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.

2 Responses to “The Rettberg Files”

  1. Scott Rettberg Says:

    Hey thanks Nick. Just a word in defense of part 2: I was interested in seeing if parts of the Unknown, arranged in print, linearly, could form a novel-like reading experience. They are, of course, the same words as appear in the hypertext, but it’s virtually impossible to assemble any kind of clear chronology while reading the hypertext online. I did a lot of work, and had a lot of fun, with arranging scenes from the Unknown with novel-like print experience in mind. I think it would be better, of course, to do this with a larger proportion of the text of the Unknown in a real paper book. Someday. Coffeetable book by committee. I’m not convinced that shovelware is always bad. I think that the change in media of a given work (for instance the pirated Italian art book version of Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl — or the fantastic oversize art book edition of Noah et al.’s Gray Matters) changes the work in an interesting way. Both those are better examples than the shovelware in my diss. In a way, this kind of repurposing foregrounds what is unique about the network as a writing medium. There was also, as you might guess, a political reason for including the scenes from the Unknown. I wanted to at least stick a toe in the door for people at Cincy who might in the future want to do electronic dissertations. I had floated the idea of doing a collection of e-lit as my dissertation (which was originally going to be a print novel) and been shot down. So there was a point to proving that that this e-stuff can actually be translated and read off a page, just like that non-e-stuff.

    To my knowledge, there are no Italian dissertations about the Unknown, though it has been the subject of MA theses in Belgium and the Netherlands, and a few term papers in Spain and Singapore.

  2. nick Says:

    Scott, I actually agree (despite my use of the derisive term “shovelware”) that it can be worthwhile to present the same writing in different formats. (Since William and I have the full text of 2002 online and available in a printed book, it would be strange for me to categorically object to this practice.) I also see your point about how part two is an attempt to create a novel-like reading experience from the texts of the Unknown.

    The main reason I recommended against ordinary folks spending their book-reading time on part two is that The Unknown Anthology is available. Since it has writing from all the main Unknown authors (as it didn’t have to be submitted as part of a single person’s dissertation) that book seems like a print incarnation that is more representative of the whole project. But the idea of the novel is not as strong an organizing force there as in part two of your dissertation, so you do have something new going on in part two.

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