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An Underground Stream

Scott Rettberg – Digital Literature

Is e-literature just one big anti-climax?

For others, like Sue Thomas, professor of new media at Leicester’s De Monfort University, the way forward (or sideways) is precisely to abandon our print fixation. This is why she rejects the term “e-lit” (with its reference to an old-fashioned notion of ‘literature’) in favour of “new media writing” or, better still, “transliteracy” – which covers all forms of literacy ranging from orality to social networking sites. Amerika, pope of avant-pop-cum-new-media guru has referred to himself as a designwriter, a remixologist, a visual jockey (VJ) and, of course, a net artist, over the years, whereas he used to be a plain old writer in his younger days.

Rettberg goes on, ‘Of course, while stories end and writers expire, once invented, literary forms don’t ever really perish. They merely go into hibernation and, in dormancy, await their rediscovery and reinvention … many of the theoretical underpinnings, structural elements, and narrative techniques of hypertext have migrated into other forms of digital narrative.’  As Megan Heyward says, “I think you are limiting yourself if you simply refer to “hypertext”. Hypertext was in its first iterations, predominantly a response to the affordances of the mouse and the potentials of interactivity enabled by a desktop computer with a keyboard and mouse” and what might still faithfully be called hypertext nowadays is “really just one aspect of that ongoing experimentation” which has now …



It doesn’t matter a great deal whether you’d prefer to coin yet another neologism for it, electronic literature is not dead. In fact, there are more writers working in the field than there were a decade ago, there have been more books written and published about the various forms of electronic literature including at least five in the last two years (N. Katherine Hayles’ Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, Chris Funkhouser’s Prehistoric Digital Poetry: an Archeology of Forms, and David Ciccorico’s Reading Network Fiction to name but a few), and we also recently saw the publication and free distribution of the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1, with the second volume on the way in 2009. True, many of the 60 works you’ll find in the collection push the boundaries of “the literary” and work with multiple semantic registers, but central to all of them you will find a concern with poetics, and in many of them with narrative. Last week in Bergen I hosted the Electronic Literature in Europe Conference at the University of Bergen <>, where in three days we heard new scholarship, experienced live readings and performances of a dozen new works, and planned a European network of writers, scholars, and artists working in the form. Participants from 17 different countries are actively engaged with this field of creative practice. While electronic literature is very much an experimental field of literary practice, it is one that is alive and well. Of course, it is quite a bit easier and more pithy to declare something dead than to spend the time to actually spend the time reading and experience the new works themselves, but it might be worth your while to do so before you go sniffing for the corpse — you may may well find it whistling past the graveyard.
The Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1 (2006)– 60 works of electronic literature you should use to further develop your thinking on the matter.

Also to point out that Robert Coover gave an excellent keynote talk at the conference, “A History of the Future of Narrative” which addresses a lot of the same issues discussed in this article, albeit taking a much longer/wiser view/

As for the idea that net art has somehow overtaken electronic literature — they are overlapping communities of practice and are co-evolving. You could simply describe them as two slightly perspectives which may or may not result in the production of similar types of artifacts (consider the difference between the conceptual writer and the conceptual artist). I don’t actually think that there was at any time a larger audience for this work than there is now. The early experiments might have stood out more at the time because of the fact that the Web itself was considerably smaller. The Web has become much more like the world at large in the intervening years, and there is simply a lot more of it. The work of literary experimentalists is still there, and there is a great deal more of it, but you might have do a bit more research to find, and when you do you’ll find less cyberutopian rhetoric surrounding it in big fluffy layers of arrogant nonsense. Much of the work you’ll find when you do this work is more suited to readers (transliterate readers if you prefer) than to “surfers.” Electronic literature has matured to a point that makes sweeping generalizations about its vital signs more difficult to make without doing some actual reading.

I don’t expect electronic literature to replace print literature or to become a mass market phenomenon any time soon. It is considerably more interesting now, during the first fifty years or so of its development, than it will be at some point in the future when it has settled into comfortably identifiable genres, and can be found in the whatever the future equivalent of bestseller lists and airport bookshops might be be. I’m glad that you wrote this article — at this point many people still won’t have heard of this practice, much less realize that it has matured to a point where journalists with a passing familiarity of e-lit are able to generate controversy by greatly exaggerating rumors of its demise. I hope you or some other intrepid journalist at the Guardian will follow up this piece by actually reading some of the newer (or even some of the older) work being produced, and writing about the subject from that basis. The field is crying out for intelligent readers such as yourself to move beyond the technology of the quote-generating rolodex and approach the computer itself, to write not about the idea of electronic literature but the wordy and complex stuff itself.


I want to express my sincere gratitude to Andrew Gallix for his article which, like a breath of fresh air, disperses the fetid mists of misinformation and confusion shrouding that underside of the writing arts that styles itself e-literature. Of course e-literature is dead (if a zombie can be said to have lived in the first place). Its been years since the New York Times Book Review published a cover story on the subject. When was the last time you saw the topic broached in the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal? Everyone knows that the health of an artistic genre cannot be determined by examining the patient oneself. One must rely upon the expert opinions of the pedigreed professionals—the journalistic diagnosticians of the mainstream press. The New York Times has spoken by not speaking, and we mere laymen must hang upon these precious non-words to interpret the diagnosis: the patient is dead.

Mr. Gallix has probably enumerated all the works of so-called e-literature worth mentioning, much less discussing in depth or perhaps even reading. (Who evaluates literature by reading it these days? How inefficient when one can so easily get opinions superior to ones own from the taste-making professionals.) No matter that there are numerous later works of higher literary quality, greater technical sophistication, superior artistic ingenuity, and more varied appeal from such authors as Jason Nelson, Stuart Moulthrop, Shelley Jackson, Stephanie Strickland, Deena Larsen, Talan Memmott, John Cayley, Brian Kim Stefans, Geniwate, Marjorie Luesebrink, Komninos Zervos, Jim Andrews, and many others. No matter that e-literature, through these later works, now garners more attention than ever from serious literary critics and scholars in numerous books and essays, as well as from teachers in college and even high-school classrooms around the globe. No, none of this signifies. Weve clearly established that the only voice qualified to pronounce judgment on literature is the one that doesnt care about it—namely the expensively groomed baritone of the large-circulation, old-media corporations. Anyone who claims to take a cultural ancillary such as literature seriously is immediately suspect.

Mr. Gallix rightly warns against the ill-advised attempts of this upstart genre (if indeed it can be dignified by the term genre) to dilute literature by dragging it into the backyards of visual art. What were these e-authors thinking? Such attempts at artistic transvestitism are generally unwholesome. Look at what happened when literature forsook its roots to mount the public stage, as if it were some clown show or juggling act. We were saddled with such unfortunate mongrels as Oedipus the King and Hamlet, literature embarrassingly denuded of the truly literary. A similar misfortune befell music when certain Italian opportunists led by Monteverdi forced it into the opera house. The results were clearly not music. Nobody would for a minute confuse Verdi, Wagner, or Mozart with real composers. Each artistic discipline should have its own media, distribution channels, audience, bathrooms, and drinking fountains. Separate but equal.

Now let us give a moments pause to consider the oldest tragedy of artistic trespass, the original sin of literary endeavor. The day when poetry departed the sonorous lips of the bards to become embalmed in marks on clay tablets, something in literature died forever. Writing was the medium of accountants and bureaucrats, unfit for the lofty flights of poesy. Our noble art was irreversibly debased when it violated the boundary protecting art from commerce. Whenever I view words on the page, I tremble inwardly at the magnitude of this aesthetic apostasy. Whenever I see words on the computer screen, my entire being rises up in righteous indignation at this unholy compounding of evil upon evil, the falsification of the voice by print in turn falsified by that instrument of the devils tech-support agent, the pixel. Let the profligate venture upon the ways of e-literature if they must, but let them be forewarned that they will forever have the specter of an unsavory past moaning at their backs.


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