Static Travelers on the Hypertext Highway: A Review of Will Self’s “Kafka’s Wound”

Stacey Bleistein

Reference Librian

Post University Traurig Library


 In 2012, the London Review of Books commissioned Will Self “to create a digital literary work that pushed the boundaries of the literary essay well beyond its traditional form; using digital technology to loosen and enhance the structure of the essay, changing the way the reader interacts with the text.” After 14 weeks of collaborating with over 70 contributors, Self published “Kafka’s Wound: A Digital Essay.” Prima facie, this 25-crease website of text looks like any other online essay. But the simplistically stylish floating toolbar on the bottom left-hand side tips off would-be readers that they won’t be readers of this essay about Franz Kafka’s 1919 short story, “A Country Doctor”: they’ll be static travelers on Self’s literary hypertext highway.

From the digital essay’s toolbar, travelers will be directed to instructions on how to use the site, including a key for the toolbar icons (i.e., go to the top and bottom of the essay, change the font size, share via Twitter, share on Facebook, and toggle side-notes and highlights) and a key for the essay’s side-note icons (i.e., archival content, creative content, documentary, and  author’s note). Reading any other essay of this length (a little more than 8,200 words) would take about 30 minutes at the average reading rate of around 250 words per minute. But navigation through the content behind these icons could easily make Self’s digital essay a literary hypertext experience that lasts several hours.

             The first notable literary hypertext, Michael Joyce’s Afternoon: A Story, was published in 1987 and put electronic literature on the digital map. Since then, Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995) and hundreds of other intuitively navigable literary hypertexts have emerged, urging circles in the literary and information technology fields to rethink how users of the World Wide Web interact with literature in a digital world. Surpassing the typical literary hypertext experience that resembles choose-your-own-adventure fiction or literature with extreme footnotes, “Kafka’s Wound” is an essay with related music clips, computer-generated images and animations, video blogs, historical notes, full-text translations of Kafka’s story from its original German, readings of the story, editorial comments and reflections, photographs, an interactive typewriter and bilingual story reader, dance video clips, WWII propaganda media clips, a museum tour, a poetic game with “visual vocabularies and sound,” Self’s video diary on the making of the essay, images of actual manuscript pages, and so much more. A digital slice of Self’s associative mind, “Kafka’s Wound” tests the limits of post-structuralist theory in a medium where literature can conjure not only an endless chain of signs, but a worldwide web of signs that are navigable with a the click of an index finger.

           Sprinkled with hypertext, vertical and horizontal intertext, and even supertext, Self’s digital essay brings to light the “fluid inanition” of today’s database-driven static traveler (always on the move virtually, but not really moving anywhere physically) and raises innumerable questions about the possibilities and implications of 21st-century digital media as it is used “to fashion a different kind of literary essay.” What types of literature lend themselves to this treatment? What would a digital essay written about a digital essay look like? After publication, could others outside of the original authorial team contribute their own digital footnotes or feedback? Can search engines like Google and Bing (offering hypertext and mixed media in search results) truly become more associative like the human mind, when organizing information from millions of different minds? The London Review of Books explains that “the pioneering nature of this project will almost certainly provoke assessment and comment which will itself lead to new endeavors in this emerging genre….The possible futures for the digital literary essay are multiple.” “Kafka’s Wound: A Digital Essay” is indeed a pioneering project, and its travelers will be all the better for taking the journey through Will Self’s literary frontier.


Reference: Self, W. (2012). Kafka’s wound: A digital essay. London: London Review of Books. Retrieved from


About the Reviewer:

Stacey Bleistein hails from southern New Jersey. She credits her enjoyment of research and writing to her education from Temple University’s English Department (B.A.), Rutgers University’s School of Library, Communication, and Information Studies (M.L.I.S.), the Eagleton Institute of Politics (Henry J. Raimondo Graduate Fellow), Widener University’s School of Law, and Central Connecticut State University’s English Department (M.A.). Stacey’s career—which includes having served as Grant Research Writer/Editor in academia, Manager of Marketing and Communications for a professional association, and Law Librarian in an adult corrections center—now brings her to Post University as Reference Librarian, and she is thrilled to be a contributor for Post University’s Digital Life & Learning.