a traditional “readerly” text as Barthes would have defined it; the narrator of the text does not have a fixed, predetermined story for the reader to follow because his author has been killed. In fact, the narrator continually appeals to the reader for a story. The major conflict of Rettberg’s story occurs between the reader and narrator. The reader wants to consume a story told by the narrator, while the narrator wants the reader to act in place of the dead author and produce a story.

The purpose of Rettberg’s story is to pose, in a rather playful and irreverent way, structuralist and poststructuralist questions. Where does a text begin and end? Who or what controls, disseminates, and generates meaning in a text? Should a reader be a consumer or a producer of a text? Rettberg draws particularly on Barthes’ concept of the “writerly” text to pose these questions. Literary theorists, such as Barthes, usually give precedence to the author, text, or reader in their theories. For Barthes, the reader is most important; the reader is the active agent who produces meaning in a story. Rettberg applies Barthes’ principle in his story. He incorporates two games that require his readers to literally write the story. He also draws on more general postmodern concepts, such as inter-, intra-, and meta-textuality and the floating, endless, and de-centered narrative, all of which require his readers to make choices when navigating through the story. Ultimately, Rettberg’s story meanders more than meddles, but not without first poking some fun at, while also posing some serious questions about, our basic assumptions about what a text and reader can and should do.

The central postmodern concept at work in the story is Barthes’ writerly text. The story is not theoretically written by an author. The reader is told by the narrator on the first page that he has killed the author. The reader is then frequently told by the narrator to produce his own story. This fact is mentioned throughout the text; near the end of the story, for example, the narrator states, “Somewhere there is a blind oracle who knows everything that will happen. Unfortunately, he is no longer with us. He is in a hospital somewhere, or a morgue. He is beyond our help. Come, let's forget about him” (53)* . The oracle is, of course, the murdered author. Without him, the narrator has no vision, no sense of direction. There is no fixed story for the narrator to tell and the reader to follow. The narrator tells the reader to “forget about him” so that the reader can find his own vision. It is significant that Rettberg chooses to refer to the author as a “blind oracle” instead of, perhaps, a dead oracle; the passage seems to indicate that the author still has a presence in the story at some level. When you click on the word “oracle” in the story, for instance, a flashing message appears that reads “give me back my fucking eyes.” It is never entirely clear who is saying this, but it could be coming from the author. In this sense, the author is still present in some form, desperately trying to regain his vision. He becomes a god-like figure who is not physically present in the story, but who maintains a spiritual presence within it.

Nonetheless, without the vision of the author, the narrator cannot direct the action of the story. He states on page 61, for instance, “Back to that omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent being; a delightful idea and the solution to all our problems. A benevolent knower of all that is seen and unseen. As if there were one. All I know is that it is certainly not me. Damn.” Presumably the reader, voicing frustration at the fact that the narrator is not taking the story anywhere, has asked the narrator where the “omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent being” (the author) is. The narrator again acknowledges that an authoritative “being” would solve all their problems and would give them a much needed “sense of direction,” but ultimately the being does not exist (anymore). Again, the reader must take over for the absent author. Rettberg also includes on page 61 a statement that directly aligns his story with Barthes’ theory. The word “control” appears with a hyperlink (like the previously noted word, “oracle”). When clicked, a flashing message appears that reads, “Are you reading me or am I writing you?” Rettberg, following Barthes, connects reading with writing. The act of reading “The Meddlesome Passenger” becomes the process by which the story is written.

Is this the same poststructuralist song and dance we have seen in print? Not quite. Rettberg incorporates two games in the story that require the reader to take an active role in the telling of the story. The story is not entirely clear until these games are completed by the reader. The games appear on pages 48 and 68; the reader is given the opportunity to click on the word “gaming” or “games,” respectively. On page 48, the reader is taken to a new screen that asks him to fill in six fields. After he fills in the fields he clicks on “Tell Story,” and a new screen appears entitled “The Author is Dead Game.” The new screen has a paragraph that has the reader’s words inserted into it. The paragraph essentially tells the story: “It was a [insert adjective] day”; an author was killed by a “nasty reader” by the name of [insert name]. The link on page 68 is set up in the same way. These “games” force the reader to interact with and write, at least to some extent, the story that he is reading. These games bring the Barthesian writerly text back in a refreshing and important way. They achieve what could not be achieved in the print medium. In print, a writerly text asked its readers to imagine that they were simultaneously reading and writing a text. Rettberg does not ask his readers to imagine it; he has constructed a story in which the system requires that they simultaneously read and write the text.

“The Meddlesome Passenger” uses other features common to both hypertext and postmodernism to strengthen the relationship between the story and Barthes’ concept of the writerly text. First, the narrative and the various links within the narrative create different inter-, intra-, and meta-texts. Throughout the text there are individual words that can be clicked to either send the reader to a new place or to present new text. I have noted two such instances above. By clicking on “oracle” or “control,” for example, a flashing text message appears at the bottom of the story screen. This is the dominant type of link in the story. Most of these messages are asides, jokes, or anecdotes, and it is not always clear who is saying them. They essentially provide a subtext or intra-text to the story. These subtexts provide another example of how the reader has control over how the narrative is constructed. The words have to be clicked for the text to appear. The reader has control over what text is clicked, written, and read.

There are other links, though, that send the reader to new places. The three most obvious examples of this are the links to the Doritos, Coca-Cola, and Slim-Jim Web sites. While on his “journey” with the reader, the narrator frequently alludes to Coca-Cola, Doritos, and Slim-Jim. When the words appear in the text they are linked to the companies' Web sites. In one respect, these allusions to junk food simply serve to enhance the basic storyline. At the moment the narrator alludes to these products, he is traveling with the reader on the road; Doritos, Coca-Cola, and Slim-Jim are all convenience store products that you would find on the road. More importantly, though, these links provide an explicit connection between reading and consumer culture. The narrator frequently alludes to the relationship between reading and consuming. Take the following passage for example: “You swallow. Me, that is. You digest me. You construct me, churn me through your bowels. Then you excrete me” (13). The narrator’s argument is that the process of reading a text has become much like the consumption of junk food. The narrator wants to get the reader to produce his own story, rather than simply consume one. The company Web sites play a significant role in the development of the overall theme of consumptive v. productive reading.

The narrative of the short story is de-centered and free-floating, common tropes of postmodern fiction, as well. The fact that there is theoretically no author de-centers the narrative immediately. There is no “omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent being” who determines the fate of the reader and narrator (61). The hierarchy of traditional narrative breaks down. The narrator and reader embark on what the narrator frequently calls a journey to nowhere. They travel by plane, train, and car in the story, but in the end they never arrive anywhere. The narrator speaks of this endless and floating narrative in the following passage: “It's not easy for me, you know. Signifier. Nothing? Traces. A footprint in the sand. Leading to no particular place, with no apparent purpose. I'm floating on the geist, if I'm floating at all. Drift, isn't it?” (63). In this passage, the narrator pointedly connects his story to the words “float” and “drift.” There is “no apparent purpose” in the story. That is, there is no predetermined destination controlled by an omniscient, god-like author. In fact, the reader is told later that he is the one who determines the destination: “you’re the one in the paint shop who blends it all together” (63). The reader becomes the producer of the text, the person who organizes the story and determines where and when the text begins and ends.

“The Meddlesome Passenger”—despite its irreverent and meddling narrator—is a serious piece of hypertext fiction that is clearly designed to engage with Barthes’ concept of the writerly text. The story itself is the story of the death of the author. The reader is forced from page one to write his own story. Rettberg uses links and other interactive devices to force the reader to interact with and, to some extent, write the story. The links are also used to construct subtexts to the story or to draw direct thematic connections between reading and consuming. Rettberg and his narrator want us to know that, without an author, we are free to mix, blend, read, and write stories as we see fit.

*Rettberg’s short story is divided into 70 pages of varying length, each of which can be accessed through the left hand side of the story’s interface. I have used MLA style in-text citations to reference the text. An in-text citation that reads “(Rettberg 53)” means that the text was taken from page 53 of the short story. back to text

Works Cited

Rettberg, Scott. “The Meddlesome Passenger.” May 2002. Beehive. April 2003 <>



copyright © 2003 Robert Ford

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