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.