I gathered up these notes from the Davidson College E-Lit MOOC when attempting to introduce electronic literature to my book club, but the club never got farther than one aborted book (which was pretty terrible) so the book club didn't want to try again which was unfortunate.
New media literature:
Written works with literary elements that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by a stand-alone or networked computer.
Some definitions also include computer art installations which require viewers to read letters or words or "have literary aspects" (this is very vague but “Dakota” by Young-Hae Chang would classify below, something based on an existing literary work). Usually academics would not classify visual art with word elements as literature.
Digital literature blurs the lines between the affordances of books, artworks and games and can be as complex as a gamified exploratory novel or as simple as a hypertext html novel or an epistolary novel sent day after day over email.
No term is perfect but I'm favoring the term digital literature because new media isn't all that new anymore and electronic sounds a bit last century. However, digital ties pieces to computers (coded by digits of 0 and 1) whereas electronic opens up opportunities to non-computerized but electronic media like non-programmed poetry projected onto a wall by a projector, video poetry, etc..
It’s not brand new
The first example of digital literature was created by Alan Turnng in 1954 (the fellow in the movie The Imitation Game ). He and another programmer created the random love letter generator. Many believe this program/literary piece explored gay identity because the word “love” was absent from the program altogether (love that dare not speak its name). Read more and see output samples here: https://grandtextauto.soe.ucsc.edu/2005/08/01/christopher-strachey-first-digital-artist/
William Faulkner was also interested in computer-assisted texts. He wanted four-color printing for his novel The Sound and the Fury as a way to denote time shifts. But in 1930, this was too expensive. See “Notes on the Textual History of The Sound and the Fury” here: http://drc.usask.ca/projects/faulkner/main/criticism/meriwether.html
Books have previously had non-sequential features: interactive Choose Your Own Adventures books, spatial poems, movie poems, experimental comics, formal documents. The book Ulysses is non-linear. In the 1920s Dadaists pulled words out of a hat, William Burroughs did experimental paper cut-ups, Sylvia Plath and John Merrill’s composed poems with the help of Ouija boards.
Storytelling has also never been limited to books: a loom can be described as a computer when created on a blanket with story design woven into it.
Explaining the medium
It's helpful to start by thinking about books as a technology. This is how we started at the E-Lit MOOC:
- Books can be read sequentially (start to finish) or randomly (you can open them anywhere in the middle). You can use your finger as a placeholder. You cannot do word searches. You cannot link to other books.
- Books are 3D objects that take up space in the world. Nice book shelf!
- Books are finite. They have boundaries, a beginning and an end. This helps you make sense of them: how much time will they take to read? How long are the chapters?
- Books are easily skimmable: "I know that phrase I'm looking for was on the top of a left-sided page in a short paragraph..."
- Books are usually displayed in a 2-page spread making visual comparisons very easy. This comes in handy for translations, illustrations and data graphs.
- You can write on books and the marginalia is unique and easy to relocate spatially.
- Books can last for hundreds of years relatively easily without much maintenance.
- Books can play music (think of musical greeting cards.)
- Books can fold out like snakes or accordions.
- Books can have pop-up elements.
- Books can be made to need a magnifying glass to read.
- Books can have physical elements intended to be felt with your fingers (braille) or smelled (scratch-n-sniffs).
- Books can be made to be written in (workbooks).
- Books can have pockets and removable content (letters in pockets).
- Artwork can be hidden in the fore-edges of a book.
- Books can have very ornate covers and wrappers.
Digital literature technology components:
- Can involve data: this can be data that is not part of the creative content (declarative text, hidden text, instructions).
- Can involve non-paper artifacts: images, sound, video.
- Can involve programmable processing: programs that generate content after computer or human inputs. Pieces can be programmed to have random outputs.
- Can involve reader participation and interaction: actions or inputs by humans that determine storylines.
- Can involve the computer itself as an element, the hardware used to interface the pieces (joysticks, keyboards, computer screens).
- Can be more immersive experiences with gaming hardware.
- Can be encyclopedic. Size is not a limitation. In some cases, results can be more than you can read in a lifetime (information overload).
- Text can be easily searchable and databased to enable quick information combinations. (the "if you like this, you might also like this" feature on Amazon is an example).
- Can create structures of information that are hierarchical or non-hierarchical (consider an album versus a music app's shuffle).
Questions & Themes
- How would a story change if it was transferred from a book to a computer? Or conceived initially with a computer in mind? How would computerized story artifacts help a story? How could non-computerized artifacts affect a story: a pack of letters, music, a grocery list?
- Where does meaning take place? Who determines the story?
- When is the piece is written? How do readers contribute to the meaning when reading a traditional book?
- When the piece is read? Users can generate their own stories with their hypertext choices. This challenges the role of the author and can make stories more collaborative. This also challenges narrative ordering and plot deployment. Different readers will interact with plot points in different orders.
- The information landscape: What can a book do as a technology? What can an email do or a webpage, app, program do that a book cannot do?
- Often digital media investigates human thought processing and reading tendencies. What does information overload do to us? Is there difference in information processing or digesting a plot when a reader flips pages instead of scrolling or clicking? Like computers, often good writing is the result of "the uncanny glitch" in the mind or program, how do we explore physical space, solve puzzles, handle narrative enigmas, story framing and shifting perspectives, how we handle time and chronology, how we parse language?
- How are these media preserved? Digital books tend to be very perishable. Many of the original classics are now obsolete and unavailable, possibly forever lost. This is an issue with all "dead media" like Thomas Edison’s still existing wax cylinders, 8-Track tapes, beta and VHS video tapes, floppy disks. Digital was promoted as a robust solution that could potentially last forever, but in reality digital pieces last only 2-4 years, depending upon device and browser backwards compatibility.
- How could different media present linear versus spatial narratives? Think of timelines and flowcharts on paper or large image maps on computers.
- Can computers help us organize knowledge in new ways?
- Humans actually don’t think sequentially or always logically. A lot of our thinking is fragmented. Do hyperlinks help us think more organically by association? Is this helpful or harmful to us in the long term?
Examples of Programmed Digital Poems:
“House of Dust” by Alison Knowles
“Sea and Spar Between” by Stephanie Strickland
This poem is 225 trillion stanzas long. You can skim across the surface, but the mouse is too responsive and stanzas flutter away. Use the A and Z keys to zoom.
William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound Twitterbots by Mark Sample
“Dakota” by Young-Hae Chang based on a close reading of Ezra Pound's Cantos I and first part of II.
4 Rules of Reading: How to Interact with Digital Pieces
- Rule of notice: what do you notice? What details are pushed to the foreground of your attention. Usually first and last sentences are privileged in traditional paper poems. Is the the case with computer poems?
- Rule of signification: Are the details literal or figurative (symbolic, metaphorical)?.
- Rule of configuration: Do you get a coherent picture? Does knowing the genre help? This affects what you may or may not notice.
- Rule of coherence: Does the world/scene/picture hang together? If it doesn’t, that's worth noticing.
What are traditionally literary elements that should survive into the digital space?
- Sequence of events
- Rhyme, metrics, musical language
- Word choice, syntax
- Figurative elements, symbols, metaphors
- Something to say