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Getting a handle on just what is e-literature

Getting a handle on just what is e-literature | Inquirer | 04/22/2007


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Getting a handle on just what is e-literature

far in DigitaLit we’ve experienced a few new-media moments, including a
young adult novelist who would rather publish on her blog than in
print, and a huge online archive of audio files that break individual
poems recorded at poetry readings into small MP3s, kind of like pop
singles.These subjects made for interesting discussions, if I do say so myself.

wouldn’t it be nice to get our arms around this thing, to get a sense
of the full breadth and scope of what’s called digital literature?

The 60 works in the first volume of the Electronic Literature Collection (ELC) (http://collection.eliterature.org)
– edited by N. Katherine Hayles, Nick Montfort, Scott Rettberg and
Stephanie Strickland – show the wide range of forms that exist within
the genre.

Take the collection’s keyword page, which breaks
electronic literature into 56 possible categories. Not all of these are
specific to digital media – I found the familiar “memoir,” “poetry,”
and “satire” – and some describe the platform on which the piece was
developed or its features, such as “audio,” rather than actual forms of

The editors also included categories that don’t refer to anything in the ELC “to try to make it clear that the Collection,
despite our efforts, doesn’t represent everything,” Montfort, a
doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, explained via

“Electronic literature is not a literary movement with
abstract, unified goals, nor is it a single community of practice,” he
said. “This makes the Collection less coherent than the usual anthology, but it also accounts for the wide variety of work in it.”

wit: A piece made in Flash by Reiner Strasser and Alan Sondheim that
uses sound, photography, and text, “Dawn” is a poem that reveals itself
textually one stanza at a time. The text fades in and out in front of
photographs of the outdoors that also shift slowly, suggestive of the
changing light of early day, from one image to another.

“Galatea,” Emily Short’s work of interactive fiction, the reader (or
player?) gives instructions to a lovely illustration of the character
Galatea via a chatbot program, which causes the story to unfold
differently each time.

“The Dreamlife of Letters,” a poem by
Brian Kim Stefans, is categorized as “ambient” because it runs on its
own and allows for no interactivity, not even a pause button. The
delightful 11-minute program takes us through the alphabet with words
that swing around each other, vibrate like silent alarm bells,
disappear, reappear, and recombine in funny and unexpected ways. The un in unconscious, for example, pulls away from the word, turns into a bunch of ums, and drifts out of view.

in “Birds Singing Other Birds’ Songs,” simple drawings of birds
outlined with transliterations of birdsong (“wah-wah,” “dee-dee”) move
around the screen as recordings of human voices read the sounds.

at the array of styles within the 60 works in the collection, I had to
ask: At what point do pieces that move and make noise have more in
common with other forms – film, maybe, or installation pieces – than
with traditional fiction or poetry?

“In thinking about ‘Birds
Singing Other Birds’ Songs,’ I find that it has a particular
relationship to sound and concrete poetry – which are literary
traditions specifically, although also hard to read – and that it also
comments on the processes of transcription and reading [aloud] in a
literary way,” Montfort said.

“I think many people have a
difficult time seeing how certain pieces in the collection can be
understood as literature – including Collection authors and, at times during the editorial process, those of us who edited the Collection.
Let me suggest what could be more interesting questions, though: How do
we read them, or how do they read themselves to us? These are questions
that pertain to literature, but which art and film don’t always ask.”

Haegele is a writer who lives in Montgomery County. You can experience
all the pieces in the Electronic Literature Collection by visiting http://collection.eliterature.org. Also see the Web site to request a free copy of the CD-ROM through the mail.

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