August 22, 2003

The Rettberg Files

by Nick Montfort · , 11:21 am

Scott Rettberg’s dissertation, which was mentioned earlier, deserves some further comment. His dissertation has a first part in which he writes about the network context of The Unknown, discussing some similar efforts by other authors. The rest of it contains mainly Rettberg-authored Unknown texts – a.k.a. shovelware. Although funny, it’s hard to imagine why one would want to read this section instead of the hypertext or the Unknown Anthology book in which contributions from the three other Unknown authors are also included, but perhaps some Italians will consult the section as they work thoroughly on their own dissertations about The Unknown. They and others may be more interested in the preface to part two, which describes the project of The Unknown and even (gasp!) specifically attributes the authorship of some sections.

The 127 double-spaced pages that make up “Part One: Experiments in the Network Novel” are not dense with new advances in literary theory, but they are certainly worth reading. They share the following affinity with the more typological and semiotic Cybertext: Rettberg’s writing also is trying to describe a new, interesting category of texts, and to explain what makes this category interesting. In this case, the chief promoter of the term “electronic literature” discusses a more specific form or genre: the “network novel.” The term was much in his mind as he worked on Kind of Blue, which I wrote about recently, at some length.

Part one discusses the way that people read online. Some of this discussion is done using the techniques of usability experts, and it is less precise and metholodical than a usability expert might like, but done with the specific interests of fiction writers and readers in mind. This part also considers the way that people write on the network; it draws a distinction between stand-alone computer literature and networked writing and reading. Scott’s discussions of Sunshine 69, The Doll Games, and Blue Company shed some light on these works and help to make the point that the “network novel” is an interesting perspective and an interesting grouping. In looking at these works and The Unknown, he begins a useful exploration of both their network contexts and their relationships to the novel.

One of the nice things about the critical part of the dissertation “Destination Unknown” is that it is casual and accessible and it manages to neither be a starry-eyed “I just discovered hypertext” discussion nor a detailed, assertive argument that drives toward a set of certain conclusions. It’s an exploration of a new concept, one that may have further implications and lead in new theoretical directions later on. Since much of the writing about e-lit is done in blogs like this, or else in academic articles and dissertations, it’s fairly rare to find extensive writing in this mode, which makes this part refreshing as well as helpful.

Finally, a better find than this dissertations part two may be “Unfinished Paintings,” Scott’s M.A. thesis which he’s just now placed online. Having read a few stories from it back when it was only a bound and approved stack of papers on Scott’s shelf, I can attest that it contains some interesting fiction, perhaps a bit more DeLilloesque than is Scott’s later writing. It will certainly serve as a nice non-networked point of comparison for those looking at his more recent fictions.