In September of 2008, The Guardian devoted space to an Andrew Gallix essay on the current state of Electronic Literature. This in itself is significant—an acknowledgement by one of the major newspapers of the English-speaking world that new media writing is worthy of its thoughtful attention. Yet after recapping some of the highlights of the form, the column’s tone becomes dispiriting: “So far, the brave new world of digital literature has been largely anti-climatic... Perhaps e-lit is already dead.”
Friends, rest assured we do not share this conclusion.
However, we understand how one can come to believe that electronic literature is a dud: it’s been two decades since the first hypertexts appeared and there’s yet to be a single electronic work that has generated a fraction of the commercial interest as the latest Stephen King novel. Or, for that matter, a fraction of the mainstream critical attention typically bestowed upon the latest Philip Roth or Marilyn Robinson novel. There are no blockbusters, no best sellers in the world of electronic literature. Despite all the ballyhoo, enthusiasts of electronic literature remain a relatively small coterie of practitioners and academics. Far from being relegated to antique store shelves next to Edison cylinders and stereoscopic cards, the book is alive and well.
Also in September, Robert Coover, a longtime advocate of literary experimentalism, gave the keynote address at the Electronic Literature in Europe conference. Needless to say, Coover paints a much more forgiving picture:
“It took a millennia of cuneiform writing and the demise of the [Sumerian] civilization that invented it before the first known extended narrative was composed using it.
“In America, book publishing had to wait nearly two centuries for the definitive American novel to appear [Herman Melville’s Moby Dick] and even then it took better than another half century while Melville’s reputation languished before its value was finally understood.”
Coover’s right. People have this idea that European culture was immediately transformed by Gutenberg’s mechanical printing press, but in truth culture lags behind technology. Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, in her landmark 1979 study on the historical effects of the printing press (The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Cambridge University Press), found that “[t]he output of early presses drew on a backlog of scribal work; the first century of printing produced a bookish culture that was not very different from that produced by scribes.”
Much the same seems to be happening today. Gallix asserts that one reason for the curtailed development of electronic literature is that university humanities departments “emphasis on digitalising traditional books [comes] at the expense of promoting creative electronic writing.” Virtually all online literary journals exist to publish work that was primarily intended for the printed page rather than the screen.
While there’s an abundance of MFA programs feeding writers into the traditional print genres of poetry, short story, novel, and memoir, comparatively few programs exist within the academy where emerging new media writers can nurture their talents.
Indeed, there are very few venues where an emerging (or even an established) new media writer can place his or her work.
One such venue, increasingly, is the contemporary art institution. Digital Art, now a museum staple, is but a variant of Digital Literature: both often incorporate textual elements, dreamy and/or surreal narratives, and derive from the same aggressively experimental impulse.
Mark Amerika’s groundbreaking 1997 hypertext Grammatron was cited by The Village Voice as being “the first major Internet-published work of fiction to produce an experience unique to the medium.”
Today, Amerika’s work is often intended for gallery exhibition. As he said in a recent interview at London’s Tate Modern, he is “consciously trying to blur the distinction between different forms and the venues in which they appear… I mean, what is the difference between what we think of as Cinema, Digital Video, Digital Narrative, Net Art, et cetera, Web 2.0 even?”
Amerika has a point: the distinctions between these media spectrums are getting fuzzier. There’s a cross-fertilization going on that will likely strengthen strains of electronic literature. While Gallix sees digital literature being “subsumed into the art world,” others see it as a sign of the form’s relevancy that it can have such an impact on the contemporary art scene.
“The real problem,” Dene Grigar (who co-chaired the 2008 Electronic Literature Organization’s Visionary Landscapes conference in Vancouver) writes elsewhere, “would be if digital writing is not included [in contemporary art], which does not seem to be the case.”
Of course, distinctions between digital writing and contemporary art still remain. As a tradeoff for the ability to be read simultaneously by multiple viewers off a single gallery screen, Digital Art just does not feature the same level of interactivity as Digital Literature. This is no small distinction, interactivity being one of the earliest perceived advantages Digital Literature had over its paper-bound forebears.
But the question remains: why does Digital Art thrive in museum environments while Digital Literature is perceived in some quarters as being “already dead”?
Certainly audience expectation plays no small role in answering this question. People who step into modern art galleries go so with the understanding that some of what they see will confound them. There is, if you will, a certain humility within the museum-goer. Or at least a marked willingness to engage with that which she can not immediately understand.
That tolerance for the new and the stylistically different does not exist at the same level in the literary world. Instead, people expect to understand that which they read. When they come across complex or experimental works that resist easy comprehension, readers grumble. American book culture, with its emphasis on accessibility and sales, punishes writers who take risks. Earlier this year, we came across an essay indicating that Donald Barthelme—one of the country’s most respected short story innovators—never sold more than 7,000 copies of any of his collections in his lifetime (he died in 1989). We would be shocked if more than a few of today’s most experimental writers sell half as well as Barthelme.
Seen in this light, should it be surprising that Digital Literature remains at the cultural periphery? Because it is a complex and evolving form born from aggressive experimentalism, it is not as user-friendly as, say, a Harlequin romance. Digital Literature, luckily, resists pandering. Style and complexity, more than any other factor, explains why mainstream culture has yet to embrace the form.
In our survey of the field, we’ve yet to stumble upon the equivalent of a digital Harlequin. Should such a thing exist, and we’re not convinced that it can, its blatant accessibility could very well ensure it a mass-market niche, and perhaps even critical acclaim, for despite however pure-minded we like to imagine Criticism, there is a link in the digital world between accessibility and acclaim.
One of the more fascinating observations in N. Katherine Hayles’ Electronic Literature—New Horizons for the Literary (University of Notre Dame Press, 2008— order it now, it’s good!) is on the responses garnered by two Michael Joyce hypertexts. The first, 1990’s afternoon: a story, was developed in hypertext’s infancy and in many ways can be seen as an adaptation of a standard book-form narrative for the computer screen. In Hayles’ analysis, “afternoon has received many excellent interpretations.”
Joyce’s Twelve Blue appeared just one year later (1991) but was much more complex, both in its technological interpretations and its aesthetic and intellectual intentions. Despite these advances, or, more precisely, because of these advances, reader response suffered. As Hayles notes, “The player who comes to Twelve Blue with expectations formed by print will inevitably find it frustrating and enigmatic, perhaps so much so that she will give up before fully experiencing the work. It is no accident that compared to afternoon, Twelve Blue has received far fewer good interpretations and, if I may say so, less comprehension even among people otherwise familiar with electronic literature.”
The good news is that the more creative technologies infuse themselves into daily mainstream life, Electronic Literature as a form will appear less “frustrating and enigmatic” to casual readers.
As Amerika notes, “Net Art has changed—let’s call it Net Art 2.0—it’s really more embedded in daily practice. So when we think of the practice of every day life, Net Art is no longer like this kind of left field thing coming out of nowhere… [People are no longer asking,] ‘What are these artists trying to do?’
“A lot of people have integrated all this media into their own daily experiences and so for them to experience art as well as part of that networked environment isn’t so odd any more.”
Beware though: leavening is a two-way street. Early hypertexts with their link-heavy emphasis on interactivity helped form what we expect—if not demand—from electronic media. As web usage changes the way we perceive and interact with media, digital literature changes—meaning that digital literature can not remain static.
David Foster Wallace, in perhaps his most insightful essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” deconstructed the reasons why contemporary post-modern fiction can seem stale and out-dated. The self-conscious irony that was the hallmark of post-modernists and meta-fictionists of Barthelme’s generation has been appropriated to better and more pervasive effect by Television: “And this is the reason why this irreverent postmodern approach fails…TV has beaten [today’s post-modernists] to the punch.”
There is ample reason to believe digital literature will not be “beaten to the punch” any time soon by other forms. Five of those reasons—Andy Campbell, Angela Ferraiola,
Michael J. Maguire, Nick Montfort, and the combo of Davin Heckman & Jason Nelson—are included in this issue. Many more submissions of excellent quality were sent for our consideration—and we received more submissions for this New River Journal issue than any previous issue.
Nick Montfort’s “Ten Mobile Texts”
Several of our writers speak of being drawn to digital media writing because of the opportunities it affords to challenge and explore the implications of electronic communication forms. None is more explicit in this purpose than Nick Montfort.
As Montfort says in his contributor’s note, “New media writing allows for different sorts of investigation than do other types of writing. Whether we write in forms given to us by digital systems and industries (Web pages, email messages, SMS messages, and so on) or make special use of the computer's capabilities as an interactive, multimedia machine capable of processing, we also have a unique ability in this type of writing to address the transformations that our society is undergoing due to computing and the network.”
Montfort’s “Ten Mobile Texts” confronts the inherent limitations of SMS texts. Mature literary forms like the sestina, epic, and ballad morph into radically different forms when filtered through SMS compression. Constrained to employ a maximum of 160 characters, communication itself fundamentally changes. Far from being a dry, academic text, Montfort’s piece is suffused with humor. As he writes, things “have just become spaces and words.”
Angela Ferraiola’s “Map of a Future War”
Some visions seem uniquely suited to digital writing. Angela Ferraiola’s “Map of a Future War” is one: we can not imagine it being half as effective if delivered through any other medium. Texts appear and vie for our attention and are crowded out by the emergence of other texts. The navigational path seems like an exercise in randomness, yet there is an inevitability to what is displayed on the screen that is gleaned from the chaos of contemporary tumult.
The complexities explored in “Map of a Future War” simply could not have been explored to the same effect on paper. Ferraiola writes that “we are finally able to step back from the materiality of paper, the constraints paper has placed on language and, therefore, the limits paper has placed on thought and expression. The sentence and the paragraph, for instance, these are sort of ‘paper’ ideas.”
We like that term, “paper ideas.”
In our mind, “paper ideas” entail a lot more than the mere sentence- and paragraph-type conventions we use when writing on paper. “Map of a Future War” works, in part, because of its dimensionality, the way it allows readers to see, for example, the conflict of texts that tussle for our attention. The work is about that tussle, that competition.
Paper, quite frankly, does not provide the same dimensionality; this is one of paper’s formal limits. The paragraph, with its neatly organized sentences, implies a fundamental order to the world and the ideas expressed within, an order that is rarely as complicated as that which actually exists in the world.
It is not too much to argue that the financial panic she writes about in “Map of a Future War” was born from a hubris of paper ideas. This is not to say that financial instruments are simplistic ideas—derivatives are anything but—but that the worldview that underlies 21st century capitalism is simplistic, often willfully blind to the havoc and misery capitalism unleashes. Ferraiola’s choice of the digital writing form (with its emphasis on complexity) in and of itself becomes a salient critique of the socioeconomic system.
Andy Campbell’s “Dim O’Gauble”
Andy Campbell’s “Dim O’Gauble” strikes us as a piece that would not be out of place in an art gallery. The exit tunnel sequence, with its backwards audio track and the purposeful blur of text and image, alone is one of the finest pieces of video art that we’ve yet encountered. Visually stunning, Campbell’s story is framed around childhood drawings and is governed by a fragmentary postmodern dreamscape sensibility.
Campbell writes that “it feels energising and empowering to be producing original material that still requires some effort and tries to fuse together the incredible advances in new media with the power of the written word."
Unfairly, digital writing is often denigrated in supposed literary circles for the lack of craft given to its textual elements. The form, so says its detractors, favors bells-and-whistles techno trix over language.
It is Campbell’s care with the written word that is so powerful.
When reading “Dim O’Gauble,” we urge you to linger though each of the nodes. Text often rises to the surface where you least expect and, fitting to the faculties of dream and memory that Campbell explores, sometimes erases itself just as you rely upon it.
Davin Heckman and Jason Nelson’s “Endings Eventually End: Twenty Five Doomsday Countdowns”
In 1989, Francis Fukuyama published an essay titled “The End of History.” Subsequently expanded to book-length (The End of History and the Last Man, Free Press, 1992), Fukuyama argued that history had reached an end-stage development, crowning market-driven liberal democracy as the most advanced politico-economic system possible; evolution, at least in regard to forms of government, was deemed a closed project.
Fukuyama’s assessment, coming after the collapse of Soviet-style communism, was the kind of irrational triumphalism, a kind of (dare we say) uni-dimensional paper idea, that passed for intellectual thought.
Nearly twenty years later, viewed through the lens of financial crisis and the ill consequences of imperialist adventures, the prognosis of history is less certain. Gone, thankfully, is the arrogance of presumption. In its place, Anxiety.
Davin Heckman and Jason Nelson’s “Endings Eventually End: Twenty Five Doomsday Countdowns” reflects the contemporary moment’s Anxiety.
“While this particular piece, ’Endings Eventually End,’ tends to focus on the fringes of American culture, it also speaks to more generalized eschatological anxieties brought about by the shrinking world and the notion of rapid cultural, economic, ecological, and technological change,” Heckman says.
Heckman and Nelson’s apocalyptic vision treads into the Absurd. Events that trigger the End Times include “The Birth of Mirth,” lost shoes, and “Monster Goldfish.” Instead of the “End of History,” Heckman and Nelson write of “The End of Cheese.”
Amidst this entertaining piece come hard questions: what happens when all possible doomsday scenarios have been imagined? When all possible musical compositions have been played? When high-speed random text generators produce all the possible textual variations that we can hope to create? Will the result be doomsday?
Michael J. Maguire’s “Promise”
When we issued our call for submissions for this issue, we were looking for work “that merges place, history, and culture.” What we had in mind was something like M.D. Coverly’s exemplary work. Though we are astounded by the varied ways in which all our writers touch on our stated themes, Michael J. Maguire’s “Promise” is closest to our original hopes.
Structured in four acts, Maguire offers a deeply personal—and deeply moving—narrative reflecting Ireland, its culture, and its myths.
Interestingly, Maguire (like Angela Ferraiola) is also a playwright. His interest in plays is amply demonstrated in this piece, most explicitly so within the context of his “Ham Let Loose” play-within-a-play.
While the skills necessary for playwriting and new media writing may not appear to overlap, Maguire admits that the playwright’s focus on “structural awareness, characterization through dialogue, self belief, and knowledge of craft are the essential skills that enabled me to create ‘Promise.’”
Despite Gallix’s suspicions, electronic literature is not a stillborn or moribund form. He is not, to say the least, prone to good cheer. Nor is he blindly dismissive. Instead, he is sober in his assessment—which is healthy, if not necessary. We enjoyed his column for the difficult questions it posed about the form’s state of development.
And this made us think. Absent something as crass as sales or distribution figures, how does a new form prove its relevancy? Are there critical or aesthetic benchmarks that we should strive for?
Grigar is quoted by Gallix as saying, “One of the most difficult aspects of e-lit is the ability to talk about it fast enough, so fast is the landscape changing.”
Which brings us back to Coover’s guarded yet hopeful keynote:
“That no such widely acknowledged masters have as yet made their mark on the digital landscape is hardly surprising. All previous masters of a form were born into its technology and environed by it and so far only for pre-teens is that really true today.
“The new computer technology of our age is still developing and may well need another half century to achieve some sort of maturity... meaning that even if digital novelistic masterpieces are improbably already being created, it will likely take at least that long for them to be widely recognized as such.”
It took generations for the contemporary art institution to become as welcoming as it is today to aggressive experimentalism. Remember how the Impressionists, whose work seems positively quaint today, could not gain entry into officially-sanctioned salons; at the same time, James Abbot McNeil Whistler was being slandered in the London popular press by the age’s most esteemed critic as being not an artist but a “cockney… coxcomb… flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”
Given the speed in which new technologies are being embraced in what Amerika calls our “daily practices,” we are hopeful that Digital Literature’s gestation period will not be as long as Coover suggests. Which is a good thing, for we believe that the writers presented in this current issue are close to delivering the “digital novelistic masterpieces” we all seek.
Nick Kocz & Manisha Sharma, Managing Editors
December 11, 2008
In preparing this issue, we’ve asked our writers to consider what draws them to digital writing and where they see the field moving in the coming years. Their comments are included within their contributor notes. We’ve taken the liberty of quoting from them in the above essay, but do please read them in their entirety. What you’ll find are deeply thoughtful and at times intellectually challenging insights—a far better read in any case than the typical boiled-down CV that usually masquerades as a “contributor’s note.”
Andy Campbell’s “Dim O’Gauble” will be shown in Beyond Hypertext: In Search of A New Digital Literature, an upcoming exhibit curated by Alan Bigelow (a former New River contributor) at Austin Peay State University. We’re very excited about this exhibit and hope that many people will be able to attend. Austin Peay is in Clarksville, Tennessee (USA). The exhibit runs from January 15- January 30, 2009.
Lastly, but certainly not least, there are three people we wish to thank:
- Ed Falco for the patience and guidance he extended towards us while preparing this issue
- Jeremy Hunsinger for his help in uploading this issue
- Akshay Sharma for formatting and designing our new look!
Nick Kocz and Manisha Sharma, Managing Editors
January 28, 2009