So far in DigitaLit we've looked at a few new-media moments, including a young adult novelist who would rather publish on her blog than in print, and a huge online archive of audio files that break individual poems recorded at poetry readings into small MP3s, kind of like pop singles.
These subjects made for interesting discussions, if I do say so myself.
But wouldn't it be nice to get our arms around this thing, to get a sense of the full breadth and scope of what's called digital literature?
The 60 works in first volume of the *Electronic Literature Collection* (ELC) (http://collection.eliterature.org), edited by N.
Katherine Hayles, Nick Montfort, Scott Rettberg, and Stephanie Strickland, show the wide range of forms that exist within the genre.
Take the collection's keyword page, which breaks electronic literature into 56 possible categories. Not all of these are specific to digital media--I found the familiar "memoir," "poetry," and "satire"--and some of them describe the platform on which the piece was developed or its features, such as "audio," rather than actual forms of e-literature.
The editors also included categories that don't refer to anything in the ELC, "to try to make it clear that the *Collection*, despite our efforts, doesn't represent everything," said Montfort, a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania.
"Electronic literature is not a literary movement with abstract, unified goals, nor is it a single community of practice," he said. "This makes the *Collection* less coherent than the usual anthology, but it also accounts for the wide variety of work in it."
To wit: A piece made in Flash by Reiner Strasser and Alan Sondheim, "Dawn" is a poem that reveals itself textually one stanza one at a time. As crackling ambient sound plays, the text fades in and out in front of photographs of the outdoors that also shift slowly, suggestive of the changing light of early day, from one image to another.
In "Galatea," Emily Short's work of interactive fiction, the reader (or player?) gives instructions to a lovely illustration of the character Galatea via a chatbot program, which causes the story to unfold differently each time.
"The Dreamlife of Letters," a poem by Brian Kim Stefans, is categorized as "ambient" because it runs on its own and allows for no interactivity, not even a pause button. The delightful 11-minute program goes through the alphabet presenting words that swing around each other, vibrate like silent alarm bells, disappear, reappear, and recombine in funny and unexpected ways. The un in unconscious, for example, pulls away from the word, and turns into a bunch of uns and ums that then drift out of view.
In "Birds Singing Other Birds Songs," simple drawings of birds outlined with transliterations of birdsong ("wah-wah," "dee-dee") move around the screen as recordings of human voices read the sounds.
Looking at the array of styles within the collection, I had to ask: At what point does art that moves and makes noise have more in common with other forms-- film, maybe, or installation pieces-- than with traditional fiction or poetry?
"Insofar as one is invited to read, there is a connection of a sort with print, which is how we learned to read," said Strickland, a print and new media poet who serves on the board of the Electronic Literature Organization. "But digital reading does become something quite different. ... One of the major differences is the handling of time, the scripting of time, in Flash works for instance, which bears a certain relation to scores for performance. Unlike print, readers rarely understand the extent of a work without a good deal of exploration. They must give up certain expectations and develop others, often adopting a kind of 'sampling' strategy."
"I think many people have a difficult time seeing how certain pieces in the collection can be understood as literature -- including *Collection* authors and, at times during the editorial process, those of us who edited the *Collection*," said Montfort. "Let me suggest what could be more interesting questions: How do we read them?, or How do they read themselves to us? These are questions that pertain to literature, but which art and film don't always ask. "
--Katie Haegele is a writer who lives in Montgomery County. You can experience all the pieces in the Electronic Literature Collection by visiting http://collection.eliterature.org. Also see the website to request a free copy of the CD-ROM through the mail.