May 29, 2008

Communitizing Electronic Literature

by Scott Rettberg · , 10:19 am

I’m sitting in a cafe in Vancouver, Washington, trying to cut down my presentation for the ELO conference to a manageable size. Since I’ll only present about half the paper at the conference, I thought I would post the paper here for people who are interested in reading it. My paper is not about any particular work of e-lit an attempt to take a kind of “long view” of the field of electronic literature as it currently stands, about nine years after we started the ELO. Forgive the lack of formatting. I’ll also post a pdf version on my website later this week.

Communitizing Electronic Literature

I have been involved in what you might loosely call “the field” of electronic literature for ten years, as a writer of digital fiction and poetry, as a community organizer through my work with the Electronic Literature Organization , and as a scholar and teacher. In 1998, after writing the collaborative hypertext novel The Unknown with my collaborators Dirk Stratton and William Gillespie, I fell down a rabbit hole from which I have yet to emerge. After The Unknown won the trAce/AltX prize for hyperfiction , I found myself immersed in the fascinating world of computer literature. At a conference in 1999 hosted by Robert Coover at Brown University titled “Technology Platforms for Twenty-First Century Literature,” I encountered a small but robust community of authors who had chosen the computer as a platform for their literary endeavors, a motley and innovative crew of literary experimentalists who were energized by the potentialities of the networked computer as a medium: by the new ease with which multimedia elements could be integrated into literary texts, by the programmable nature of digital literary artifacts, by the distributive capabilities of the emerging global network, by the new registers of semantic representation opening up to authors who made this network their home.

This group was a vibrant and engaged community of writers, impatient to take the future of literature by the horns. Yet even in 1999, some electronic writers were voicing elegiac concerns. Many writers who had authored hypertext work in Storyspace were frustrated that their work, published by Eastgate Systems , had not reached a wide audience. There was a also sense that the mess and clamor of the World Wide Web was drowning these literary efforts for the computer in a sea of commercial noise, and that the platform they were working in was becoming obsolescent. There was a deflated notion, as Robert Coover put it in his 1999 Digital Arts and Culture Keynote address, that the golden age of literary hypertext had already passed. Nevertheless, in 1999, a group of us also decided to start the Electronic Literature Organization, a nonprofit organization with a mission to promote and facilitate the writing, reading, and distribution of electronic literature.

I’d like to take this opportunity, a decade after my own initial foray into electronic literature, to look back and take stock in what the electronic literature community has become in the intervening years, and perhaps to make some pragmatic suggestions about what it might yet become.

The present moment is an exciting one. Electronic literature has forked down a multitude of paths, so many in fact that it has become difficult to describe the field in terms of distinct genres. In comparison to other literary cultures, e-lit culture is still marginal, produced by a comparatively small group of writers dispersed around the globe, often working in isolation. Yet at this point there is a fairly large corpus of creative work and an ever-growing body of critical and theoretical scholarship that addresses and closely reads electronic literature. Every year innovative new work is produced, new dissertations are written, new scholarly articles and monographs about electronic literature are published. Electronic literature is slowly but surely working its way into academic contexts as literature programs, digital culture programs, and other academic departments hire new faculty with specializations in digital textuality. Each year there are more conferences and festivals at which writers and critics of electronic literature gather to share their work, and in contrast with the past, more of these gatherings are focused specifically on the topic of literature that is native to the digital environment, rather than treating electronic literature as a curious sideline or novelty act.

The electronic literature community is increasingly global, as networks of practice and scholarship become more interconnected and communicative with each other across national and generic boundaries. Although the French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Brazilian, Scandinavian, English, American, and Canadian electronic literature communities, for example, don’t necessarily speak the same languages , we are all becoming increasingly aware of each other’s work. The field of electronic literature is a network of networks, and we are only beginning to learn how to work together.

At the same time as I note these positive developments, many of the same frustrations voiced by those writers back in 1999 still hold true today. Electronic literature has not found a large popular audience, and it is entirely possible that it never will. While use of the Internet has become an important part of everyday life in many parts of the world, most people have no idea that electronic literature exists, or at best, have heard of “e-books” and think that by electronic literature we mean print books distributed as PDFs or some other electronic format .

While electronic literature has a foothold in academic communities, most of the jobs in the field go to critics or theorists. Authors of electronic literature are less likely to find employment as writers or as teachers. While it’s possible to write a dissertation on electronic literature, there are few institutions that even offer a course in which a student can write electronic literature, much less complete a master’s thesis or dissertation that itself is electronic literature . While online journals that publish electronic literature exist, few have been sustained over a long period of time. Journals that were publishing electronic literature ten or even five years ago are just as likely to have vanished altogether as they are to be publishing electronic literature today. Many works no longer function due to dependencies on platforms that are no longer available. This has consequences not only for authors who wish to somehow cobble together lives as digital authors but also for scholars who wish to study work in historical contexts. At the same as the field has never been more active or more diverse, electronic literature is like a library written in invisible ink, vanishing before our eyes.

Defining a Field

The United States National Endowment for the Arts issued two widely discussed and controversial reports in 2004 and 2007, “Reading at Risk” and “To Read or Not to Read” which assert that both reading in general and more specifically recreational literary reading are in sharp decline. The reports are generally skeptical of the benefits of digital textuality, and in fact rather slyly imply that the computer might well be the culprit, as in this suggestive sidebar comment:

Opinions aside, there is a shortage of scientific research on the effects of screen reading—not only on long-term patterns of news consumption, but more importantly, on the development of young minds and young readers. (A good research question is whether the hyperlinks, pop-up windows, and other extra-textual features of screen reading can sharpen a child’s ability to perform sustained reading, or whether they impose unhelpful distractions.) (44)

While the methodology of the study and the conclusions one can draw from it are themselves disputable , if we accept the NEA’s claim that literary reading is in decline, and that the current generation of teenagers is the first of what the Kaiser Foundation has labeled the “Generation M” (for Media) , then it seems to me that the culture at large ought to be concerned not with blaming the Internet for the decline of literary reading, but rather with how the networked computer might be better utilized to further literary reading.

In a recent essay in Profession , N. Katherine Hayles distinguishes between the “deep attention” of immersive literary reading and the “hyper attention” of Generation M. Hayles distinguishes between the two cognitive modes:

Deep attention is superb for solving complex problems represented in a single medium, but it comes at the price of environmental alertness and flexibility of response. Hyper attention excels at negotiating rapidly changing environments in which multiple foci compete for attention; its disadvantage is impatience with focusing for long periods of time on a noninteractive object such as a Victorian novel or a complicated math problem. (188)

If Hayles and the NEA are both right, then in order for literature to be relevant to Generation M, it will need to be produced in forms that appeal to the interactive, multimodal, and fragmented mode of hyper attention, and yet also provide depth: opportunities for deeply attentive and immersive close reading. I can think of no literary medium more suited to straddling the divide between these two cognitive modes than electronic literature, and I’m frankly surprised that the National Endowment for the Arts and foundations are not yet furiously writing grants to support and further the development of e-lit.

Right now, the Internet is still primarily a textual medium. At the same time as the NEA is decrying the death of American reading, it is not taking into proper account the hyperattentive forms of digital textuality which have become part of the routine daily lives of people in most economically developed nations: reading and writing email, sending and receiving text messages, participating in online social networks, and so on. These activities are by no means the deeply attentive forms of writing and reading we think of when we think of literature, but they do involve popular reading and writing on an unprecedented scale. The important open question is what forms of literature will appeal to readers for whom the hyper attention is the primary textual mode, who are more likely to “read” machinima, You Tube videos, and Flash games than they are to read anything remotely recognizable as poetry or fiction.

I hesitate to claim that the popular adoption of electronic literature is inevitable–it is equally likely that literary reading of all sorts will continue to decline. I’m more certain however that if writers don’t continue to experiment with digital literary forms, and on a more widespread basis, then as the broadband Internet becomes less textual and more dominated by video and other communicative modalities, the written word will lose out. Within academe, within writing communities, within library and archival culture, it is important to recognize that we are participating in the formation of a field. The decisions we collectively make now, about what sorts of digital artifacts we can describe as electronic literature, about how to describe them, to distribute them, to archive and preserve them, to assess and critique them, to encourage audiences to read them both critically and recreationally, and to encourage writers to create more of them, will have an important impact in years to come. This is a period of great opportunities, which could easily be lost if they are not handled with deliberation and care by a global community of active stakeholders.

The Economics of Electronic Literature

The best way for a full-time author of electronic literature to become a millionaire is to inherit a million dollars from a distant relation. A work of electronic literature and five dollars will buy you a Starbuck’s Latté. The vast majority of contemporary electronic literature, virtually all of my own work included, is distributed for free on the Internet. When people ask me where they can buy my work, I tell them they should type my name into Google , and they’ll find my writing, free for the reading. And frankly, this does not embarrass me. I revel in this particular type of freedom. It seems to me to be the natural evolution of the distribution of thought, enabled by the technology of the global network.

About a decade ago, as the World Wide Web was popularly adopted, the community of electronic writers writ large made a consequential choice. There was (and still is) one moderately successful publisher of electronic literature in the English-speaking world, Eastgate Systems. Writers who published their work with Eastgate could claim the imprimatur of being “published” in the conventional sense. In return for assigning all their intellectual property rights to the publisher, they would entitled to royalties–paid for their work–and in turn their work would be published on a floppy disc or CD-ROM that would reach dozens or perhaps even hundreds of readers. Even after some notable publicity, such as Robert Coover’s essay in the New York Times’ Book Review, Eastgate failed to develop much of a popular audience for literary hypertext . The multitudinous Web, on the other hand, offered writers the opportunity to reach a potentially wider audience.

The cost of this freedom was that to reach the network, most writers essentially chose to give their work away for free. At this point it simply makes more sense for authors of e-lit to distribute their work as widely and freely as possible . Some notable benefits of this means of distribution include the fact that works can be made available globally simultaneously, that authors can retain full rights and control over their works, that there are no market pressures to write in a particular style or genre, and probably most importantly that writers can share their work without impediment with the community of people who are most likely to be interested in and to respond to their work– namely other electronic writers, scholars, and students of electronic literature. While there are still occasional efforts to publish e-lit in the conventional sense of charging money for a literary artifact, the practice of free distribution on the Internet has proven better at enabling a wider community of practice to form around electronic literature.

Each one of these advantages, of course, has its inverse shadow. Many people are inclined to believe that if something comes for free, that then it must be “valueless.” The history of the twentieth century avant-garde is however replete with examples of artistic and literary movements, notably the Dada and Fluxus, which managed to have a great deal of lasting influence in spite of the fact that they worked outside of the conventional cultural economy of their day. The lack of a price tag or a best-seller list also forces us to think in more creative and critical ways about how we assign value to digital literary artifacts. From the standpoint of professionalizing electronic literature, it also necessitates that we put effort into developing other means of credentialing notable works of electronic literature and of rewarding authors for their work.

In the earliest days of the Electronic Literature Organization, when I was working as its executive director, most of our funding came from donations from a few executives of internet companies, during the height of the dot com boom. I spent a good deal of time trying to explain the value of electronic literature to businessmen, and why they should be interested in supporting an organization intended to further it. While most of their eyes would glaze over the moment I mentioned the phrase “non-profit,” the question almost all of them would ask at some point in our conversation was “That all sounds very interesting, but how are you going to monetize it?” That was a question I had a hard time answering at that point , and that I would still hesitate to answer today. At this point in the history of electronic literature, the question is not how we can monetize it, in the sense of getting people to pay money for things, but rather how we can communitize it. We don’t need to build a market for electronic literature, but rather a culture that will support and sustain its development. In the remainder of this essay I will try to outline some ways that I think the global electronic literature community can more effectively work together to further those ends.

Ultimately, we will need to conceive of “digital author” as a profession, and professionals are, by definition, paid for their work. It is however important to acknowledge that even the world of print literature, most literary fiction writers and poets are not able to support themselves solely on the sale of their actual literary work. Royalties might provide beer money, but they rarely pay the rent, much less the mortgage. The majority of contemporary writers make their living in other ways, most notably (at least in the United States) from teaching creative writing in universities. One of the biggest problems I can see for the sustained development of electronic literature is that few similar opportunities yet exist for electronic writers.

Perhaps influenced by the polemic title of Robert Coover’s 1992 New York Times Book Review essay “The End of Books,” much of the early discussion of electronic literature was framed by the idea that literary hypertext would or could someday make the printed book or conventional literary culture obsolete, and anytime I give a presentation on electronic literature to a general audience I encounter one or two curmudgeons who still operate under the false assumption that the purpose of e-lit is to destroy the book. I think it safe to say that if conventional literary culture does decline during our lifetimes, it will not be due to the market dominance of electronic literary forms. This is not a behemoth cultural movement that will in one fell swoop displace printed literature, but a humbler culture of literary experimentalists testing out new forms of expression that engage the affordances and constraints of the networked computer. This is not necessarily the future of literature, but a laboratory of potential literature(s).

Can a literary culture sustain itself on an other-than-mass-market scale? I can think of successful models that do so. One is the contemporary “poetry industry.” Poetry has not in recent memory been a large-scale popular art form. Very few books of poetry make the best-seller lists, and very few people outside of the poetry community could name more than a handful of famous living poets. Yet a vibrant global poetry subculture nevertheless exists, because of the fact that poets do buy each other’s books, attend each other’s readings, critique each other’s work, select poetry for awards, and conduct extended esoteric debates. The popular culture doesn’t care much about poetry, but poets do, and that itself has been enough to sustain the culture of poetry.

Within the sphere of electronic literature, I would point to the Interactive Fiction community as one model of how a community interested in one particular form of electronic writing has managed to support and further develop that form. Interactive Fiction is the electronic literary form derived from the text adventure games, such as Zork, published by Infocom during the era of personal computer’s infancy. Working with remarkably few resources, the IF community has managed to develop several types and several generations of free and freely distributed platform-independent software for writing and programming interactive fiction, to develop the IF-Archive , on which individual works of interactive fiction are indexed, hosted for free downloading, to maintain an archive of reviews of interactive fiction submitted by members of the community, to publish guides to playing interactive fiction and programming tutorials to help others develop it, to maintain an active MUD and mailing list widely utilized by the community, and to conduct an annual awards competition that involves a good deal of fairly rigorous peer review of new works. While one could critique both the form and the IF community for its insularity, it is one hermetic community that has been remarkably successful at reviving and sustaining a form that the commercial game industry long ago gave up for dead .

The Electronic Literature Organization: Building Communities of Practice and Context

The Electronic Literature Organization is a nonprofit organization with a small budget but an interested and involved community. The majority of our programs are based on the volunteer efforts of our board of directors, literary advisory board, and membership. During the eight years or so the organization has been in existence, there have been a number of different programs intended variously to promote interest in electronic literature, to preserve and archive electronic literature, to publish and make e-lit more accessible. Over that period I would also describe a general shift in the focus of the organization. While the majority of our earliest efforts were focused on promotion, on trying to make the general public more aware of and interested in e-lit, in recent years, our focus has shifted more towards the community of electronic literature itself. In recent discussions about the mission of the organization, some board members have suggested that we should think of the ELO more of a professional organization or guild; focus on facilitating the existing electronic literature community and making connections with other electronic literature communities, rather than on popularizing the work to the general public. That is not to say that we are abandoning the goal of building a broader audience for electronic literature, but rather that we think the best way to do so is to create resources that better enable electronic writers, scholars, and their audiences to reach each other, and to provide new ways for works of electronic literature to be as available and as well-documented as possible. In addition to organizing an annual conference that, like the E-Poetry Festival , can serve as regular in-person gathering for writers and scholars to meet and exchange ideas and new works, the ELO is currently focused on three projects, each of which is intended to help develop the field.

The Electronic Literature Collection: The first volume of the ELC was published in October 2006. It is a collection of sixty exemplary works of electronic literature, each presented with a brief description and “tagged” with keywords that place each work in a technical and conceptual context with other works. Rather than labeling works with traditional genres derived from print, we felt that it was important to identify works with the emergent vocabulary of the field. It is no longer enough to describe a work of electronic literature simply as a poem or fiction. Each individual work typically crosses into a variety of conceptual and technical categories, and might be read and studied for a variety of different reasons. While one group for instance might only be interested in works produced in Flash or in Processing, for instance, another group might be interested in focusing on time-based or combinatorial work, or works by women. The keywords help readers to look at groups of work according a variety of different criteria. The other very important decision we made with the first edition of the ELC was to ask all of our contributors to make their work available under a non-commercial Creative Commons license. This means that any work in the ELC can be freely shared and duplicated. For instance, an educator could make as many copies of the CD-ROM as she liked for her students, or install all the works on the Collection in the school’s computer labs, without asking for any kind of special permission or making any kind of payment. Educators can be sure that the works published in the ELC will still be available the next time they teach a class. The ELC is available both on the Web and in CD-ROM form from the ELO. We thought it was important to publish the work on CD-ROM as well as the web both for archival reasons–so that as many copies of the bits as possible would be distributed–and so that libraries would be able to include it in their collections. We’re currently looking for partners to help support the publication of the second edition of the ELC, and intend to announce the call for works at our conference in Vancouver, Washington in May.

Archive-It: The US Library of Congress asked the ELO to gather a collection of 300 web sites for the Internet Archive’s Archive-It project. Each of the sites entered in the project will be web-crawled and archived to the extent allowed by the Internet Archive’s technology. This technology is by no means perfect, and works best on HTML documents. There are many other types of e-lit which this system cannot archive or archive in only a very limited way. It will however result in a focused searchable collection of individual works, web journals, and contextual and critical sites related to electronic literature, which can serve both as a historical reference and a way to introduce new people to the field.

Electronic Literature Directory 2.0: The wiki we are using to gather records for the Archive-It project will also serve as the basis for a reimplementation of the Electronic Literature Directory . Using the WikiMedia platform (the platform developed for Wikipedia), Semantic MediaWiki, and Semantic Forms, the new directory will be both more flexible and more durable than the current directory platform. In comparison to the current version of the ELD, the new version will be easier for the community of writers and scholars to contribute to. Although information entered will be reviewed for relevance and accuracy, users will not have to go through an administrator to set up an account or to enter new information. Records will now include keyword tags, so that users will be able to sort information by a variety of criteria. In developing the new forms for works, we will be consulting with organizations that are developing similar projects with an aim to develop a standardized vocabulary and metadata description for electronic literature. We also plan to make the records exportable in machine-readable format, so that we will be able to share and exchange records with other directories and similar projects, such as the Montreal-based organization, nt2 , which is developing a French-language directory, and the Siegen, Germany Media Upheavals project, which is developing a directory of critical work on electronic literature. The Directory itself will be published under a Creative Commons license, so that others can integrate records into their own databases. Another important new feature of the Directory will be the inclusion of records for critical articles about electronic literature, which will be linked to the records of the works they address. This will be one way of adding a qualitative layer to the directory. Users will be able to see what works have been written about by scholars, and will able to sort the directory by keywords, dates, language, and a variety of other criteria. The new version of the directory will be based on a widely used, extensible, open-source platform, so that the database can change, improve over time, and last.

In each of these programs, the ELO is attempted to engage the community of electronic literature writers and scholars (in fact they are all dependent on collective effort), to build international connections with other interested parties, and to make electronic literature freely accessible in a well-documented and archive-friendly way.

Accentuating International Communication and Exchange

The ELO is interested in developing close working relationships with international partners. One simple but vitally important way of doing this is by making electronic writers and scholars more aware of and to some extent literate in electronic writing done in other language groups. Although it is of course difficult to fully experience literary works in languages other than one’s own, because of the visual, computational, and multimedia elements of electronic literature, I’m always amazed at how much I can learn from experiencing many works of electronic literature written in languages in which I have no fluency. As we all go about developing this field internationally, I would suggest that there are a variety of ways that we could work toward common goals and to work together across language communities. One very important effort would be to develop shared bibliographic and metadata standards for electronic literature, and to create descriptive records that are both open and shared. Another worthy effort, albeit a time-intensive one for those doing it, would be to translate important works of electronic literature from one language to another. Even without translating entire works, translations of introductory essays such as N. Katherine Hayles “Electronic Literature: What Is It?” or Philippe Bootz’s “Les Basiques: La Littérature Numerique” and other surveys of electronic literature in specific language groups would do a great deal to inform other electronic literature networks of the types of work being developed in parts of the world other than their own .

The Role of Academic Programs

I think it’s fairly safe to say that the most important contemporary audiences for electronic literature are within academia, or at least that academia is the part of the culture that has shown the most interest in electronic literature over the past decade. As e-lit has accrued the trappings of an academic field, with dedicated conferences, an ever-increasing body of scholarly work (much of it, incidentally, in printed form), and an increasing number of faculty positions in literature, digital media, and communications fields in which a literacy in the form is at the very least permissible and often desirable, electronic literature is taking a place in the curriculum of the contemporary university. At the recent 2007 MLA conference in Chicago, there was an electronic literature poster session that showcased projects in and related to electronic writing in addition to a number of well-attended panels on the subject. It seems that many literature programs are begrudgingly allowing e-lit a seat a the table, and recent MLA job list searches for “new media” in literature programs reveal that many universities are now hiring tenure-track faculty who focus on digital textuality. Correspondingly, an increasing number of graduate students are writing dissertations on electronic literature. These slow-moving engines of change are assuring that e-lit will be part a literature curricula for some years to come. Having said that, it is still very difficult to find many “safe places” in the university where the actual practice of digital writing can be taught, or faculty positions in which the production and successful distribution of a work of electronic literature could count towards the tenure and promotion process.

This relative lack of academic contexts in which the production of works of electronic literature can take place is the most vexing problem confronting the future of electronic writing. We have yet to see the development of the equivalent of MFA creative writing programs specifically focused on electronic writing. The kind of sustained workshop-like atmosphere of those programs could do a great deal to provide writers with the opportunity to approach electronic writing as a craft and as a profession, rather than as a hobby or as a one-off project in a web design or programming class. More environments are needed in which writers can develop and critique both the technical and semantic aspects of electronic writing. We need to find ways to professionalize the writing of electronic literature, just as the scholarship of electronic writing is currently being professionalized.

We have already seen the fruits of gestating electronic writing within academia. Students of early workshops in electronic writing and courses in digital poetics have authored influential works, and students of early critical and theoretical courses on electronic literature are making important contributions. In developing electronic literature curricula, we develop both a readership and a writership. To borrow the example of the poetry industry I referred to earlier, it is likely that the best way to produce more readers of electronic literature is to produce more digital writers.

In addition to nonprofit or advocacy organizations, academic research networks and consortia structured locally, regionally, and globally can do a great deal to develop the field and enable international exchange. In addition to the ELO, networks such as nt2, Hermeneia, Elinor, and the Laboratoire Paragraphe have already accomplished much. Beyond facilitating the exchange of research, such networks could enable more student and faculty exchanges. While only one or a handful faculty members at any given institution are likely to focus on the teaching and/or development of electronic literature, undergraduate and graduate students should be able to take advantage of the fact that these networks exist, and be able to study with electronic literature experts in different cultures and communities. These networks might also work together to establish publication venues and journals that could prove more durable than previous efforts and could establish methods of peer review particular to electronic literature, which could both improve the quality of published work and establish credentials for electronic writing that the rest of the academic world could comprehend and assign professional value to. Award competitions, such as the International “Ciutat de Vinaròs” Digital Literature Prize , also serve an important credentialing function, and can motivate writers to create new work.

Open Source Literature

The Australia-based digital poet Jason Nelson has recently begun working on a project that I think could serve as a useful model for the communitization of electronic literature. He is developing twenty small projects of electronic writing in Flash, and as he releases them, he is also releasing the code, descriptions of the works, and videos explaining how he put together. He is in effect opening his source code and methodology to the community, and to writers who may be interested in electronic writing but have no idea where to begin. This also enables scholars to penetrate “the black box” and to produce readings of work informed by the layers of writing beneath the surface level. It is particularly important that in formats such as Flash, which do not by default allow users to see the source code, people who are interested in understanding how a work is made can get exactly these sorts of explanations from the artists who have been successful in developing them. Jim Carpenter also recently released the source code for his poetry generator. In the absence of more formal institutional avenues for the education of new digital poets, these types of efforts will help to give writers with limited computation literacy the tools and educational resources they need to begin creating new electronic writing.

In a larger sense, I think that Jason and Jim’s efforts point towards a new kind of ethos within the electronic literature community that corresponds with the ethos of the free open source software movement and the Creative Commons movement , and diverges from the purely proprietary individual authorship/ownership model on which conventional literary culture and the publishing industry are to a great extent based. Just as open source software development is based upon the efforts of interested individuals building on the work that others have done before them in a progressive, iterative, and modular fashion, electronic writers are beginning to move away from a model in which the individually crafted well-wrought urn is the ideal, toward a model in which we can see these literary productions not only as individual “works” but also as experiments in the scientific sense–experiments that can be successful whether or not they produce positive results in the individual iteration, because their innovations and mistakes can inform the production of future forms of literature.

At this point, we can arguably assert that electronic literature is a contemporary avant-garde literary movement, in that writers who are producing e-lit are working outside of conventional contemporary literary culture, pushing boundaries both of what literature can be formally and, in another perhaps more important sense, of what cultural functions the networked computer can fulfill. I will confess that I sometimes feel this situation can be counter-productive, in that avant-garde in this context is often manifested as a technological imperative, not necessarily to create meaningful literary experiences that enable the reader to see human experience from new and strange angles, but instead that valorizes the creation of new forms over any semantic qualities. There is a danger in new media writing of valuing technical or formal innovation above all else. Occupying the space between the literary and the technological, it is possible to adopt too much of the technology industry’s notion of progress, in which software quickly becomes obsolete and in need of replacement with a new version. Formal innovation is valuable in and of itself, but there I have the sense that many forms of electronic writing have been created and almost immediately abandoned without ever being fully explored. A culture of one-off prototypes cannot ultimately become a rich tradition. Just as is the case with other cultural movements, at some point we will find that electronic literature is other-than-avant-garde. It will be part of, or perhaps even its own, institutionalized mainstream. Some of the experiments we conduct today will be abandoned, lost, or forgotten, but others might well be remembered as precedents to a matured literature that has ceased to be avant-garde, and has developed as a tradition of its own.

Notes and References

The footnotes didn’t copy over in the main text, and I don’t have time to fix them right now, but here is the text of the notes and references:


The Unknown:
The Unknown was co-winner of the prize, with geniwate’s digital poem Rice:



Coover, Robert. “Literary Hypertext: The Passing of the Golden Age.” Keynote Address, Digital Arts and Culture Conference, Atlanta, Georgia. October 29, 1999. Available online:

At the 2007 E-Poetry Festival held in Paris, papers and works were presented in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Stephanie Strickland reported in a February 2008 email after attending the Associated Writing Programs conference that: “It is even harder now [to explain to conventional writers what electronic literature is] because people are surrounded with what they think is e-lit whether through Kindle (e-books again) or zines.”

One notable exception is Brown University’s program in literary arts, which offers literary hypermedia as one of the genres in its MFA program and funds one annual graduate fellowship in the genre.

Both NEA Reports are available online:

Matthew Kirschenbaum does so eloquently in a December 7, 2007 Chronicle of Higher Education piece “How Reading is Being Reimagined.” A follow-up discussion also took place on the IF Book blog: and

Kaiser Family Foundation Report “Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-olds” (released March 9, 2005): Hayles, N. Katherine. “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes.” Profession (Modern Language Association) 2007, pp. 187-199.

When I’m feeling really poetic, I’ll tell readers they can “whisper my name on the wind.”

This is not to say that others have succeeded where Eastgate failed–in fact no one has ever succeeded in developing a large popular audience for electronic literature.

This if of course excepting certain types of work that by their nature cannot be distributed on the web such as live performance applications, installations, and GPS-enabled locative work.

Actually, the idea that creative people were doing free research and development on user interfaces and future forms of “content” sometimes appealed to these folks.

Coover, Robert. “The End of Books.” New York Times, June 22, 1992. Available online:

There are important connections between the constraint-driven procedural writing practices of the Oulipo (“Ouvroir de littérature potentielle”) and many varieties of procedural writing for the computer. The development of works of e-lit is enabled and limited by material constraints and affordances of specific computational platforms, and some works, such as Talan Memmott’s Lexia to Perplexia, also thematize those constraints. In his forthcoming essay “Electronic Literature as World Literature, or: The Universality of Writing under Constraint,” Joseph Tabbi argues that the development of e-lit field will be driven “semantic constraints”–a term he appropriates from Harry Mathews–and that e-lit critics should focus on the “development of a metalanguage for describing works and the creation of a common workplace.”

Authors using Inform develop in a format that can be read by platform-specific interpreters. The Z-code story file itself is platform-independent. Most IF platforms have interpreters for Windows, Mac, and Linux, all of which can read the same story file.

IF Archive:

For a comprehensive introduction to IF, see Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages (MIT Press, 2005).

The ELO’s Visionary Landscapes Conference will be held May 29-June 1, 2008 at Washington State University, Vancouver. See

E-Poetry Festival Archive:

The existing Electronic Literature Directory, originally developed in 2000, is at The new version will be developed over course of the next year at

Le Laboratoire NT2:

Hayles, Katherine N. “Electronic Literature: What Is It?” January 2, 2007. The Electronic Literature Organization:

Bootz, Philppe. “Les Basiques: la literature numerique.” Leonardo Online, December 2006.

As Joan Elies Adell noted during the February 2008 “Poesie Numerique” seminar in Paris, the field of electronic literature may be the first in literary history to develop as an international literature before it develops as national literatures.

In “Electronic Literature as World Literature, or: The Universality of Writing under Constraint,” Joseph Tabbi argues that e-lit can conceptualized, per Goethe, as a “common world literature transcending national limits.”


ELINOR (Electronic Literature in Nordic Countries):

Laboratoire Paragraphe:

International “Ciutat de Vinaròs” Digital Literature Prize:

The first of these “digital playthings,” titled “dimension is night is night” is available at:

Jim Carpenter’s Ericka T. Carter (Electronic Text Composition) project:

Creative Commons:

A number of scholars are addressing the subject of electronic literature and the avant-garde. My DAC 2007 paper “Dada Redux: Elements of Dadaist Practice in Contemporary Electronic Literature” (published in fibreculture 2008) addresses the subject, as will my longer study-in-progress, Chameleons of Change: Electronic Literature in the Contexts of 20th Century Avant-Garde Movements. Maria Engberg and Jay David Bolter are also working on an essay on the subject, “How Is Digital Poetry Avant-Garde.” Anna Katharina Schaffner recently published a book in German, Sprachzerlegung in historischer Avantgardelyrik und konkreter Poesie (Berlin: ECA, 2007), which examines digital poetry in relation to avant-garde concrete poetry.

12 Responses to “Communitizing Electronic Literature”

  1. William Patrick Wend Says:

    Scott, please do post a PDF when you get a chance. This will be very useful for my MA thesis research. I wish I could be in Vancouver this week but it just didn’t work out for me.

  2. Mark Bernstein Says:

    Do you really think it is difficult for students to study electronic literature, or to write it, outside of Rhode Island?

    I don’t teach, and I don’t closely follow university catalogs. But this isn’t my impression.

    Eastgate sends many, many shipments of hypertexts to university bookstores every semester. Some of these are for courses you wouldn’t expect — visual anthropology, Victorian literature, argumentation — but most of these seem to be in courses on hypertext fiction, or the postmodern novel, or new media. Some of these are brand-new titles, and some are classics that date back five, ten, even twenty years.

    I get lots of correspondence from students all over the place — Portland and Poland as well as Pawtucket — asking for various kinds of help or advice. My memory of being a student is hazy, but I imagine that if I receive dozens of requests for help from students, there are lots more students who are asking someone else. And even more who aren’t asking at all! I didn’t have an international correspondence when I was in school!

    And there’s a ton of new literature out there that seems chiefly intended for courses. Matt Kirschenbaum’s successful anthologies leap to mind, as well as Hayles’ fine work, and Landow’s _Hypertext 3.0_. But don’t overlook Astrid Enssen’s weighty _Canonizing Hypertext_, or Funkouser’s archaeological _Prehgistoric Digital Poetry_, or Pam Taylor’s guide to _Interdisciplinary Approaches to Teaching Art In Hightschool_ and especially not Cicciricco’s intriguing new textbook on _Networked Fiction_. Where there are textbooks and pedagogical studies, there surely must be courses and assignments.

    And of course the sample I see naturally emphasizes the schools most likely to send people to conferences and the people most interested in the sort of literary hypertext with which I’m most associated. Lots of people who do highly visual work — Opie, for example, does marvelous Flash work — have no idea who I am and, if they did, probably wouldn’t think I’d be either interested or useful.

    Have a good time in Oregon.

  3. nick Says:

    Just wanted to note that one of the *three* extensive exhibits here features many of the most significant Eastgate publications, and is very nicely installed with some of the computers projected for shared viewing. This has been a wonderful gathering so far! I won’t blog it all, but hopefully what notes I can manage to post will help give people a sense of what’s going on here.

  4. Matt K/ Says:

    >. Matt Kirschenbaum’s successful anthologies leap to mind,

    I’m flattered, but I’m not sure what anthologies those would be–

  5. scott Says:


    I don’t think it’s as difficult for students to study electronic literature, in a critical context, as it used to be. I think e-lit is increasingly established in literature programs. I’m teaching several of the new books you mention in my course in the fall, and I agree with you that the resources for studying electronic lit are richer with each passing year.

    I do think it’s difficult to find places to work on its production in a sustained focused way — for instance to get a digital writing MFA in a digital writing program, or for someone who does get an MFA with a digital writing emphasis to get a job afterwards teaching electronic writing to others. I think there is a real divide there in the number and types of opportunities available to people who study and teach electronic literature as literature on the one hand (a lot of jobs out there in a growing field) and those who are focused on teaching e-lit writing practices (very few jobs particularly in “writing” programs, and a great deal of resistance from institutionalized creative writing culture).

    That doesn’t mean that interesting new e-lit is not being written. In fact, I have been blown away by the quality and variety of the work being shown here in Vancouver this weekend, and much of it from “new voices.” Last night, in fact, I was really encouraged to see that hypertext per se is alive and well. Several of the most interesting new pieces shown were essentially hypertextual forms, rather than for instance kinetic poetry.

  6. chris f Says:

    hi Nick and Scott,

    A note to say how much I (& I imagine others who couldn’t attend) appreciate the fact that you’re blogging
    this year’s ELO fest. Maybe others are too? Not as good as being there, but a whole lot better than nada.
    Do you happen to know if the panels and whatnot are being recorded/documented? I remember how
    disappointed I was last year that events at the ELO gathering at MITH (which I was also unable to attend)
    were not recorded/podcast. I have very few complaints about the e-writing community as I know it, but one of them happens include lack of thorough documentation of events–which is too often the case, imo (I was pleased this wasn’t
    the case at Codework, but it has happened at E-poetry and other conferences). Much credit is due to
    ELO (&c.) for having these events in the first place, but I think they’d be even more important (and valued
    by a greater number of people both now and in years to come) if sessions were podcast afterwards. It is great to have your reporting on the subject–using such ancient tech as writing and reading–but to hear & or see the proceedings would be even better.
    I wanted to say thanks Mark B for mentioning my book. I touch on the issue of e-writing communities in 2 or 3
    of the chapters. With regards to this matter at present, I am a little surprised by the fact that the various
    e-lit communities prove themselves to be so strong at meetings, conferences, and publications, but how hard it
    seems to be to sustain dialogs and discussions through listeservs, wikis, & the like. I thought this issue might come up
    at Codework but there was so much else going on that it didn’t…
    Anyway, GTA is such a great resource & hub & thanks again for your efforts.
    C Funk

  7. Mark Bernstein Says:

    MattK —

    Ouch: I caught you in an editorial scar. I meant to cite your MLA talk on _afternoon_ and to mention your forthcoming book, and next I mentioned Noah Wardrip Fruin’s anthologies. And then, tightening the sentence, I clobbered the sense.

    Oh well. Apologies all round. Stuff happens.

  8. Matt K. Says:

    > I remember how
    disappointed I was last year that events at the ELO gathering at MITH (which I was also unable to attend)
    were not recorded/podcast.

    I’m sorry about that too, Chris. But it had nothing to do with exclusion or fostering an elite community. It was just one thing more than we could handle with the resources at hand for the event.

  9. Matt K. Says:

    Thanks Mark B.; fwiw, the book has been out since December.

  10. don’t anthropomorphize the computer — they hate it when you do that « Kooneiform Says:

    […] Masses” on Sunday, with thoughtful replies, by Scott Rettberg in particular. See also Rettberg’s paper at GTxA). However that doesn’t really matter to me. It was good to see such a breadth of theory and […]

  11. scott Says:

    Over on his blog, Mark Bernstein suggests that he’d like to see the product of a cage match between me and Samuel “No man but a blockhead ever wrote but for money” Johnson. I have to say that I have never read the oft-cited quote in context, but on the face of it I disagree. I know many a man, for instance, who has written for love, for entertainment, for values, and for kicks, for no reason other than a certain persistent drive to do so. I also know many a writer who have done a lot of things for money in order to write. So maybe if I really got into it with Sam, I’d end up saying “No man but a blockhead only wrote for money.” I might be coming from a different sector than Dr. Bernstein. Writing can be viewed exclusively as a commodity, but it seems to me that that’s a rather pathetic relationship with the written word.

  12. William Patrick Wend » Weekly Reader Says:

    […] constraints I was unable to attend ELO 08, but Scott Rettberg posted his presentation over at Grand Text Auto. More on that […]

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