This appeared in Guardian Books on 24 September 2008:
Is E-literature Just One Big Anti-Climax?
When I first ventured online, the internet struck me as the last word in literary experimentation. I was in good company. For Kathy Acker, and other pioneers who were already pushing the envelope on papyrus, cyberspace (copyright William Gibson) was truly the final frontier.
The very first novel to be serialised online — Douglas Anthony Cooper’s Delirium (1994) — made full use of the new medium by allowing readers to navigate between four parallel plotlines. Geoff Ryman’s 253, first posted in 1996, became an instant hypertext classic. A year later, Mark Amerika’s Grammatron transcended the fledgling genre by turning it into a multimedia extravaganza. This, I believe, was a crucial turning point. The brief alliance between literati and digerati was severed: groundbreaking electronic fiction would now be subsumed into the art world or relegated to the academic margins. The subsequent blogging revolution shifted the focus further away from web-based writing to news coverage of dead-tree tomes, thus adding yet another layer of commentary to the “mandarin madness of secondary discourse” George Steiner had long been lamenting. Bar a few notable exceptions (Penguin’s wiki-novel or We Tell Stories project), traditional publishers have used the internet as a glorified marketing tool providing them with new ways of flogging the same old same old: e-books, Sony Readers, digi-novels, slush-pile outsourcing …
My contention that e-literature has been gradually sidelined by the rise of the internet as a mass medium proves controversial. A straw poll of some of the movers and shakers on the digital writing scene indicates that a huge majority believes e-lit has a higher profile today than it did 10 years ago. In fact, Dene Grigar — who chaired the Electronic Literature Organization’s latest international conference — was alone in thinking that I may have a point. Interestingly enough, she argues that American universities’ digital humanities departments are partly to blame because of their emphasis on digitising traditional books at the expense of promoting creative electronic writing: “In reality, unless it is a department where Kate Hayles, Matt Kirschenbaum, and a handful of other scholars reside, Michael Joyce‘s work will not receive the attention that James Joyce’s does”. Nevertheless, she is convinced that e-lit remains a “viable art form”. That it may be, but is it still writing?
Chris Meade, director of the thinktank if:book, agrees that e-lit practitioners are increasingly forced “to engage more fully with either the literary or digital arts”. He mentions Naomi Alderman and Kate Pullinger as “two of the few writers who still straddle the literary and new media fields”. Meade himself probably fits the bill too. In Search of Lost Tim, his multimedia novella which was recently described as “just possibly, the future of fiction”, may be based on a mixture of blogs and videos but it still clearly belongs to the Gutenberg Galaxy.
For others, like Sue Thomas, professor of new media at Leicester’s De Monfort University, the way forward (or sideways) is precisely to abandon our print fixation. This is why she rejects the term “e-lit” (with its reference to an old-fashioned notion of ‘literature’) in favour of “new media writing” or, better still, “transliteracy” — which covers all forms of literacy ranging from orality to social networking sites. Amerika, pope of avant-pop-cum-new-media guru has referred to himself as a designwriter, a remixologist, a visual jockey (VJ) and, of course, a net artist, over the years, whereas he used to be a plain old writer in his younger days. This isn’t just a question of semantics. As Grigar points out, “one of the most difficult aspects of e-lit is the ability to talk about it fast enough, so fast is the landscape changing”.
Since its inception, e-lit has been struggling to free itself from its generic limitations and now seems to be on the verge of doing so. At long last. Although interesting, its early manifestations were hardly groundbreaking. Collaborative narratives are as old as literature itself. Generative poetry simply adds a technological twist to Tzara‘s hat trick, the Surrealists’ automatic writing or Burroughs’ cut-ups. Interactive fiction has its roots in Cervantes and Sterne. Hypertexts seldom improve on gamebooks like the famous Choose Your Own Adventure series, let alone BS Johnson‘s infamous novel-in-a-box. Besides, if you really want to add sound and pictures to words, why not make a film?
So far, the brave new world of digital literature has been largely anti-climatic. Meade himself confides that he is yet to be “seized by a digital fiction that is utterly compelling”. I can but concur. Technology — the very stuff e-lit is made of — has also turned out to be its Achilles heel. The slow switch to broadband limits its potential audience, e-readers are only adapted to conventional texts – and when was the last time you curled up in bed with a hypertext? In spite of all this, Amerika may well be on to something when he claims that we are witnessing the emergence of a “digitally-processed intermedia art” in which literature and all the other arts are being “remixed into yet other forms still not fully developed”. My feeling is that these “other forms” will have less and less to do with literature. Perhaps e-lit is already dead?