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?