June 19, 2005

“Literary” Digital Media

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 6:27 pm

At Brown we’ve renamed the Creative Writing program “Literary Arts.” This encompasses regularly-offered workshops in fiction, poetry, playwriting, electronic writing (combining writing with designing computational contexts for the writing), and the recent additions of screenwriting (now that we have someone to teach it) and cross-disciplinary workshops (which encompass hybrid forms of text as well as things that are closely related to performance, installation, and video art). So, now that it’s in the name of the department, I find myself using the word “literary” a lot more than I used to — and using it to mean, roughly, “a common element in all the types of art we make in our department.”

Obviously, that’s not a very rigorous way of using the term. And a couple times recently, when I’ve used “literary” to refer to that common element in the digital media work we do, I’ve gotten pressed to unpack what I mean. At which point, of course, I can’t help but flash all the way back to college — where even the baby steps Terry Eagleton introduction said, “When I use the words ‘literary’ and ‘literature’ from here on in this book, then, I place them under an invisible crossing-out mark, to indicate that these terms will not really do but that we have no better ones at the moment.” (This from the 1983 edition of Literary Theory: An Introduction.) Sometime around the semester I read these words was when I stopped using “literary” and “literature” with any frequency, and instead started talking about things like “fiction” (a term for which I’ve had plenty of fun thinking about possible meanings).

But I would like some term for talking about the range of work in digital media that’s related to fiction, poetry, drama, and the other types of writing my friends and colleagues at Brown undertake. If it’s not “literary digital media” or “digital literature” (or one of those same phrases with “computational” or “electronic” in place of “digital”) I’m at a bit of a loss.

So I write this, in part, in the hope that someone out there has a term they use (and will suggest here) that I might take up for this purpose. Or, perhaps someone has a gloss on the term “literature” that they find particularly fruitful in the context of digital work and that will convince me I should stick with “literature” and use their approach when I’m asked to do a little unpacking. After all, ACH/ALLC have “literature” in the title of their conference and their journal, so some people must feel comfortable using it in a computational context. Any thoughts?

12 Responses to ““Literary” Digital Media”

  1. scott Says:


    The pertinent OED definition is:

    3. Of or pertaining to, or of the nature of, literature. a. Pertaining to letters or polite learning. b. Pertaining to books and written compositions; also, in a narrower sense, pertaining to, or having the characteristics of that kind of written composition which has value on account of its qualities of form. literary dinner, lunch(eon), party, prize; also literary adviser: one who gives advice or information on literary matters; literary agent (see quot. 1960); also literary agency; literary circle (see CIRCLE n. 21); literary criticism = CRITICISM 2 (of works of literature); so literary critic, literary-critical adj.; literary editor: (a) the editor of the literary section of a newspaper; (b) the editor of a book of collected writings; so literary-edit vb., -editorship; literary executor (see EXECUTOR 3); literary history (e.g. of a legend, a historical personage or event, etc.): the history of the treatment of, and references to, the subject in literature; literary property: (a) property which consists in written or printed compositions; (b) the exclusive right of publication as recognized and limited by law; literary world (see WORLD n. 16b).

    I’m not quite sure I understand the problem with “literature” in a general sense if you’re referring to some kind of written composition which has value on account of its qualities of form. I prefer “electronic” to “digital,” although both are vague. I’m comfortable with “electronic,” however because it is then distinguished from literature that which involves no electronic devices in its essential composition or distribution. I think this is a more useful distinction than “digital,” which I suppose, distinguishes literature which uses numbers or fingers in its composition or distribution from that which doesn’t Of course, this is all semantics. You could call it “art with words on a computer.” I use “electronic literature” for a political reason as much as any other. I want people to read the work that I do in electronic media in a particular context, a “literary” context. By using the phrase, I’m arguing that hypertext, or email novels, or a combinatory poetry, or interactive fiction or whatever should be studied and produced in the same context, and to an extent, by the same people who study and produce print literature. If I used the phrase “network art” or “story programming” or “expressive AI,” to describe electronic litearature, I would be making a similar contextual argument, and be appealing to a different audience. The work itself would not change as a result.

    When I was writing my dissertation, my adviser asked me to defend the idea that the types of texts I was discussing were “literary.” I tried to do that in this footnote:

    21 I don’t completely buy into the Russian formalist Shklovskii’s notion that “literariness” is a
    function of the process of defamiliarization. But if it were, most works of electronic literature, in
    their self-consciousness as texts, would certainly qualify. Hypertext defamiliarizes even the most
    ordinary of experiences by transforming them into strange reading experiences. My own take on
    “literariness” is that reading communities make texts “literary.” Critics, booksellers, universities,
    and libraries make texts literary. Texts are made literary by their readership, and not by anything
    inherent in the texts themselves. My distinction here between more or less “literary” works of
    electronic literature is based on the extent to which each text utilizes or adapts traditional literary
    devices and techniques.

  2. noah Says:

    Hmm… perhaps this is part of where I’m running into trouble. I’ve been discussing things as literary that may not have reading communities available to substantiate my view.

    To back up for a second, I think we do have reading communities that view the processes defined and used by folks like the Oulipo and Burroughs as literary. Also, in the elit community we have people who read the processes of, say, the characters in an Oz text world as literary. But if those same character-defining processes are used for the (graphical, rather than textual) Woggles, do they lose their literariness? It doesn’t seem to me that they do. (And not because I want to read the text of the code as a poem.) But when I say this I tend to get raised eyebrows, and it’s one of those cases where people suggest that “literary” may not be the term I’m after.

    And yet, Scott, I think I share your perspective. I feel I should be able to use “literary” to mean that I think the work is usefully considered in a particular context — in this case, the context of the various sorts of work done in Brown’s Literary Arts program. I believe that about the Oz processes, and other processes. Perhaps I should just stand my ground on this one. But I probably will need to figure out what definition I’m using for “literary” if I’m going to depend on it for the structure of my arguments.

  3. nick Says:

    To back up for a second, I think we do have reading communities that view the processes defined and used by folks like the Oulipo and Burroughs as literary.

    Sure, you could call them “literary processes” (as you do), “literary algorithms,” or “literary constraints,” but it’s worth mentioning that something such as N+7 isn’t itself a literary work, and that techniques that are general, but happen to applied to literature, don’t make everything that they touch into literature. If such techniques are turned to some other domain or adapted for some other purpose (cooking, visual art, film), they become something else (potential cooking, potential visual art, potential motion pictures).

    Burroughs, via Bryon Gysin, imported a technique used in visual art to create what he called “the cut-up method.” But Naked Lunch didn’t become a work of visual art because Burroughs used a technique from the visual arts to create it. It’s a literary work, one whose composition involved an originally painterly, but generalizable, technique. Similarly, 20-constant poetry, which is inspired by 12-tone music, is not a musical technique. The use of some process that originated in medium X (or field of practice X) does not automatically conquer medium Y / field of practice Y when it’s reapplied there.

    But if those same character-defining processes are used for the (graphical, rather than textual) Woggles, do they lose their literariness?

    We could also ask: If I write a piece of music in the form of a sonnet or a sestina, do they lose their literariness? It doesn’t seem that literary forms or literary techniques are in much danger of losing their literariness in these cases. But we also shouldn’t think that such an application makes piece of music into a literary work.

    You’re making it seem unfortunate that the Woggles might not be considered literary, but shouldn’t they be considered as what they are? Does Andrew want Dogs, Catz, and Babys to be claimed as literary creations and understood using a literary framework, or is it perhaps more fair (to these works and to the creators of it) to consider them in a different way? Lots of effort has going into make sure we don’t consider computer games using only a literary framework…

  4. noah Says:

    Regarding Oz, it just seems a strange state transition. If I have processes I use to define an interactive fictional character – if I’ve procedurally encoded a fictional personality – why would that creation be literary if the interaction is textual, non-literary if the interaction is graphical, and then become literary again if (a la Facade) voiceover is added to the graphical interaction?

    Is it that text is the deciding factor for what can be literary? Sound poets don’t seem to think so. And just as the same algorithm can be used for literary and non-literary purposes, so text can be used for both literary and non-literary purposes.

    My gut feeling is that processes are just as capable of being literary as data is. But it might be that I’m actually looking for a word other than “literary” for the preceding sentence.

    I suppose I could also take a different approach – and say that I think there are processes that can be fruitfully read in a literary way, which I think is how people tend to read the processes of the Oulipo. This side-steps the issue of whether the processes are literary, because non-literary texts have been read in a literary way (e.g., as Kate Hayles does with conference proceedings in How We Became Post-Human). Perhaps this is even the best approach, because it acknowledges that what is non-literary to one group, or in one era, can be important literary work to another.

  5. nick Says:

    Is it that text is the deciding factor for what can be literary? Sound poets don’t seem to think so.

    When I heard Jaap Blonk and Christian Bök perform recently, they both did read texts as they performed sound poems. They also gave readings that were billed as literary readings and occurred in literary venues – see Scott’s discussion of the way work is contextualized and how this is a factor in making work literary.

    My gut feeling is that processes are just as capable of being literary as data is.

    I agree, I just don’t think such processes remain literary when they’re generalized and then applied again to something else other than literature.

    For instance, the lipogram (restriction that the writer not use one or more letters when writing a text) is a literary constraint; if I create a valid genetic sequence that contains only the base pairs guanine-cytosine (G-C) and not adenine-thymine (A-T), why is useful to see the DNA that results as a work of literature, or the restriction that I used as a literary one?

    It would be different if I were a writer encoding a text in DNA, or if I asked to read my genetic sequences at poetry readings, or if my genetic sequences were reviewed in The Paris Review. But if I just happen to use the same technique that Georges Perec used in La Disparition, but am motivated by research or clinical reasons and create DNA that is useful for scientific or therapeutic purposes, my use of this constraint wouldn’t seem to cause genetic material to transform into literature.

    Of course, I’m not objecting to literary readings of non-literary texts, or to changing our culture’s definition of literature to accommodate new sorts of work, or to adapting techniques (semiotic, narratological, etc.) from literary studies for use in understanding things other than literature. I just don’t think that the use of a particular process, procedure, or constraint makes what would otherwise not be literature into literature, by itself.

  6. noah Says:

    Noah: My gut feeling is that processes are just as capable of being literary as data is.

    Nick: I agree, I just don’t think such processes remain literary when they’re generalized and then applied again to something else other than literature.

    It sounds like we pretty much agree. I don’t think performing a process that has been used in a literary context makes something literature. Just as I don’t think using words that have been used in a work of literature makes something literary.

    The thing I’m really trying to think about is whether I want to make the argument that you agree with above: that processes are as capable of being literary as data is. Not that a single step in a process (e.g., N + 7) is inherently literary, but whether specific arrangements of processes in context (just like specific arrangements of words in context) can be literary.

    For example, do I want to argue that Crawford’s Erasmatron is literary in its processes, or that poetry generators are, or that systems for interactive characters are – apart from whatever data (e.g., text) may or may not be in a system at that moment?

    Of course, I think for successful elit the two things (data and process) need to work together. So it could be that I’m leading myself astray with this whole question. Maybe a better formulation is that we can have pieces of elit that are interesting from a process point of view, even if the surface text isn’t that interesting (or is non-existent) – just as we can have elit that is interesting because of its surface text, even if the processes aren’t that interesting (or, in the case of something like a standard email novel, approach being non-existent).

    But, I notice that I used “interesting” rather than “literary” in the paragraph above. I’m still ambivalent about that word…

  7. diane greco Says:

    If I could maybe complicate the discussion a bit — I’ve always liked the formulation (probably Foucault’s, but it doesn’t matter who said it) that “literary” language is the kind of language that compensates for, rather than confirms, the signifying function of language. This formulation applies just as much in electronic literature as print; the medium doesn’t make a difference. Neither does the mode of distribution. “Context” comes into this, but in a complex way — context, for instance, will determine what it means for a certain way of speaking or writing to “compensate” and how much “compensation” is necessary in order for what is said to be “literature.” But at least this formulation short-circuits the objection that “context” arguments inevitably give rise to — if what’s “literary” is determined by “context,” anything can be “literary,” depending on the context, and that’s relativism, and that’s bad, etc. etc. You know how that goes…

  8. scott Says:


    That is an interesting formulation. I’m guessing that “compenstates for” in this context means that it serves as a counterbalance to pure signification? That is, according to this definition something is literary to extent that the language itself, or its artifice, has some intrinstic value beyond what it signifies? I like this formulation, as I like the Russian formalist one, though I think that this has a kind of belletristic quality to it. I mean, would palindromes or language poetry then be more literary then say minimalist realism, because they more clearly counterbalance pure signification, or underscore the impossibilty of pure signification and the artificiality of our efforts in to signify in a more explicit way?

    I think the context argument is relativistic, but also that, historically, the definition of “literary” has been determined in a relativistic fashion, subject to the prevailing institutional whims of any given historical period.

    Maybe Noah’s question shouldn’t really be “what is literary”? but “what should we call literary”? or “what do we agree to consider literary”? in digital media.

  9. aukema Says:

    Noah, Scott, Nick –
    The term “literary” has always been a snob term. Reconsider the word “experimental.” In the old Coover days of the Iowa Workshop, “experimental” was the super snob word to distinguish people like Burroughs, Robbe-Grillet, Borges, Barthelme, etc. from the pedestrian realists who spent all of their waking and sleeping hours trying to clone Tolstoy.

    Story and drama and narrative generators are experimental. “Literary” is death.

  10. diane greco Says:

    Funny you should mention Russian Formalism. I’m traveling in Russia right now & learning a lot about the new Russian constitution, a Formalist document if ever there was one (but that’s another post). One of its most interesting qualities is that it considers the protocols of international human and social rights law as a minimum standard, to which their judicial system required to resort when a case exceeds whatever case law is available in Russia.

    Which is a roundabout way of saying, I intended this formulation as a kind of “minimum standard.” Palindromes, minimalism, realism — all these things would be literary. I can’t tell if it’s sensible to talk about “more” or “less” literary with respect to modes of expression or any specific instances thereof; I do suspect it may be beside the point, or at least my point. :)

    What I meant by this formulation is not so much that literary language is a “counterbalance”
    or a “counterweight,” but that this language functionally exceeds simple signification (e.g., words signify just what you expect) and also exceeds simple signification in its effects, by in some way reminding the reader of, or provoking her to reflect on, signification and its limits. Or, at a minimum, by creating the possibility for such a reminder or provocation.

    I’d also add that this formulation is itself historical, and institutional. To point to the most obvious and general example: literary discourse as what exceeds signification doesn’t make sense in a context that fails also to valorize the opposite sort of discourse, modes of signification in which the distance between a signifier and what it signifies is ideally supposed to approach zero, as for instance in scientific and commercial discourse, in “communication” in the everyday sense. And of course these things too have contexts and histories.

  11. noah Says:

    Apologies for having gone missing from this conversation. My laptop started behaving badly while I was trying to do a backup. Now it’s been two nights in the tech hospital so far.

    I think the “snob term” issue is an important one. I certainly don’t want to be seen as lending my rhetorical contribution to pernicious distinctions (like, say, those between “literary” and “genre” fiction). Perhaps that’s why the Oulipo have “workshop” in their name alongside “literature” — to help defuse any snobbish reading. I wonder if there’s a similar way to defuse the digital version.

    As for Diane’s thread (wish I was there with you in St Petersburg, but the Brown mail system mislaid my passport and visa) that’s certainly an intriguing notion of what it means for something to be literary. However, I’m not sure how to bring it into my thinking about processes. I guess what I’m looking for is a word that encompasses the work done by both writers and computer scientists in this field — choosing what word will come next, deciding what a character will do next — with different mixtures and arrangements of data and process. We could call that “literary” work, or we could call it the work of some genre (fiction, poetry, drama), or…?

  12. Anonymous Says:

    Hey Noah,

    Missing you here in Peter. It has been a tremendous trip & would have been even better with your workshop…

    I think the idea I’m proposing could apply in some way to processes inasmuch as they *effect* signification just as words and pictures do. In my effort to speak simply here, I’m probably oversimplifying, but the idea is to ask what is the signifying function of these processes and do they in some way surprise you.


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