Culture & Conversation

The E-volution of Literature

What is e-lit? It would be easy to conclude that e-lit is simply the electronic format of text, a handy e-book reader or the HTML format of a poem available online in such e-zines as carte blanche or even Rover. Let e-lit author and proselytizer J.R. Carpenter set you straight: e-lit is “writing that couldn’t exist on paper. It has structural elements that take it beyond the paper format and its most common feature is non-linearity.”

Of course, a piece that starts off as e-lit can end up on paper, but it “remains distinct from print in that it literally cannot be accessed until it is performed by properly executed code.” (N. Katherine Hayles, Electronic Literature: What is it?).

The most basic way of creating an e-lit piece is to use hyperlinks. These can be used to jump between different texts or between texts and images. For example, each line of Nick Montfort’s The Purpling is a hyperlink to another poem whose lines are also hyperlinks to other poems. There are ten poems in all and readers go from one poem to another by clicking lines in each poem. Linear reading is no longer mandatory and readers don’t even need to finish a poem to jump to another; in a way, readers create their own poem. Examples of work using hyperlinks between images and text include one of e-lit’s seminal works, Olia Lialina’s My boyfriend came back from the war, and Carpenter’s early work Mythologies of Landforms and Little Girls.

With time and with the development of new technologies, e-lit became more sophisticated and authors started using any media at their disposal – flash, video, cell phones, etc., allowing them to create interactive fiction and pieces that could easily pass off as digital art. Indeed, Hayles claims that the boundary between computer games and electronic literature as well as the demarcation between digital art and electronic literature are shifty at best. When boundless creativity and technology come together, their offspring include flash pieces (Judd Morrissey’s The Jew’s Daughter, Stephanie Strickland and M. D. Coverley’s Errand Upon Which We Came and Brian Kim Stefans’ The Dreamlife of Letters), poems with video (J.R. Carpenter’s Entre Ville), Twitter stories (Arjun Basu’s Twisters) and stories using Google Map to locate readers as the story unfolds (J.R. Carpenter’s Les huit quartiers du sommeil).

The possibilities of e-lit are endless, but its main problem is its preservation. Because technologies are constantly evolving, a flash poem an author creates today may no longer be viewable a few years from now should flash be superseded by a newer, more efficient technology. From the media supporting the piece (how many floppy disks full of stories now lie forgotten in drawers because computers don’t have floppy drives anymore?) to pieces created using advanced technologies, many factors can make a piece ephemeral. To help disseminate and ultimately preserve e-lit pieces, the Electronic Literature Organization has created a website (the Electronic Literature Collection) whose first volume contains a slew of e-lit pieces. Likewise, L’UQÀM has a Laboratoire de recherches sur les œuvres hypermédiatiques which publishes an e-zine bleuOrange and seeks to promote and preserve e-lit.

Though some of the technologies e-lit uses may make it seem like a fad, e-lit is here to stay. Only time will tell if it ever will completely replace books, but one thing is certain, there’s no going back to a time before e-lit, just like there’s no going back to scriptoria.

Not since the invention of the printing press has a new technology created such interest and worry in the world of literature. Five centuries after Gutenberg, the same questions bubble up: with such easy dissemination, who will control the quality?

As always, the reader will be the ultimate judge. If a piece of e-lit is worthless drivel, users won’t pay attention and evolving technology will swallow it up.

J.R. Carpenter’s e-lit website can be found at Her novel Words the Dog Knows was reviewed by Kate Orland Bere in February.

  • 5 Responses to “The E-volution of Literature”

    1. Leo

      There is a fine line between a new, lasting development in an artistic field and a fad that grabs the attention for a short space of time.

      A couple of things struck me with this piece (other than the reviewer’s penchant for using hyperlinks) – do these writers/creators have any sense of how human beings read? Or are they simply leveraging the surfing mentality of youth, who skim from web page to messaging tile to essay-in-progress to Facebook without taking the time to absorb what they are ingesting from all those sources?

      The invention of new sources of how information can be communicated to the eye and the brain, and its subsequent shaping by creative minds as hinted at here, is interesting in itself. But the lasting persistence of the book, and by extension, words set out on a page in a logical order and structure such that the human brain can take in, absorb, reflect, and in turn, re-submit and argue, is testimony to centuries of experimentation and evolution to arrive at a form of communication that works for all. The use of dynamic linking, and the Internet itself, is so new that this is what I would term bleeding edge artistic experimentation.

      Other than the artists themsleves, I don’t see a lot of reflection or theory on this point and it would be useful to see if researchers are delving into this question, to see if, in response to our persistent and rapid development of new technology, human beings are beginning the next stage of how we read, how we absorb information and artistic content.

    2. Mélanie Grondin

      Hey Leo!

      Great questions! My piece was more of an explanation of what e-lit is, an overview of sorts (hence all the hyperlinks to e-lit examples).

      For argument’s sake, do you think that we are looking at this from the point of view of a generation who is still more familiar with books in paper format than in electronic format? Last year, my husband partook in usability tests for a user guide and he noticed a clear demarcation between the way people over 30 read and the way people under 30 scan, because that’s how the newer generations “reads” now: they scan. So maybe an organized and logical (and logic is relative, isn’t it?) structure is not for them.

      “Novels” or stories used to be written entirely in verse in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Then the verse became prose and the prose became shorter and shorter. You rarely see books as thick and elaborate as the Victorian novel anymore. Literature has indeed evolved, but why should we believe that it stops here? Why wouldn’t it continue to evolve?

      There are indeed scholars reflecting on the matter, see the Electronic Literature Organization and the Laboratoire de recherches sur les œuvres hypermédiatiques.

    3. Leo

      All good points. It’s the word ‘scan’ that sticks in my craw. While I cannot conclude that the result of scanning is any different that traditional reading, the fact that it means to review rapidly is somewhat disconcerting.

      And I am not claiming that this new trend is anything other than a logical evolution in how we read and how we present information. I do know that by developing rapid reading skills, it helps exercise the brain to situate information in context, thereby helping an individual remember and retain information more efficiently than by straight reading off the page, word for word.

      It’s all good stuff and is worthy of further reflection, research and the like. It may even influence how we write as authors going forward. Maybe we need to catch up with some of the younger artists out there in order for our own works to become more relevant.

    4. Elise Moser

      This is an important debate, but it’s not new. Well, depending on how you define new — bleeding edge, it’s certainly not. Ten years ago people were creating hypertext literature. Melanie’s comments on the way the novel has changed over time are exactly right. I sympathize, Leo, iIt’s a little irritating, after feeling for several decades (since grade school), that we had mastered the technical and cognitive aspects of “reading” once and for all, only to find that thirteen-year-olds are better at this increasingly common aspect of literary/ verbal culture than we are. But hey, that’s how we keep our brains working (and our humility). We will still always have books to kick around, although they may be Kindles by the time we get to the nursing home.

    5. Sarah Fletcher

      Interesting article! It touches on a lot of points which are increasingly relevant in the publishing and literary world.

      While I’m all for new and innovative art forms, I can’t help but feel troubled by the impact internet culture has had on writing and the written word. Whether or not E-Lit is here to stay, it does point to a new mode of reading which is not necessarily advantageous. I’d have to agree with Leo–I think there’s something about the word “scan” which seems to go against everything reading now stands for.

      What may be at stake in this new mode of disseminating information, over and above the question of quality, is our very attention spans. After all, should we be proud that in this internet age, we often cannot even stay on one webpage long enough to finish it to completion? I’m not sure I’d prefer to experience literature in such a haphazard manner. Somehow it would no longer be literature.


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