I initially prepared the following list in preparation to guest lecture in an upcoming creative writing (fiction) course that will introduce students to ways of telling a story in digital media that takes forms other than linear prose.
First, why the term electronic literature (e-lit)? That’s a stiff sounding term that is a throwback to an earlier time before digital became commonplace. But e-lit is the term that seemingly has gained the most traction to refer to narratives that make innovative use of digital media. I have a slight discomfort with the term electronic literature (and also with digital literature) but my unease with the terminology is a topic for another post.
Any discussion of e-lit must involve the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) at eliterature.org. That website is quickly overwhelming but the summary page What is E-Lit? is a good place to start.
The foundations of e-lit
An essay by Katherine Hayles offers a broad survey of e-lit (up to 2007). Hayles is an important figure in media studies and this essay is a good opportunity to introduce students to her works. Hayles includes references to landmark writers such as Kittler and Manovich and positions e-lit in a larger framework of the modern digital society.
This essay by Hayles is the first chapter in the book Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, which includes a companion website. The book attempts to establish a canon of early e-lit. But Janet Murray, another key scholar in the field of media studies, points out that these early works “are useful experiments, necessary failures, and limited successes, full of interesting mistakes that if appropriately acknowledged can push practice forward.” (Murray, Janet H. Hayles, N. Katherine. Electronic literature: new horizons for the literary. Modern fiction studies 55.2 01 Jan 2009: 407. Johns Hopkins University Press.)
A good summary of Hayles book on e-lit is provided on The Quarterly Conversation site in an article subtitled How Electronic Literature Makes Printed Literature Richer. Anyone who finds Hayles even slightly interesting should read her book How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics.
Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Literature is the best source for understanding where e-lit comes from through an examination of pre-web hypertext literature in the years between 1986 and 1995. The scholarly literature on e-lit often refers to seminal works such as Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995) and other hypermedia texts created through tools developed by Eastgate System. However, the technology to actually read those works of e-lit today are inaccessible to most people. While Pathfinders does not provide a simulation of Patchwork Girl, it offers an intriguing methodology of showcasing how Shelley Jackson and readers interact with Patchwork Girl.
The present state of e-lit
There’s something odd about e-lit: it appears to be mostly discussed within academia and it’s difficult to find good examples on the web of what is called e-lit. How could that be?
“I actually don’t think digital literature is suffering from a lack of theory at this point; if anything, it suffers from a lack of practice. We need more writers! And a more diverse and robust way of getting their work into the world: not just more competent critics (we have some), but more kinds of competent critics, and more places where conversations about digital literature can happen, and more avenues by which digital lit can reach readers. All of this will surely happen in time. What I think the medium needs now is encouragement, and perhaps rescue from the forbiddingly technical language in which it has been theorized. It depresses me to think of digital literature as being exclusively an academic specialty: it’s as if Film Studies departments had sprung into existence all over the world, before anyone had made any movies.”
This quote is from an excellent series of posts by author Illya Szilak that appeared on the Huffington Post.
Note: I will be updating this post with new readings.