Discussed in this essay:
Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, N. Katherine Hayles. University of Notre Dame Press. 192pp, $20.00.
Mentioning electronic literature in a crowd of print-lovers generally elicits one of two responses: resistance to the form, or incomprehension that literature solely for computers is even being written. In my years as an e-lit adherent, I have met both passive and very active resistance to its very existence, and those who have difficulty embracing electronic literature have been good enough to cite me a number of reasons why: Text on screens is not literary or literature at all. The works are overly avant-garde or filled with theoretical mumbo jumbo. Print culture has worked just fine for generations, so why change now?
I can understand this resistance, but in changing times there is a place for both print and electronic literature. Its place in serious literary study can be seen in its broad acquaintance with fields like cultural studies, postmodern fiction, new media, and deconstruction. Its place among everyday readers of literature can be seen by how much even a casual acquaintance with e-lit can modify, accentuate, and broaden the horizons of the very books all readers adore. For literature to continue and grow and expand in a fluid world, it must be seen through both print and electronic literature.
Those who are brand new to e-lit generally ask similar questions to those people have been asking about print culture since Gutenberg. What makes e-lit literature? If everyone is allowed to publish their own work, won’t that lead to a biblical flood of mediocre texts? Is there a canon?
N. Katherine Hayles’ wide-ranging new study of virtually all facets of e-lit, Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, asks these very questions. What’s more, it offers detailed answers that will be helpful to everyone from skeptics about the relevance of e-lit to those who have long read and studied it.
In the spring of 2007 I traveled down to the University of Maryland to attend the Electronic Literature Organization’s annual symposium, “The Future of Electronic Literature,” and at the symposium I first saw Hayles, whom I had read about in numerous footnotes and works-cited lists. My introduction came by way of her keynote address, in which Hayles discussed why English departments need to incorporate electronic literature into their programs.
In large part, Hayles’ Electronic Literature lays out the details implicit in this address. Through a vast study of the various genres associated with electronic literature, Hayles discusses its relationship to literary theory and how it challenges and enriches the surrounding debates. Hayles examines the interconnection between humans and computer technology, arguing that instead of looking at one or the other as superior, the essential thing is the connection between them. Electronic Literature is artfully poised between newcomers and e-lit veterans, as there is enough material to accommodate both those new to the genre and those who are already familiar with the literature’s texts. 1
For new readers of electronic literature, the disruption to their reading experience can be quite jarring. Although when I came to e-lit in 2004 I had been on the Internet for ten years, reading electronic lit was nevertheless confusing and difficult. It was also thrilling and all-encompassing. I found myself drawn to details I would not have followed or noticed in a bound text, and when I did return to printed work I began looking for intertextual citations, whether to classic texts like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or via geography in Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns. Issues of time and space, like those seen in many of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges’ stories, became a literary obsession.
By electronic literature, Hayles means literature that is “digital born.” This includes genres as varied as interactive fiction, hypertext fiction, and digital poetry. Normally, definitions of electronic literature exclude print literature that has been digitized, such as the work of Project Gutenberg, and an important distinction for electronic literature is the requirement of “properly executed code,” in order for the work to be accessible. (As Hayles points out, because of this many genres of electronic literature have become widely associated with the software that they run on.) She also introduces the term “intermediation” to describe electronic literature, arguing that e-lit can be understood as a mediator between humans and computers. She states that hypertexts create a “feedback loop” between “human ways of knowing and machine cognition” and that the interaction between humans and computers causes changes in how both work. Pointedly, Hayles leaves open the question of whether humans or computers should be the focal point when thinking about electronic literature.
Electronic Literature starts out by examining the various genres associated with this very fluid field. Although it might seem commonsensical that electronic literature started with the Web, e-lit authoring systems were readily available in the days before Mosaic made the Internet navigable by the masses. Although the first personal computers became available in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and with them the first generation of e-lit, systems to create hypertext at home did not come along until the late ’80s, when tools for fiction writers like GUIDE, HyperCard, Tinderbox, and Storyspace were brought to market.
Arguably the most popular and best known genre of electronic literature is hypertext fiction, distinguished by its many links between blocks of text known as lexias. Hayles discusses four of the best and most popular examples of the genre, both on and off the Internet. Her examples include pre-Web works written in Storyspace, like Shelley Jackson’s re-imagining of Frankenstein, Patchwork Girl, and Internet-based works like The Unknown Collective’s The Unknown and Caitlin Fisher’s These Waves of Girls.
Patchwork Girl, “important and impressive” according to Hayles, was released as an exploratory hypertext for use in Eastgate’s Storyspace. Coming near the end of the so-called golden age of hypertext fiction, it is considered the “culminating work for the [form's] classic period.” It is, as Hayles notes, “intensely parasitic” of the bounded novels it is rooted in, most notably Frankenstein. 2
Jackson’s work allows the “female companion” in Mary Shelley’s famous book to displace Victor Frankenstein as the protagonist, even though in the original story she was torn to bits by Dr. Frankenstein at the thought of his creations reproducing. The companion is rebuilt by Shelley, who then begins an affair with the monster. Jackson writes of the female companion that her “birth takes place more than once. In the plea of a bygone monster; from a muddy hole by corpse-light; under the needle, and under the pen.” She is Shelley (Mary), (Shelley) Jackson, and (Shelley) (Shelley) all at once. Notable in Patchwork Girl is the running visual and textual metaphor that uses the idea of a stitched-together female body to question ideas about gender and identity. The narrative and structure is broken into five separate segments for readers to explore, and it brings up feminist concerns, theoretical discussions about authorship, and other issues as readers navigate through the text.
In contrast to Patchwork Girl, which was written by a single person, The Unknown is a networked hypertext fiction written collaboratively over a number of years. During that time three primaries plus a number of guests wrote pages and pages of lexias, which themselves were full of links to both more lexias and audio recordings. The hypertext was finally declared complete in 2001, and due to its visibility on the Internet readers were able to read along and follow any changes to the individual lexias during its production. The Unknown’s very avant-garde fluidity is one of the most distinguishable characteristics of hypertext fiction on the World Wide Web.
The plot is based around a fictional book tour undertaken by the members of the Unknown Collective, mostly in America but with stops in Canada and Europe as well, to promote their book The Anthology of the Unknown. The tour quickly deteriorates into plot deviations involving drug use, meetings with famous people, scenes with cult leaders, and resurrection via alien technology. A fictional feminist critic Cynthia Nitz describes their book as
about messianic proclamations, assassinations, sex, drugs, literary theory, sex, life’s boundless angst, drugs, name-dropping, intertextuality, meta-writing, sex, art, art imitating life, life imitating art, drugs, and sex. Perhaps I’m overemphasizing art. But, in keeping with the tone of some of The Unknown, seriously folks, I jest. 3
Due to the light plot and the way in which it is mapped and framed, The Unknown makes a great text for newcomers to hypertext fiction. Readers not quite ready for “no ends or boundaries” will appreciate the story’s static ending, which can be discovered while exploring The Unknown. But although The Unknown is suitable for newcomers, the work is sophisticated in its writing style.
Beyond The Unknown, readers new to the field of hypertext will probably be most comfortable with canonized, link-based works written in Storyspace. Three of the most popular are the aforementioned Patchwork Girl, Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden (a reworking of Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” for Operation Desert Storm), and Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story, all released by Eastgate Systems during the ’80s and ’90s. (To make afternoon more accessible to newcomers, Joyce even built a “default” route into it that readers could follow to better familiarize themselves with hypertext fiction.)
Prior to the Internet, distribution of literary hypertext still shared many characteristics with print novels. As with a paperback copy of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Aberration of Starlight, readers of Patchwork Girl were restricted to engaging with that story in ways limited by the constraints inherent to a CDROM: just as we can’t add or substract pages from a printed book, a CDROM-based hypertext like Patchwork Girl is restricted to the contents that are on the physical disc. Unless a new edition is created, no new information can be added to the work. Unlike Web-based hypertext, for better or worse it cannot be updated or revised without a whole new physical product being produced, making it really just another computer program, one that lacks the interconnectedness found on the Web.
Joyce has created the terms “exploratory” and “constructive” hypertext in order to denote the differences between pre-Web and Web-based hypertexts, and he considers exploratory hypertexts like Patchwork Girl and Victory Garden to be more in line with the “output” readers would associate with contemporary book culture. In exploratory hypertexts, the relationship between the text and reader is not terribly different from a reader’s relationship to a novel like Ulysses or Tristram Shandy. In Electronic Literature Hayles only briefly discusses hypertextesque works of print literature, and the omission is unfortunate, as many qualities inherent in these works rise to the surface more when a reader is familiar with electronic literature. For instance, after I started reading e-lit, I saw new ways in which Tristram Shandy might be organized as a hypertext. The digressions and omissions in Sterne’s novel read like hypertext to me, and in fact, the general defiance of linearity and a distortion of conventional ordering didn’t seem quite right in print: Tristram Shandy needed the sort of reader participation I was becoming accustomed to in e-lit.
The next genre Hayles discusses is interactive fiction (IF), which may be familiar to readers of a certain age group from computer games like Adventure and Zork, popular in the early ’80s. IF, often known as text adventures, allows users to input commands that further the narrative, solve puzzles, and unlock new parts of a world. While lacking in graphics, works of interactive fiction offer complex stories and puzzles for users to engage with. IF showed a surprisingly robust capacity to colonize popular works of printed literature, such as Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series, the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books. In addition to mentioning the classic text adventures, Hayles also cites the more recent work of IF evangelist Emily Short, particularly the challenging Savoir Faire, which combines advanced puzzle solving with literary metaphor. Due to Short and others like Nick Montfort, IF has undergone something of a revival in recent years. 4
Under the rubric of interactive fiction Hayles includes genres that move off of the screen and into our personal environment. Email novels, like Rettberg’s Kind of Blue
, were very popular in the ’90s and are given a brief discussion. Hayles then segues into a discussion of GPS- and SMS-based narratives, concluding with Robert Coover’s CAVE room. CAVE is a virtual reality room that Coover has populated with works from prominent figures in electronic literature, like William Gillespie, a member of The Unknown Collective, and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, a noted writer on e-lit who blogs about the intersection of computers and the arts at a site called Grand Text Auto
. CAVE’s “readers” enter the room and navigate a flow of words from the walls with a wand while wearing a virtual reality helmet.
Perhaps the most interesting of the interactive narratives is Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas’ graphically-based Façade. Façade, featured in The Atlantic Monthly last year, involves a scenario where users arrive at the apartment of Trip and Grace, who are celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary. Very quickly, despite their cheery facade, it becomes clear that the relationship is falling apart. As things deteriorate, readers can explore the apartment and interact with Trip and Grace until they solve their problems or get thrown out.
Façade might sound like a lesser version of Grand Theft Auto, but in fact it involves a different sort of interactivity than such a game. While games like Grand Theft Auto offer situations and characters that may or may not act in a “literary” way, they do not let readers explore their worlds and interact on their own terms. (I find them restrictive and boring.) Façade‘s content is compelling because you can do whatever you want and see what happens.
Instead of side quests and leveling up, Façade plays as if it is taking place in real time. The new form of artificial intelligence created for it (known as “A Behavior Language”) mimics human responses in a realistic fashion, and the text’s natural language engine reacts to emotions in the inputted words, working towards building up drama. Your active participation in building drama in this small apartment is a lot more interesting than the huge worlds of games like Grand Theft Auto, sort of how a Jamesian novel of manners can be much richer than an adventure story. Games have never felt as natural to me as Façade does. It’s not perfect, but a great step towards expanding interactive narrative beyond video games.
One of the primary problems facing electronic literature is rate of change inherent to computer technology. Text adventures like Zork can’t be run on today’s software and have to be played through emulators that allow today’s computers to reproduce the programs’ original environment. Likewise, if the HTML that today’s hypertexts are written in is not updated to keep up with changes in HTML code, they will eventually cease to work. Even the storage media for many electronic texts, such as Patchwork Girl’s CDROM, will eventually fall into obsolescence. As Hayles notes, books printed hundreds of years ago “can endure for centuries” but works of electronic literature become difficult to read “after a decade or even less.” 5
Electronic Literature’s final chapter begins with a bold, highly controversial prediction: a significant portion of the 21st-century canon will be electronic literature. Hayles’ defense of this prediction relies on the fact that almost all literature today is transferred into digital format at some point. Excluding authors like Neil Gaiman, who still creates his novels first on paper, all contemporary literature is created digitally, from start to finish. According to Hayles this has opened up space for new and innovative methods for book design, typography, and methods of marketing. Hayles emphasizes bookstores that offer print on demand, including binding, and digital downloading of texts to devices like Amazon’s Kindle. As Hayles reminds us, even if texts that are “digital born” and those that are primarily intended for print do behave differently, today they are part of a larger “complex and dynamic media ecology.” Faced with growing studies that show young people engage more with video games, YouTube, and Facebook than with print novels, it would be a copout for print authors to think of themselves as old-fashioned; rather, as print comes to integrate more and more closely with electronic forms, there are new and innovative ways it can assimilate the discoveries of electronic texts. Although Hayles states this argument in great detail, she regrettably does not offer specific examples of just what these assimilative texts might be.
Although e-lit’s ascension into the canon remains questionable, it is clear that the rise of the Internet and new ways of reading, whether via Amazon’s Kindle, a home brewed Nintendo DS, or the SMS fiction that is extremely popular in some parts of the world, will help accelerate its acceptance. This fact should not be confused with a prediction of the demise of print culture, as it is inarguable that electronic literature is a descendant of the bound text and has adopted much from its printed predecessor. Recognizing their debt to print, e-lit theorists like George Landow emphasize the form’s connections with the theories that Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes propagated about printed literature, while Scott Rettberg’s examination of the relationship between Dada and the avant garde reveals further links between bounded and unbounded literature.
Landow, for instance, understands Barthes’ and Derrida’s ideas about authorship and the multiplicity of texts in terms of e-lit. In particular, he emphasizes Barthes’ writing about the writerly text and its non-linear nature and Derrida’s about intertextuality and textual openness. Rettberg, in Dada Redux: Elements of Dadaist Practice in Contemporary Electronic Literature, connects Dada with e-lit by emphasizing the outsider aspects of both. Like Dada, e-lit has no single manifesto or headquarters, and e-lit works are created outside of standardized cultural norms. Multimedia, interdisciplinary, and audience participation are emphasized by both.
No matter what the future brings, it’s clear that electronic literature’s role as a descendant of the bounded text doesn’t impinge on the future of print culture. Nothing could be further from the truth than to see practitioners of electronic literature as anxious to exterminate print culture. Rather, e-lit creates exciting opportunities for enthusiasts of both hypertext and print to work together and see each of their brands of literature anew. The future of electronic literature is still an unknown world, and those who immerse themselves in it can revel in the possibilities.
William Patrick Wend recently finished his course work in the MA English program at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey. During the spring he will be defending his thesis, The Unknown Scars: The Evolution Of The Writerly Text & Hypertextual Pedagogy. He can be found online at WPWend.com.
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