Electronic Literature: <em>Where</em> Is It?

Electronic Literature: Where Is It?

Dene Grigar

Countering Andrew Gallix’s suggestion in The Guardian that
electronic literature is finished, author Dene Grigar indicates that
it may not be e-lit, but rather the institution of humanities
teaching, that is in a state of crisis - and e-lit in fact could be
well placed one to revive the teaching of literature in schools and universities.

“7. University presidents, provosts, and humanities deans should support the development and use of digital information and technology in the humanities.”
(“Reinvigorating the Humanities: Enhancing Research and Education on Campus and Beyond,” Association of American Universities, 2004)


This recommendation concerning the use of digital information and technology in the Humanities is among 10 such suggestions put forth by the Association of American Universities as a way to “reinvigorat[e] the Humanities”. Interestingly, it appears before the recommendation for “sustaining … book publishing” and below the suggestion to “emphasize to … the broader community the fundamental importance of the humanities” (iv), suggesting, perhaps, an emphasis on digital texts as a way for the Humanities to attract the growing number of technology-savvy students and supporters.

The Humanities needs invigorating. A 2002 publication by the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on the Professionalization of PhDs entitled “Professionalization in Perspective” reports that new PhDs in language and literature have a 50% chance of landing a tenure-track job, and a 2003 report published by the ADE Ad Hoc Committee on the English Major, simply but broadly entitled, “The Undergraduate English Major,” discusses the dwindling number of English majors in the US. While many factors are blamed for the demise of the Humanities - ‘a recent essay by Mark Bauerlein argues that theory “damaged the Humanities” - ‘no suggestion for rehabilitating it can be as controversial as making “digital information and technology” its savior.

The notion that there should be a direct correlation between the dynamic and fast-paced digital world that we all find ourselves living in today and the fixed and plodding realm of academe born out of a structure built during the Middle Ages may seem odd, particularly to those who actually read the 158 page AAU document four years ago. But to those of us who have long worked in digital media, particularly in the intersection between digital technology and literature in the area of electronic literature (what we refer to as “elit”) such a concept requires no thought. It is, for us, a no-brainer.

But if this is the case, and this document that AAU members from the 60 top-tier universities in the country commissioned to produce over four years ago is, indeed, a tome carrying much weight and gravity for academics in the US, then where is evidence that the Humanities is taking the suggestions to heart and embracing digital media? Where, outside of the composition classroom and language labs, is digital technology being utilized, for example? Most importantly for readers of ebr who cut their teeth on Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story or are seduced into electronic literature by the narratives of video games, where in academe is electronic literature promoted? In 2007 N. Katherine Hayles asked, “Elit: What Is It?”, now it is time to ask, “elit: where is it?”

It is this question that concerns my essay. It is one I have often asked myself through the years, first as a graduate student in the early 1990s studying in an interdisciplinary Humanities program where I developed a fascination for hypertext literature, to my first academic position - a 12-year period in an English and Rhetoric Department where I authored my first elit work - to a position now directing an interdisciplinary digital media program where I teach electronic literature and produce 3D lit in a motion tracking lab. I ask it again because it was the subject of an exchange I had in the fall 2008 with a French writer, Andrew Gallix, who asked me why the excitement for digital writing had died down and if I thought electronic literature had been absorbed by contemporary art. The end result of Gallix’s exploration was an essay published in the Guardian, entitled “Is e-literature just one big anti-climax?”. It serves as an effective example of the kind of misperceptions surrounding the growth and development of experimental literature and foregrounds a discussion of elit’s place in the academy - and popular culture.

In brief, the author reports that elit, as it came to us from the heady days of hypertext circa the 1990s, is “already dead” and has not yielded any “fiction that is utterly compelling.” To be honest, his claims that elit has been unsuccessful because we cannot “curl up in bed with a hypertext” and because the forms emerging from intermedial art “have less and less to do with literature” speak to a not-so-subtle bias toward traditional print-based forms and a lack of understanding how the medium works. Many of the views that emerged in the “comment” section of his essay echoed Gallix’s stance and, in some cases, went further in arguing that technology had no business in the creation of literary writing. A French writer and British readers would not necessarily be familiar with an arcane American position paper from the AAU arguing for the need for technology in the Humanities, nor should they be, but after reading his audience’s responses, one couldn’t help but wonder how we can ever expect attitudes regarding digital born literature to change in the staid atmosphere of traditional English classroom if those in the mainstream public - particularly a public eagerly blogging at an online newspaper site - cannot.

We can identify four major misperceptions regarding elit stemming from Gallix’s article: 1) reading patterns differ between print-based literature and elit, 2) elit is no longer literary, 3) elit is produced by artists or supported by academics at a lower rate than in previous periods, and 4) elit’s existence can only be discerned through its presence in popular culture. This essay analyzes each of these misperceptions and issues a call to action.

1 Reading Patterns

Perhaps one way of getting to the heart of the questions Gallix poses is to think about the role of reading and literature in contemporary culture. A 2007 study undertaken by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), for example, shows that reading remains steady among children ages nine to eleven but that interest has shifted away from traditional print-based forms of writing toward comic books. Poetry especially has lost favor among this group. Also enlightening is the report from the National Endowment for the Arts, entitled “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America,” which shows that literary reading - ‘which we can glean from the study is defined traditional print-based literature - ‘has declined among US adults at a rate of 14% over 1992-2002. Paralleling this trend is the overall decline in reading in general. Another study undertaken by the NEA in 2007 entitled “To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence,” for example, shows that people of all ages spend well over 10 times the amount of time watching TV than reading. Taken in this light, Gallix should actually have been asking about the death of all literature rather than singling out only electronic.

Despite these troubling trends, it is doubtful that anyone looking at this data would conclude from it that print literature is dead, nor should the data be interpreted in this way. Research shows that even though reading has dropped in popularity, book sales have remained steady. True, revenue was down slightly in the first quarter of 2008, but offsetting losses are increased sales of mass market books, paperbacks, and e-books, among others. This information does not even take into account that reading is needed to get by in everyday life, from browsing the internet to answering a text message and goes far beyond the act of engaging with print literature.

Likewise, we should not conclude that elit is dead. Because elit genres that emerged early on, such as hypertext fiction, hypertext poetry, interactive fiction, and those that have come about due to improved broadband capabilities, like video poems, animated fiction, etc., are disseminated differently from print-based literature, a dollar for dollar comparison between elit and print-based literature is not easily made. Many works of elit, for example, are delivered through publishing houses like Eastgate Systems, but many more are accessed free from the internet. We can, however, look at data concerning sales and popularity of video games, considered by some, like Henry Jenkins, to be a hybrid narrative form that has not yet achieved literary quality but could in the future become a “serious art form in [its] own right” to get a sense of elit’s potential for reaching large audiences. Nielsen’s Trend Index, for example, reports that the number one role-playing game in the US, World of Warcraft, engaged players at an average of 546 minutes per week in 2008; a look at the amount of time players engaged in all top ten games shows a total time of interaction of 36 hours per week. Paralleling this information is the fact that in 2008 game consoles can be found in 40% of American households. This growing trend has resulted in $18.8 billion in annual sales in 2007 alone and means that the most popular after dinner activity for families during the 2008 holiday season will be playing video games together (Male 14).

In sum, current patterns in reading show that reading print-based literature has dropped in popularity and will continue to do so despite the modest rise in sales of books. As yet video games are not perceived as elit and have, according to some, not achieved literary quality on par with books, but they do have the potential to do so; when they do, elit may very well overtake print-based literature in popularity.

2 Literary Quality of Elit

The second misperception Gallix’s essay hints at is that electronic writing has lost its literariness, a flaw that has contributed to its demise. Where are those wonderful works from the 1990s by Kathy Acker and William Gibson that “push[ed] the envelop on papyrus” (Gallix)? In this very “late age of print” (Bolter 2), impacted as we are by the moving images of YouTube, the social interaction of Facebook and MySpace, and the kinesthetic physicality of Wii, this point is an odd one, the refrain of the ubi sunt lurking in this sentiment, misplaced. The insinuation that the elit produced today is somehow lesser in literary quality than works like Joyce’s afternoon: a story and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl that preceded the ubiquity of the web and improved broadband technology does not hold water when one considers works like Stephanie Strickland’s “slippingglimpse” and Kate Pullinger’s “Inanimate Alice” that both utilize the strengths offered by the electronic medium to produce art. True, the hybridity of the forms and technological innovation that artists bring to their work results in a high level of experimentation that may at first obfuscate literary content and resist all attempts at categorizing and classifying it.

Epistemology in Western culture has been predicated on our ability to name things in order to know them. If Mark Amerika is right and we are, indeed, “witnessing the emergence of a ‘digitally-processed intermedia art’ in which literature and all the other arts are being ‘remixed into yet other forms still not fully developed’ ” (Gallix), then engaging in such works would surely flummox even the most experienced reader of elit, for missing would be those neat cognitive structures - ‘those “abstract containers” - ‘where we place similar objects for the purpose of making sense of them (Lakoff 6). Even if we reject old classical models of categorization based on an objectivist construction of knowledge and built on the erroneous notion of disembodiment and, instead, embrace an experiential model that holds that “thought fundamentally grows out of embodiment” (xv), we still face challenges in understanding hybrid, experimental works like elit. For knowledge, from this perspective, is gleaned from “the way people interact with objects” (51); therefore, without learned patterns of activity, what Espen Aarseth hints at when he alludes to trivial activity (94), then we literally may not be able to suss out what a thing truly is. If we try to compare the experience we have with elit, which differs so vastly from work to work, to the predictable physical interaction we have with a book, then rolling a cursor over an image, as one does with Donna Leishman’s “Red Riding Hood;” breathing into a headset, as one does with Kate Pullinger’s “The Breathing Wall;” or pointing at words projected on the wall of a room as one does with Noah Waldrip-Fruin’s “Screen” place elit outside the category of fiction or poetry no matter how much writing appears on the screen for each. We are essentially fooled into thinking that what we are reading isn’t literary because the differences in the sensory modalities used to interact with these works are so different from print-based literature. This is not to say that as we continue to deploy hearing and movement along with vision when interacting with objects and begin to accept not just the cinematic but also the literary quality in the movement of objects, we will not gain the conceptual framework for recognizing the literariness of elit. The more ubiquitous computing becomes, the more we interact with media in electronic environments, the more we experience electronic writing, the easier it will be to expand our sensibility about literature created and distributed in mediums beyond print.

3 Production and Support of Elit

The key to helping others to understand that elit is literary, then, is to offer experiences with it in the same place that we help others understand print literature: in the classroom. But if you look around the American academy today, you will see that traditional literature departments are dominated by cultural studies, great books, and linguistics programs. Growing in importance are programs in Digital Humanities; however, these programs are generally separate from English Departments, and their focus is placed not so much on the production of native born digital writing (i.e. elit) as it is on preserving and presenting analog-based literary works for digital contexts (i.e. Emily Dickinson’s poetry on the web). Writing programs also constitute a pervasive area of academic study that sometimes emphasize literature, depending on the program, and are expressed as composition studies, Rhetoric, creative writing, and technical and professional writing. Here too the teaching of elit is not common.

Additionally, English departments that rely on teacher training in secondary education for their bread and butter also neglect teaching elit because, frankly, the demands of testing and classroom instruction leave little room for non-conventional content. I speak from personal experience in this regard: One of the service projects I undertook in my first English faculty position was to oversee teacher education, a position I held for six years. During that time, I took the teacher exam in order to better understand the skills and knowledge that were expected of my students and visited English departments at the area high schools in order to know better the content students were expected to deliver. The teacher exam, for example, focused only on methods for delivery of traditional literary content. William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby represent the kind of works students needed to know in order to pass the exam and gain employment in schools. When one of my students arrived at her first teaching position without having read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a representative from her department complained bitterly to me about it and called into question the credibility of my department’s educational goals. The state education agency left little wiggle room at any level of literature instruction for the exploration of new content after the introduction of the No Child Left Behind initiative adopted when George W. Bush was elected our governor. Emphasis on basic skills and a shared cultural heritage made it impossible to slip in a work by a Deena Larsen or a Diana Slattery and, at the same time, cover what was already an overloaded curriculum bent on teaching the standardized test. Added to this challenge was that fact that English courses were taught in traditional classrooms with no access to computers. Even if I managed to teach my methods course in a lab, once my students arrived in their own classrooms after graduation, they would find themselves without access to computers or an overhead projection system that would have allowed them to show a work to their students. If assigned a work of elit, secondary level students would have found it necessary to visit the resource center in order to access works. Sadly, the situation has not improved in the years since I left this position.

Recognizing the link between teaching and promoting a love of literature, the National Council of Teachers of English issued a position statement in 2006 entitled, “Resolution on the Essential Roles and Values of Literature in the Curriculum.” In that paper, the organization lays out four recommendations for accomplishing that goal, one of which is to promote “a wide range of high-quality literature representing diverse experiences and perspectives … in all content areas, including reading instruction”. While the idea that NCTE would actually suggest expanding its vision so that electronic literary works could be taught in the classroom, all excitement is tempered when we realize that the statement is in reaction to a decline in reading books and the general aim of the resolution is to promote the love of print literature.

Elit may also not be read in mainstream literature classes because it cannot appear in the conventional print-based anthologies used so frequently in literature courses. Even those textbooks that offered companion websites with additional online material for instruction fail to include any truly digital born works and offer instead print-based works digitalized for delivery electronically. Instructors relying on such resources and who do not seek out additional readings promote the established canon that is solely constructed on print-based works.

Ironically, the field of digital media, where many of us gravitate to if we leave English, has likewise ignored elit. For the most part, digital media theory has been dominated by scholars and critics trained in formalistic theories of cinema and visual art. Lev Manovitch uses Russian formalism, for example, as his lens for formulating views of “new” media, while Oliver Grau focuses his attention on Italian Futurism. What chance does an emergent form with literature in its name have when faced with such a strong art history perspective? Likewise, Stephen Wilson devotes little attention in his 900+ page book Information Arts to early hypertext work with no mention of more contemporary elit pieces. That “net art” became the name of choice for some working in the area of web-based elit should come as no surprise under these circumstances since the term “literature” in the name of elit may have limited its inclusion in media art festivals, exhibitions, and art scholarship. So, the irony is that the electronic aspect of elit creates suspicion for traditional English departments just as the notion of literature does not fit well for the visual or media arts.

Despite this unsettled position in academe, thousands of elit works are collected by such groups as the Electronic Literature Organization, Hermeneia, and trAce Online Writing Centre; discussed at conferences like the Visionary Landscapes: The Electronic Literature Organization 2008 Conference, Interrupt, and the Electronic Literature in Europe; and featured in publications like ebr, Drunken Boat, and Iowa Review Web. While this level of artistic and scholarly activity is not doing much to change the views toward elit in traditional English departments or visual arts programs with a digital media strand, it fuels faculty positions at top research institutions wanting to stay at the forefront of experimentation - not ironically at many of the same top tier institutions belonging to AAU. Brown University and the University of Baltimore, for example, have long shown interest in studying and producing elit: the former, thanks to Robert Coover and more recently to John Cayley; and the latter, to Stuart Moulthrop and Nancy Kaplan. Other English Departments, like Duke University and Yale University have shown commitment to elit by hiring noted theorist Kate Hayles and Jessica Pressman, respectively. Georgia Tech has long been the home for Janet Murray and Jay David Bolter. Likewise, MIT’s Writing and Humanistic Studies has artist-theorist Nick Montfort on faculty, and The MIT Media Lab has recently announced two new tenure-track positions that include a focus on digital storytelling. So, the issue is not that elit is not taught in the academy, but rather it has not yet become an organized field of study anywhere save cutting edge institutions. So, in reality, unless it is an English Department where a Kate Hayles or Joe Tabbi works, a Digital Humanities Program where a Matthew Kirshenbaum teaches, or a Writing program where a Nick Montfort is on faculty, Michael Joyce’s work will not receive the same level of attention that James Joyce’s does.

Finally, resistance to technology in the production of literature is real and goes beyond practical problems relating to access, skills, economic opportunity, or democratic divides (Mossberger xi-xv). It generates from deeply-held views of the proper relationship between humans and machines, of what constitutes the good, the beautiful and the true, and of the nature of art. This resistance, indeed, is expressed by many in Gallix’s audience and explains in part why elit has not yet become part of popular culture.

One particular reader of Gallix’s essay who signed in as “anytimefrances” wrote:

i think it will be a sad day for literature when it goes completely e-text. my feeling is that people won’t feel the same sort of ‘obligation’ to read as they have in the past. i saw the Sony reader for the first time just the other day in W/stones and though it looks, apart from the smallness of the ‘page’ easy enough to read i found myself having an unpleasant sense of its being ‘gnick’ - a word we used to use for anything suave and technical. it really is inescapable that one is mediated through technological chips and that sure effects one’s emotional capacity to respond.

Rather than recognizing that reading any kind of literature has dropped in popularity, or that writing, pen and paper, the computer, alphabet, pencils, etc. all constitute technology, anytimefrances holds to the belief that it is the technological quality of elit that makes it unpalatable to readers and kills our “emotional” connection to a work of art. Taking on the misperception presented by anytimefrances and others responding to the blog, elit artist Rob Kendall facetiously comments:

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.

What Kendall suggests is that technology is more obvious in elit works than in traditional literature, so comfortable with inscription and print-based technologies we have become. This view is echoed in Hayles’ discussion of “printcentric” bias found in views toward literature (Writing Machines 20). Resistance to elit essentially parallels that which generally occurs when literature is touched by changing modes of production. Plato’s famous diatribe against writing in the Phaedrus written well over 2000 years ago is a case in point. Generations after us may not be bothered by the pixilated screen, audio, moving text, or the physical interaction required by the works they experience, but those fixed resolutely on the written word like their literature silent and static.

4 Presence in Popular Culture

But not being mainstreamed does not mean elit does not exist or if it did exist at one time, that it is now dead. One of the biggest misperceptions regarding elit’s presence found in Gallix’s essay is the idea that in order for something to have presence, it must be in the limelight, as if fame (or infamy) are proof of one’s existence. In a world where a one-minute video on YouTube can, indeed, turn an unknown singer into household name or we measure our worth by the number of “Friends” we have in our Facebook pages, perhaps Gallix has a point: Elit as an art form is not featured in Entertainment Weekly and, so, has not yet registered in mainstream culture. But then writing by Robert Pinsky hasn’t either, and it doesn’t mean that people are not producing poetry anymore. It just means that Pinsky’s work is found elsewhere, outside of the consciousness of those who feed on People or find solace in the Star.

The notion of the “shock of the new” does play a role in elit’s earlier, high profile image that Gallix alluded to in his question. Robert Coover’s 1992 essay for the New York Times, “The End of Books,” highlights that heady period when elit was a new phenomenon. Yet even an argument that claims that because elit is no longer the new darling of the press, it no longer exists falls flat when we consider that publicity surrounding JK Rowling grew quiet after the publication of her seventh Harry Potter novel. Would anyone agree that this silence meant that she is no longer writing or that people are no longer reading her books? I somehow doubt it. Being a sensation is not a measure of worth or value, it just means that one is, for a moment in time, a sensation.

Yes, the article did kick up some controversy, re-igniting the long-standing, romantic debate that technology is bad and writing (seen as “not” technology, despite the fact that it is) is good. Ironically, the article brought elit a renewed sense of notoriety in the essay’s five-day run in the press and spurred many of us to reengage in a debate about its worth. But it is not 15 minutes of fame on a blog needed to grow the field but long term, purposeful action to promote and educate people about it. I, for one, would like to see elit mainstreamed in the academy beyond those universities interested in experimental art, for what we teach in our classrooms can go a long way in shaping future reading audiences. So, I ended my “comments” on the Guardian blog by “challeng[ing readers] who have not yet read a work of elit to experience” it. The rationale for this action is that if each one of us who claims to admire works of electronic literature took the time to teach it in our classes either as an entire course about the art form or alongside works of print-based literature promoted in the traditional literary canon, we could develop an audience to appreciate, understand, and critique elit, much in the same way many of us aim to educate students about Shakespeare, Morrison, or Fitzgerald. Showing students literary works that incorporate digital technology seamlessly and meaningfully like Dan Waber’s “Strings” and Nick Montfort’s “ad verbum” can help to reach a growing audience of potentially technology-savvy, young supporters. This is a concept with which Hayles is quite familiar and underpins the website that accompanies her book, Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary where in the “Resources” section she provides course syllabi for teaching elit.

5 Rethinking Literacies: A Call to Action

The solution, then, to making the public more aware of elit lies in rethinking our notion of literacy. It involves technological literacy that is not simply seen as “a complex set of socially and culturally situated values, practices, and skills involved in operating linguistically within the context of electronic environments, including reading, writing, and communicating” (Selfe 11), but one that extends to visual, sonic, kinetic, and kinesthetic modalities, allowing us to “situate knowledges” to offer “a more adequate, richer, better account of the world” (Selfe 146-8). Such an approach would mean that art forms that include a literary component could be used to promote literacy. Hayles suggests such an approach when she writes that ‘[l]iteracy for this purpose … [is] define[ed] as creative artworks that interrogate the histories, contexts, and productions of literature, including as well the verbal art of literature proper” (Hayles, EL, 4).

While many articles and books focus on the use of art to teach literacy to young audiences, little work on the subject of literacy theorizes about how electronic literary art impacts definitions of literacy or perspectives regarding literacy practices. Cynthia Selfe’s seminal text on technological literacy, Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century (1999), for example, calls upon government officials, educators, business and industry leaders, and parents to work for change, omitting artists in her call to action. Similarly, textbooks that address visual or media literacy emerging with the rise of web-based technologies, such as Lee Odell and Susan Katz’s Writing in a Visual Age (2006) and W. James Potter’s Media Literacy (2008), focus on analyses of written and visual elements of commercial and news sites. Neither suggest approaches for discussing other modes of literacy made possible by digital technology or provide insight into the way art can be a catalyst for changing and evolving notions of technological literacy.

Gallix’s essay and the anti-technology comments it spurred has become for me a metaphor for all that is flawed in our perception about the relationship between technology and writing, from the level of what we write, to that of how we write, to finally the way in which we disseminate our writing. I think about a work like Stephanie Strickland’s True North, which was produced at first as an analog book of poetry that she later reconceptualized as a hypertextually linked body of poems. Anyone reading the electronic version would have a very difficult time making the argument that it is of lesser quality than the book because both contain the exact same words. The only difference between the two versions is the medium in which she expresses her thoughts. Yet the argument used to deny the worth of digital objects by those leaning toward literary orthodoxy would automatically discount the electronic iteration of True North just for the simple reason that it is not print. The truth of the matter is that if indeed students spend 10 times more of their energy with fingers on a keyboard instead of a nose in a book, then it stands to reason that we should rethink our notion of literacy and advocate elit as not only viable but also compelling art form for teaching all aspects of reading, writing, and communicating.

6 Final Remarks: Elit Is Still Here

Elit is not dead, nor is it dying. Authors are still producing it. Online publications are still featuring it. Conferences are still held about it. As Scott Rettberg pointed out in his comments at the Guardian blog, “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.” What is true, however, is that English as an academic field that has for years developed future reading audiences for literature is struggling for survival while enrollment in digital media programs is surging. This real-life scenario means that the AAU may be on to something: Incorporating technology into our classes may be one potent method for saving the Humanities. And if elit conferences and publications show us anything, it also means that electronic literature, that hybrid, hard-to-define, ever-shifting emergent genre of literature that nettles the traditionalists and crosses too many disciplinary borders to find a safe haven in academe, just may, in the end, be the way to keep the literary arts alive. So, as Montfort and Moulthrop at Grand Text Auto both suggest in their response to Gallix’s essay, rather than focus our attention on the tired old question, is elit dead?, isn’t our time better spent finding ways to bring elit to the classroom, to help promote it in the contemporary literary scene, and support artists who produce it so that it can foster and bolster literary sensibilities and literacies of future generations?

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