September 24, 2008

E-Lit Dead, Film at 11

by Nick Montfort · , 10:23 am

The end of electronic literature, or electronic literature without end? In today’s Guardian (a newspaper – those, of course aren’t anywhere near dead) Andrew Gallix offers a tentative eulogy for electronic literature, suggesting that it is, at best, getting inextricably mashed up with art. His piece ends by asking “Perhaps e-lit is already dead?”

In part, I’m amazed and pleased to see Douglas Cooper’s Delirium and even Geoff Ryman’s 253 remembered in a contemporary newspaper article, as they are too seldom discussed in our own (perhaps dead) e-lit circles. On the other, it’s interesting to note that as interactive fiction has become more and more a part of the popular consciouness of e-lit writers (getting a nod from Robert Coover in his recent talk in Bergen, being included in the Electronic Literature Collection volume 1 and other collections and exhibits, being increasingly written about by scholars and critics) it seems to makes no blip on the British literati radar, or at least the radar of this literatus, even among a catalog of important e-lit works and forms. (Interactive drama, with Façade as its main example, also goes unmentioned.) This seems particularly amiss, given that the creator of the world’s most popular IF development system is British. And I don’t think those are the only notable omissions: what about The Unknown, Screen and other Cave works, Rob Wittig’s e-mail and blog fictions, Mark Marino’s wiki and marginalia madness, and … dare I mention it … poetry in several dozen flavors?

Is e-lit is dead? Not to me or many of the people I encounter. The number of readers who have engaged with my digital works, such as the interactive fiction Book and Volume and the poetry generator ppg256, is certainly small, particularly if you compare it to a run of Harry Potter books, but I don’t see how that means that the work is irrelevant. I bet more people have seen my e-lit works perform than once attended the Cabaret Voltaire. Sure, I may not have started a similar ball rolling. Still, if the literary and the computational continue to be important concepts for our cultures, I suspect that there will be some place, in the future, for a type of practice that brings these concepts, and the practices associated with them, to work upon each other.

14 Responses to “E-Lit Dead, Film at 11”

  1. Dene Grigar Says:

    Here is what Gallix wrote in his message to me this morning. It should be obvious that he was looking for an angle and did everything he could to find it, even when it did not exist in the information he was given. This exchange can be found at my Facebook page and on my blog.

    From Andrew today: “It was pretty objective at first, but they asked me to turn it into an opinion piece. I think they’re anxious to establish a distinction between blogs and proper articles, and were after something a little more controversial.

    Thanks for your help. Let’s keep in touch.”

    And I replied: “It certainly is controversial, to the point that I have issued an apology to my colleagues in ELO for your misrespresentation of my comments. Additionally, I am crafting a response to your article that will be published in various online venues.

    Why would I have taken six months out of my life to host an international conference on elit if I thought the genre was in its death throes? I hosted that conference to show that elit is alive and well.

    As for what the Guardian wanted, you could have ethically given them what you heard.”

  2. Stuart Moulthrop Says:

    Ah, nostalgia. Takes me back to 1994, when Michael Joyce, Jane Douglas, and a few others who don’t get much mention these days were being regularly trashed and dismissed in precisely the terms we see here.

    That was before free-market capitalism imploded, of course. (See under World, What Is Happening There.)

    I’m a bit more interest in the latter development.

  3. susan Says:

    e-lit dead? Poppycock. Though it’s been in somewhat of a coma outside of the established following. But that’s a loyal group and grows, if not by leaps and bounds, at least with each new class that spends enough time with it to be inspired to dig its depths.

    I’m a traditional archer–longbow, wooden arrows, the whole bit. Centuries old pastime; but it has endured and attracted new lovers. Judging by the length of your blogroll I’d say we’re a steadfast group of connoisseurs.

  4. Andrew Gallix Says:

    Very much enjoyed your response, Nick. Just wanted to point out that the number of words was limited so there was no way I could make a comprehensive list of interesting and/or significant works and texts.

    As for Dene Grigar’s response, it is outrageous. When I wrote that my initial piece had been more “objective”, I meant “neutral”: I had simply presented what, to me, was the state of e-lit today. It turned out that what The Guardian really wanted was my opinion (in conclusion), so I gave it. As a result, the tone of my piece became far more negative — this is why I sent Dene, Sue, Mark and Chris (the people I quoted and/or mentioned) a note upon publication.

    However, I didn’t in any way misrepresent what Dene had said; she has either misread what I’ve written or is being disingenuous. I have kept the answers she gave to the two questions I put to her — if she publishes them here, it will be obvious that I haven’t distorted her point of view. The only thing I regret is mentioning her in the blog in the first place as I’d only done so to thank her for taking the time to answer my questions.

    I founded the very first literary blog and have been involved in the online literary scene for the best part of ten years with 3:AM. In 2002 I organised with Sue Thomas and trace, the very first international conference on literature and the Internet. I am an outsider, but I am genuinely interested in e-lit/net art and have been keeping an eye on developments for ten years or so. My Guardian blog wasn’t meant to be a hatchet piece, but I had to to prompt readers to react one way or the other, hence the last sentence, which — I hasten to add — is a question (I’m not saying that e-lit is dead, just suggesting that it’s morphing into something more interesting)…

  5. Andrew Gallix Says:

    PS: sorry, I meant the very first conference on literature and the internet at the Sorbonne University (Paris IV)! LOL.

  6. Whitney Trettien Says:

    Hi Nick. Nice post. And what a strange article! Literary forms aren’t biological organisms, with the ability to live, die, or evolve “past” earlier forms; and any evident connections to those earlier forms (Sterne, Cervantes, Tzara are cited) should enrich e-lit, not kill it. In any case, pretty incoherent stuff.

  7. Nick Montfort Says:

    First, my apologies for the voracious appetite of the WordPress moderation queue. I have just rescued several comments. Given the overeagerness of the system, I hope that there aren’t any real comments being sent all the way to the spam hell dimension – please contact me or another of us here if that seems to be the case.

    Andrew, if my friend Dene feels that you misrepresented her remarks, I would have to share that feeling and ask you to try to consider why she has this impression. But I also think, even though this particular issue is important, that it’s very important to be able to generally discuss the future of e-lit as well.

    I appreciate that you distinguish e-lit from mass-market e-books, and that you are familiar with some of the important works in the history of e-lit, which you’ve brought to the attention of today’s public. That’s certainly a more refined perspective than I would expect to see in most newspaper columns in the U.S. But I think the metaphor of death, probably impelled by the op-ed impulse, is problematic.

    Is sound poetry dead? It doesn’t seem to have much of a commercial future. But practitioners of sound poetry continue to do their work, sometimes incredibly. I continue to be impressed and inspired by what sound poets do. Sound poetry seems to do something that music doesn’t, and that “standard” poetry doesn’t.

    With e-lit, as with sound poetry, I doubt that the question is one of life or death – as if e-lit were an organism, as Whitney notes. The real issue is whether the form is able to do its work in our culture as it should, if it can inform the way we see literature and ourselves. As marginalized as sound poetry is, it seems to me that digital work may be even more shoved aside, even though computers and the digital are becoming more and more a part of our lives. I see e-lit being stifled. I don’t see this stifling as killing it, but I think e-lit and culture would be a lot better off if e-lit were embraced by traditional literary institutions – libraries, book reviews, reading series, and … indeed … newspapers that deal with literature. The Guardian reviewed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but has it reviewed any work of electronic literature?

    I’m well aware that you closed your article with a question, and I pointed this out in my post. My hope is that you and others will try to find an answer by investigating the digital literary activity that has been happening recently – and perhaps by suggesting to your editors that a review of e-lit would be as radical and interesting as a broad denunciation.

  8. Dene Grigar Says:

    Nick’s point is well taken: Are we all talking about elit, or are some folks actually referring to digital books, audio books, and the like?

    Not to belabor the point, but what I wrote to Andrew was that elit was not being taught in American English departments. The likely place to find it would be in Digital Humanities programs, but many of these focus, I said, “not so much on the production of native born digital writing as [they do] on preserving and presenting analog based literary works for digital contexts.” I did not agree anywhere in my response to his two questions that Andrew “ha[d] a point” that elit is just “just one big anti-climax.” In fact, I wrote to him that at the ELO 2008 conference that I co-hosted with John Barber:

    “. . . 140 artists submitted works of electronic literature . . . . Well over two-thirds of these artists were young people just coming out of BFA and MFA programs. This says to me that the impulse to write and create is strong and is making its way “naturally” to the digital realm, with little prodding and prompting by members of the academy.”

    I had even underlined this last sentence to make my point. But this sentence, which I considered to be key enough to underline, was ignored.

    Andrew said it himself that he was asked by the Guardian to be provocative. And so he was. The good news is that it has resulted in a lot of folks reading about elit. And it has introduced Guardian readers to some of its working scholars and artists.

    Thank you, Andrew. Not sure if you meant for this outcome. But there it is.

    –Dene Grigar

  9. Robert Kendall Says:

    This article has spawned some interesting discussion, so I couldn’t resist jumping into the fray. I contributed what I thought was a rather over-the-top satirical response on the Guardian Web site, but the one reader who commented on my comment apparently took it as a straight-faced rant. Hmm. I’d have thought the part urging separate bathrooms and drinking fountains for different branches of the arts was an obvious giveaway. You just never know. I’ve reposted my response below:

    I want to express my sincere gratitude to Andrew Gallix for his article which, like a breath of fresh air, disperses the fetid mists of misinformation and confusion shrouding that underside of the writing arts that styles itself “e-literature.” Of course “e-literature” is dead (if a zombie can be said to have lived in the first place). It’s been years since the New York Times Book Review published a cover story on the subject. When was the last time you saw the topic broached in the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal? Everyone knows that the health of an artistic genre cannot be determined by examining the patient oneself. One must rely upon the expert opinions of the pedigreed professionals–the journalistic diagnosticians of the mainstream press. The New York Times has spoken by not speaking, and we mere laymen must hang upon these precious non-words to interpret the diagnosis: the patient is dead.

    Mr. Gallix has probably enumerated all the works of so-called “e-literature” worth mentioning, much less discussing in depth or perhaps even reading. (Who evaluates literature by reading it these days? How inefficient when one can so easily get opinions superior to one’s own from the taste-making professionals.) No matter that there are numerous later works of higher literary quality, greater technical sophistication, superior artistic ingenuity, and more varied appeal from such authors as Jason Nelson, Stuart Moulthrop, Shelley Jackson, Stephanie Strickland, Deena Larsen, Talan Memmott, John Cayley, Brian Kim Stefans, Geniwate, Marjorie Luesebrink, Komninos Zervos, Jim Andrews, and many others. No matter that “e-literature,” through these later works, now garners more attention than ever from “serious” literary critics and scholars in numerous books and essays, as well as from teachers in college and even high-school classrooms around the globe. No, none of this signifies. We’ve clearly established that the only voice qualified to pronounce judgment on literature is the one that doesn’t care about it–namely the expensively groomed baritone of the large-circulation, old-media corporations. Anyone who claims to take a cultural ancillary such as literature “seriously” is immediately suspect.

    Mr. Gallix rightly warns against the ill-advised attempts of this upstart genre (if indeed it can be dignified by the term “genre”) to dilute literature by dragging it into the backyards of visual art. What were these “e-authors” thinking? Such attempts at artistic transvestitism are generally unwholesome. Look at what happened when literature forsook its roots to mount the public stage, as if it were some clown show or juggling act. We were saddled with such unfortunate mongrels as “Oedipus the King” and “Hamlet,” literature embarrassingly denuded of the truly literary. A similar misfortune befell music when certain Italian opportunists led by Monteverdi forced it into the opera house. The results were clearly not music. Nobody would for a minute confuse Verdi, Wagner, or Mozart with real composers. Each artistic discipline should have its own media, distribution channels, audience, bathrooms, and drinking fountains. “Separate but equal.”

    Now let us give a moment’s pause to consider the oldest tragedy of artistic trespass, the original sin of literary endeavor. The day when poetry departed the sonorous lips of the bards to become embalmed in marks on clay tablets, something in literature died forever. Writing was the medium of accountants and bureaucrats, unfit for the lofty flights of poesy. Our noble art was irreversibly debased when it violated the boundary protecting art from commerce. Whenever I view words on the page, I tremble inwardly at the magnitude of this aesthetic apostasy. Whenever I see words on the computer screen, my entire being rises up in righteous indignation at this unholy compounding of evil upon evil, the falsification of the voice by print in turn falsified by that instrument of the devil’s tech-support agent, the pixel. Let the profligate venture upon the ways of “e-literature” if they must, but let them be forewarned that they will forever have the specter of an unsavory past moaning at their backs.

  10. Andrew Gallix Says:

    I never claimed that you agreed with me that e-lit was an anti-climax, but that perhaps its presence was less publicised due to the appearance of big literary news blogs etc.

  11. Andrew Gallix Says:

    Whitney: “pretty incoherent”? I suggest you re-read what I actually wrote, because you seem to have started a pretty weird monologue here!

    Robert Kendall: Bravo! Shame you missed the point in your eagerness to show off.

    Nick: dene has this impression because she, and others, have misread what I wrote and misinterpreted my intentions. As for the death metaphor, it was obviously a prompt for people to explain why e-lit wasn’t dead and give us interesting examples. Instead we get sarcastic diatribes and personal attacks. I really don’t think that’s going to encourage newspapers like the Guardian to take e-lit very seriously.

    The stifling of e-lit is precisely the point I was making, Nick!

    Dene: I wrote this piece because I find e-lit interesting (otherwise why on earth would I have co-organised a conference on the subject at the Sorbonne in 2002 with Sue Thomas, then of trace?!)

    As for such articles, the word count is limited. This particular blog was actually far longer than what the Guardian usually allow, which is why I was able to quote you (hoping to draw attention to your work and to thank you for your collaboration). Given those constraints, I couldn’t quote everything. Our students have to do the same when they write essays. we do the same when we write articles. The bottom line is that you think I claimed that you believe that e-lit is an anti-climax when in fact I was obviously referring to the visibility of e-lit.

  12. Andrew Gallix Says:

    PS: Nick, thanks for your last response. You’re the only person who seems willing to engage in a debate rather than a slanging match, and your last comment also shows that we actually agree. So all’s well that ends well.

  13. Nick Montfort Says:

    I’m hoping that discussion of e-lit in newspapers isn’t now dead. We talk about e-lit on our blogs all the time, but it would be nice to bring these sorts of discussions into different contexts where readers of different sorts can participate.

    Also, Whitney’s comment and Andrew’s first one were both caught in the moderation queue, so what that first comment refers to (metaphors used in discussing e-lit in the original article) got a bit mixed up by the WordPress machine.

  14. Grand Text Auto » The New River Issues Again Says:

    […] in which he wonders if the form is dead, or just “one big anti-climax.” (I offered my own brief reply here, and the essay was further discussed in comments by several people, including Gallix.) […]

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