All the Latest

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ArtGerust, a Spanish social network which focuses on the arts, published an article on the Offbeats on 18 February 2009:

ArtGerust, “La literatura Offbeat, el nacimiento de una nueva generación”

Se está hablando últimamente de una nueva generación literaria conocida como los “Offbeat”, término acuñado por uno de sus máximos exponentes el responable de la revista online 3:AM Magazine, Andrew Gallix, el conocido como Rimbaud de la red y también francés como él, y que se refiere a esos autores de entre 18 y 40 años -año arriba año abajo- que usan Internet para colgar su obra, que tienen como máxima influencia a la Generación Beatnik y el “surrealismo de fregadero”, es decir, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Bukowski, beben de la música de Tom Waits, Lou Reed, Scott Walker, David Bowie, etcétera, y que si tienen un lema común es “sea lo que sea, estoy contra ello”. Todo un fenómeno literario. Y ArtGerust, con su pretensión de ser una red social cultural lo más integral posible tiene que dar cuenta de este fenómeno.

Como sucesores de aquella generación de escritores malditos, estos autores suelen andar un poco al margen de la industria editorial -no demasiado, seamos sinceros, la industria hoy es día es tan amplia que puede dar cabida a cualquier grupúsculo por pequeño y políticamente incorrecto que sea- y aprovechan la libertad que da Intenet para darse a conocer y mostrar su imágen cínica e irónica del mundo.

La lista de integrantes es bastante amplia aunque todos tienen en común ciertas cosas que nos permiten hablar ya de una nueva genración en la literatura, una generación que esperamos que de sí todo lo posible, ya que falta hace al mundo cultural actual algo de originalidad y de calidad. Y que esta generación sea el primer paso al nacimiento de muchas otras.

Destacan autores como Laura Hird, escritora escocesa, Noah Cicero, novelista norteamericano, Ben Myers, idem inglés, Adelle Stripe, poeta británica, el mismo Andew Gallix, Heidi James, la que no esá muy conforme con la acuñación de Gallix, Tao Lin y muchos otros. Pero quizás si alguno destaca más que ningún otro es Tony O’Neill, neoyorkino devoto de Bukowski. Ex heroinómano y autor ya de cuatro novelas.

En España, está vez hemos tenido algo de suerte, y pronto llegarán alguna de estas obras en nuestro idioma. Se sabe que en marzo se publicará en español la última novela de Tony O’Neill Down and Out On Murder Mile, y también en marzo podremos disfrutar de Carbono de Heidi James, de la obra de Tao Lin, y a lo largo del año “The Bird Room” novela de Chris Killen.

Por supuesto, cualquier industria, incluida la editorial, quiere vender su producto. Es normal, el dinero es lo mantiene cualquier negocio. Pero hay que reconocer que esta generación tiene muy buena pinta. Y aunque, como siempre, desde el fin de la Segunda Guerra Mundial, se nos pretenda hacer creer que todo movimiento artístico de calidad e innovador, llega de EEUU y de su sucursal en Europa, Inglaterra, sin embargo, nos puede ayudar a dar a conocer una idea de literatura que en España -y por supuesto en otros países- ya había cuajado y dejaba auténticas joyas muy desconocidas para el gran público pero muy asentadas en ciertos círculos de Internet. Nosotros no creemos que éste sea un movimiento anglosajón sino más bien común a todos, por nacido de la abulia que crea la vida en esta aldea global, y no hay forma más sibarita y buguesa, eso está claro, que manifestar nuestro descontento social creando arte. Si bien es cierto que tenemos una prensa que primero se fija en lo que pasa allí que en lo que pasa aquí, bienvenido sea que, al fin, se vayan haciendo eco que hay una nueva forma de hacer literatura. Espero que disfruten del viaje.

Para terminar alguna recomendación:

– Sabemos que es un poco endogámico, pero la endogamia no es estrictamente negativa si tiene sentido. En ArtGerust contamos con dos autores -dentro de la red de blogs- que por influencias, modos y formas podrían enmarcarse dentro de esta generación Offbeat, que son IDT y Marquitos, y que todas las semanas nos dejan unos artículos que son una delicia. Por supuesto, no desmerecemos al resto de nuestros bloggers, pero sus influencias y formas ya no están ancladas en este tipo de generación de escritores.

All the Latest

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Inés Martin Rodrigo has published an in-depth article on the Offbeats in top Spanish daily ABC in which I — “el Rimbaud de la Red”! — am quoted at length:

Inés Martin Rodrigo, “‘Se lo que sea, estoy contra ello,” ABC 16 February 2009

Es el lema de un nuevo grupo de escritores anglosajones con sede en Internet que está revolucionando la industria editorial. No tienen reglas ni manifiestos, pero la Generación Offbeat reclama su lugar en la escena literaria

La industria editorial es aburrida, está embotada y estreñida, desprende un cierto tufillo rancio y amenaza con eliminar todo fragmento de imaginación que aún quede en la mente del lector menos conformista. No es una sentencia categórica de un crítico cabreado con el ultimo best seller que ha llegado a sus manos, ni siquiera la reflexión concienzuda de un intelectual con complejo de Nostradamus. Es el pensamiento y la bandera literario revolucionaria de un nuevo grupo de escritores con sede en la Web y que se (auto)definen como Generación Offbeat.

Qué menos se podía esperar de los potenciales sucesores de Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs y compañía. Autores todos ellos enraizados en la libertad y el compromiso con ser fiel a uno mismo, filosofía de la que dieron buena cuenta en sus años de lucha literaria con las armas de las que disponían. Las armas de la razón hecha palabra y empleada en defensa de la paz, en contra de la Guerra de Vietnam o como sagaz discurso contra el recalcitrante conformismo de la sociedad de la época.

Una generación pegada a los libros

Los años han transcurrido y el discurso se ha transformado, al igual que las armas para evocarlo y defenderlo. Pero la raíz prendió con fuerza en una generación de jóvenes que creció leyendo el “Junky” de Burroughs, “uno de los mayores trabajos literarios sobre el mundo de la droga, al lograr algo que muchos libros que le siguieron fueron incapaces: habló del modo de vivir de un drogadicto”, en palabras de Tony O’Neill, escritor offbeat por excelencia. Y es que Burroughs describió el oscuro laberinto de la drogadicción sin ejercer de falso predicador para el lector, sin miedo a llamar a cada cosa por su nombre. Porque, le pese a quien le pese, un heroinómano no será nunca un pervertido al que adoctrinar. Así, llamando a las cosas por su nombre y leyendo, sobre todo leyendo, empapándose de los popes del movimiento beat fue como este grupo de autores fue regando su propio discurso.

Un discurso que se vertebra en un nuevo y excitante trabajo de ficción, que corre riesgos y que, cada vez con más intensidad, empieza a generar demanda en cuantos lectores se topan con él casi sin pretenderlo. Y es que, demasiado ácidos, diferentes y afilados para la industria editorial tradicional, la generación offbeat se esconde (de momento, aunque cada vez menos) en los amplios (y libres) márgenes de la Web y en alguna que otra editorial independiente.

El origen del movimiento

El primero en usar el término offbeat (y por tanto quien lo acuñó) fue Andrew Gallix, redactor jefe y responsable de la revista literaria online 3:AM Magazine (puestos a hacer comparaciones, valdría decir que sería algo así como el New Yorker de los offbeats). De eso hace ya casi tres años aunque, como el propio Andrew reconoce, “el movimiento llevaba bastante tiempo emergiendo. Es un poco lo que pasó con el punk o los nuevos románticos, al principio no tenían nombre por lo que mucha gente desconocía su existencia”.

Un desconocimiento que se fue disipando a medida que los grupos fueron proliferando en el ciberespacio. Eran escritores, guionistas, periodistas, bloggers, artistas… con un interés común por la literatura pura (sin artificios), que empezaron a gravitar alrededor de 3:AM y a organizar lecturas, conciertos e incluso festivales. “Fue en esos eventos donde comenzaron a establecerse las relaciones –explica Gallix-. La primera vez que fui consciente de que había aparecido un nuevo movimiento fue en el baño de Filthy Macnasty’s (uno de los pubs londinenses preferidos por Pete Doherty), cuando Lee Rourke (escritor y a la postre integrante de la Generación Offbeat) se abalanzó sobre mi y empezó a hablar de la enorme revolución literaria que habíamos iniciado. Aquello fue realmente el comienzo de todo”.

Un inicio virtualmente surrealista para un movimiento con integrantes de carne y hueso. Son muchos los offbeats que, incluso sin saberlo, engrosan la lista de esta generación pero, si hubiera que etiquetar al movimiento como tal cabría decir que se caracteriza por la variedad de voces y estilos y la ausencia de reglas (aquí no hay manifiestos). “A pesar de la diversidad, muchos escritores offbeat comparten características. La mayoría son británicos, treintañeros y creen que la escritura es mucho más que un mero entretenimiento”, enfatiza Gallix. Y sienten la música como elemento catalizador y de equilibrio.

Una lista repleta de talento

La lista es interminable y suena francamente bien. Noah Cicero (novelista estadounidense a medio camino entre Samuel Beckett y The Clash), Ben Myers (autor inglés mezcla de Richard Brautigan con Lester Bangs), Adelle Stripe (poeta londinense heredera del cinematográfico “realismo de fregadero” de Sidney Lumet), el propio Andrew Gallix (el Rimbaud de la Red), Tom McCarthy (novelista estadounidense afanado en la deconstrucción de una nueva idea de novela), HP Tinker (joven inglés al que comparan con Pynchon y Barthelme), Tao Lin (el aventajado protegido de Miranda July –a quien pronto veremos publicada en nuestro país gracias a Seix Barral-, con todo lo que eso supone hoy en día) y los primeros (parece que las grandes editoriales empiezan a tomar apuntes) que aterrizarán en España: Chris Killen, cuya novela “The Bird Room” será publicada este año por Alfabia, y Heidi James y Tony O’Neill, ambos con la editorial El Tercer Nombre.

Todos ellos influidos por el particular lirismo de Tom Waits, Lou Reed, Scott Walker o David Bowie, de la misma manera que estos sintieron la influencia de los autores de los que la Generación Offbeat es heredera. Aunque también están los que prefieren huir de las comparaciones. Tal es el caso de Heidi James, para quien la comparación es un poco “perezosa, basada en el hecho de que evitamos formar parte de la corriente principal”. Esta joven autora británica, que en marzo publicará su primera novela en España (“Carbono”, Ed. El Tercer Nombre) y que se confiesa fascinada por Lynne Tillman, Clarice Lispector, Marie Darrieussecq, Angela Carter o Virginia Woolf, es dueña de su propia editorial en Reino Unido, Social Disease. Con ella, que debe su nombre a la famosa frase de Andy Warhol -“Tengo una enfermedad social. Tengo que salir todas las noches”-, Heidi se ha convertido en uno de los estandartes de la Generación Offbeat al publicar “literatura única y genuina al margen de su valor en el mercado”.

Un movimiento coordinado

La propia Heidi James, en una prueba evidente de que el movimiento está coordinado y sabe hacia dónde se dirige, ha publicado en Reino Unido a autores como HP Tinker o Lee Rourke pero, sobre todo, a Tony O’Neill, el máximo exponente de los offbeats. Este joven neoyorquino, devoto de Bukowski, responsable de una prosa brutalmente descarnada, ex heroinómano, miembro de bandas como The Brian Jonestown Massacre, ha publicado ya cuatro novelas (la última, “Colgados en Murder Mile”, llegará a España en primavera) y se erige en líder (sin pretenderlo) del movimiento con ansias de seguir reclutando adeptos.

Como su propio nombre (offbeat) indica, una generación extraña e inusual de escritores, para los que la Red es su campo de acción, con espíritu punk y ganas de comerse la industria literaria tal y como ahora está concebida. El mundo anglosajón ya ha sido testigo de los primeros bocados. En España está al caer, ¡y ni siquiera es una generación! Que tiemble Zafón.

Dead Philosophers Society

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Here is my interview with philosopher Simon Critchley, published in 3:AM Magazine on 26 June 2008:

Dead Philosophers Society: An Interview With Simon Critchley

3:AM: Did the idea for The Book of Dead Philosophers come from the Montaigne quote you use as an epigraph? Was that the first spark?

SC: It was one of the first sparks. As so often happens in writing, it was a coincidence: a close friend sent me that quotation from Montaigne just as I was rereading the latter’s “To philosophie is to learne how to die” in Florio’s florid translation. Montaigne is really the hero of the book and I love his suspicion of suspicion, his skepticism and the deeply personal quality of his prose, which is never narcissistic. It is ourselves that we find in Montaigne, not him. But I suppose that’s a narcissistic thing to say.

3:AM: Commenting on another passage from Montaigne, you state that “The denial of death is self-hatred”. This reminded me of Dostoevsky’s Kirilov who attempts to defeat God by committing suicide. His rationale is that, in order to negate transcendence, Man must learn to love himself for what he is and must therefore embrace his own finitude — desire his own death. (One could wonder if the espousal of death isn’t a form of self-love?) Your own conclusion — “Accepting one’s mortality…means accepting one’s limitation” — isn’t that far removed from Kirilov’s way of thinking, is it?

SC: It is very similar to Kirilov and you are right to point that out. I think I wrote about Kirilov somewhere, maybe in Very Little…Almost Nothing. If the denial of death is self-hatred, as it is to deny our freedom and live in fear of death (which is to say, to live in a form of bondage), then the acceptance and affirmation of death is indeed a form of self-love. But I’d want to make a distinction between a form of self-love which is essential to what it means to be human, and a narcissism of self-regard, like Rousseau’s distinction between amour de soi and amour propre, self-love and pride.

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3:AM: You remind us that Socrates’ last words “articulate the view that death is the cure for life”. This idea that life is a kind of disease to be cured through extinction is key to the likes of Schopenhauer, Leopardi, Beckett and Cioran. Do you agree that there’s a kind of lineage here?

SC: I am hugely attracted to the idea of life as a mistake, as a kind of natural error for which we try and find some metaphysical assurance or consolation. This is the core of Schopenhauer’s dark comic genius. It attracts me because it is based on the idea of life as rooted in an experience of contingency, physical contingency, which we forget and convert into various forms of necessity. I do see a lineage from forms of ancient skepticism and cynicism through Schopenhauer and into figures like Beckett and Cioran. One of the peculiar features of The Book of Dead Philosophers is that I simultaneously play on a number of different and contradictory tendencies in the history of the last few thousand years: cynicism, skepticism, Epicureanism, primitive Christianity, occasionalism, rationalism. The fragmentary form of the book allows me to move across and through a number of different philosophical registers. It is so ridiculous to limit oneself to one version of the truth.

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3:AM: I’ve always felt that the rise of the writer/artist as alter deus that accompanied the secularisation of many European countries led to the spread of a kind of death wish in literature and the arts (culminating with people like Arthur Cravan and Jacques Rigaut). My theory is that many writers/artists believed the hype and were so frustrated when they realised that godlike, ex nihilo creation eluded them that they turned to destruction. Is (to paraphrase Bakunin) the urge to destroy also a creative one (or, as Larkin put it: “Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs”)?

SC: I completely agree: one of the outcomes of Romanticism for me is the idea of the writer as imago dei without a deus where art becomes a Promethean creation ex nihilo. I think this tradition also inspired a related Promethean tendency is politics, from the ‘nihilism’ of Nechaev, through to Lenin’s Bolshevism and Marinetti’s futurism. It’s the tradition of what I call “active nihilism“. I criticize this tradition heavily in a number of places, but only because it is so compelling.

3:AM: Wouldn’t you agree that the “fantasies of infantile omnipotence” you hope will disappear through an acceptance of our “limitedness” are often at the root of great art and literature?

SC: Sure. Much of literature in what we might call its rigorously Hegeliano-Sadist development is about the dream of infantile omnipotence which is rooted in the idea that the artist is like Adam in the Garden of Eden, baptizing things into existence through nomination. I don’t think that this tradition can simply be eliminated or overcome, but it should be contrasted with what Blanchot calls “the second slope” of literature, which is concerned with allowing things to be in their irreducible materiality. This is what I think of as the Levinasiano-Stevensian (if that’s an adjective) succession. This is the sort of materialism that Tom McCarthy and I have experimented with in the writing we have done together on Joyce, Shakespeare and others.

3:AM: Some think that art and literature are predicated on what Eluard called “le dur désir de durer” (the painful desire to last) — a desire you don’t seem too keen on…

SC: No, I am perfectly happy with the idea of literature as le dur désir de durer and would want to put the virtue of endurance at the core of much that I think about. But that is not the same as denying one’s mortality. On the contrary, I think.

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3:AM: The Book of Dead Philosophers has lofty ambitions. You set out to write “a history of philosophers” as opposed to “a history of philosophy” in the teleological mould. In effect, you are defending a specific conception of philosophy against another…

SC: Yes, I am against the idea of the history of philosophy as a history of systems that can be arranged in a certain logical and historical order, such as one finds in Hegel or Heidegger. It is one of the many aspects of being deluded by the idea of progress (Hegel) or even the idea of regress (Heidegger). I am opposing it with an idea of the history of philosophy as a history of philosophers, that is, a history of mortal, fragile and limited creatures like you and I. I am against the idea of clean, clearly distinct epochs in the history of philosophy or indeed in anything else. I think that history is always messy, contingent, plural and material. I am against the constant revenge of idealism in how we think about history.

3:AM: You praise the “ideal of the philosophical death”: what exactly do you mean by that?

SC: The idea of the philosophical death is the core teaching of philosophy in antiquity from Socrates and Epicurus onwards: we can go to our death freely and without fear having given up the consolation of any belief in an afterlife. As Wittgenstein says, is some problem solved by the idea of my living forever? Of course not. It is, however, difficult to fully and completely renounce any idea of the afterlife.

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3:AM: You write that “Death is the last great taboo” and question the unthinking belief in ever-increasing longevity: are we turning into a race of Struldbruggs?

SC: Absolutely. I think we are turning into a world of Struldbruggs. That is all I saw last year in Los Angeles last year when writing the book: bloody botoxed suntanned Struldbruggs. To that extent, I completely agree with Swift. The flip-side of his seeming misanthropy is an affirmation of virtue.

3:AM: Your book also has a self-help quality (to “begin to enable us to face the reality of our death”) — aren’t you afraid of being accused of having done an Alain de Botton?

SC: No comment. My problem with self-help is that I don’t think there is a self to help. The self is something that we become through a series of acts.

3:AM: Don’t you think your attempt to bring philosophers closer to us (“It is in the odd details of a philosopher’s life that they become accessible to us”) runs the risk of being seen as a little reactionary — the equivalent of basing an interpretation of a novel on its author’s life?

SC: It is profoundly reactionary. Absolutely. I’ve turned into some sort of dreadful cultural conservative. No, but seriously, I am not engaging in some sort of biographical reductionism and I loathe such tendencies in relation to literature. I am reacting – and perhaps over-reacting – to an allergy to biography in relation to philosophy and philosophers. Also, much of the biographical information in the book is highly dubious and all the more interesting for that reason.

3:AM: In The Guardian you were recently described as having “found a vocation in teaching philosophy, although [your] passions still lie in music, poetry and politics”. Are you less passionate about philosophy? And how did you end up at university by “complete accident”?

SC: Yes, I don’t know where The Guardian found that stuff, but maybe I said something similar in another interview. The truth is actually much worse and would have to include sob stories about years at catering college, working in factories, a series of industrial accidents and even a year and a half as a lifeguard. I did not mean to suggest that I am less passionate about philosophy than I was. On the contrary, I have an immense childish enthusiasm for the history of philosophy and for what is going on right now and remain stupidly optimistic. The thing is that after leaving school with one ‘O’ level, I played in bands for some years, then became a poet before going to an FE college in Stevenage where someone said that I should apply to university. The thought had never previously crossed my mind. Something to do with social class, no doubt.

3:AM: On the subject of music, please tell us about the “large number of punk bands” you played in. Does that period still resonate as it does with so many of us?

SC: Punk was the crucible out of which my paltry subjectivity was formed. My years watching bands and performing in bands allowed me the imaginative space to try and conceive of a life a little different from what I was meant to do. It was a relentlessly affirmative nihilism. Of course, this was sheer luck. I was born in 1960, and so I was 16 when punk began to happen just down the road in London. Suddenly I found myself at the edge of the world’s centre. And it was because of punk that I began reading Burroughs, Bataille and the Situationists. It was also the time when I became politicized through Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. My bands had silly names: The Social Class Five, Panic, The Fur Coughs (who became The Bleach Boys*, I thought of that name) and The Good Blokes. I still mess around with music and have done a lot of work with my oldest friend, John Simmons. I think it is somewhere on YouTube.

[* See their current website]

All the Latest

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Nick Kocz and Manisha Sharma, Managing Editors of The New River, respond to my Guardian blog on e-literature in their introduction to the Fall 2008 issue (December 2008):

“In September of 2008, The Guardian devoted space to an Andrew Gallix essay on the current state of Electronic Literature. This in itself is significant — an acknowledgement by one of the major newspapers of the English-speaking world that new media writing is worthy of its thoughtful attention. Yet after recapping some of the highlights of the form, the column’s tone becomes dispiriting: ‘So far, the brave new world of digital literature has been largely anti-climatic… Perhaps e-lit is already dead.’

Friends, rest assured we do not share this conclusion.

However, we understand how one can come to believe that electronic literature is a dud: it’s been two decades since the first hypertexts appeared and there’s yet to be a single electronic work that has generated a fraction of the commercial interest as the latest Stephen King novel. Or, for that matter, a fraction of the mainstream critical attention typically bestowed upon the latest Philip Roth or Marilyn Robinson novel. There are no blockbusters, no best sellers in the world of electronic literature. Despite all the ballyhoo, enthusiasts of electronic literature remain a relatively small coterie of practitioners and academics. Far from being relegated to antique store shelves next to Edison cylinders and stereoscopic cards, the book is alive and well.

Also in September, Robert Coover, a longtime advocate of literary experimentalism, gave the keynote address at the Electronic Literature in Europe conference. Needless to say, Coover paints a much more forgiving picture:

‘It took a millennia of cuneiform writing and the demise of the [Sumerian] civilization that invented it before the first known extended narrative was composed using it.

‘In America, book publishing had to wait nearly two centuries for the definitive American novel to appear [Herman Melville’s Moby Dick] and even then it took better than another half century while Melville’s reputation languished before its value was finally understood.’

Coover’s right. People have this idea that European culture was immediately transformed by Gutenberg’s mechanical printing press, but in truth culture lags behind technology. Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, in her landmark 1979 study on the historical effects of the printing press (The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Cambridge University Press), found that ‘[t]he output of early presses drew on a backlog of scribal work; the first century of printing produced a bookish culture that was not very different from that produced by scribes.’

Much the same seems to be happening today. Gallix asserts that one reason for the curtailed development of electronic literature is that university humanities departments’ “emphasis on digitalising traditional books [comes] at the expense of promoting creative electronic writing.’ Virtually all online literary journals exist to publish work that was primarily intended for the printed page rather than the screen.

While there’s an abundance of MFA programs feeding writers into the traditional print genres of poetry, short story, novel, and memoir, comparatively few programs exist within the academy where emerging new media writers can nurture their talents.

Indeed, there are very few venues where an emerging (or even an established) new media writer can place his or her work.

One such venue, increasingly, is the contemporary art institution. Digital Art, now a museum staple, is but a variant of Digital Literature: both often incorporate textual elements, dreamy and/or surreal narratives, and derive from the same aggressively experimental impulse.

Mark Amerika’s groundbreaking 1997 hypertext Grammatron was cited by The Village Voice as being ‘the first major Internet-published work of fiction to produce an experience unique to the medium.’

Today, Amerika’s work is often intended for gallery exhibition. As he said in a recent interview at London’s Tate Modern, he is ‘consciously trying to blur the distinction between different forms and the venues in which they appear… I mean, what is the difference between what we think of as Cinema, Digital Video, Digital Narrative, Net Art, et cetera, Web 2.0 even?’

Amerika has a point: the distinctions between these media spectrums are getting fuzzier. There’s a cross-fertilization going on that will likely strengthen strains of electronic literature. While Gallix sees digital literature being ‘subsumed into the art world,’ others see it as a sign of the form’s relevancy that it can have such an impact on the contemporary art scene.

‘The real problem,’ Dene Grigar (who co-chaired the 2008 Electronic Literature Organization’s Visionary Landscapes conference in Vancouver) writes elsewhere, ‘would be if digital writing is not included [in contemporary art], which does not seem to be the case.’

Of course, distinctions between digital writing and contemporary art still remain. As a tradeoff for the ability to be read simultaneously by multiple viewers off a single gallery screen, Digital Art just does not feature the same level of interactivity as Digital Literature. This is no small distinction, interactivity being one of the earliest perceived advantages Digital Literature had over its paper-bound forebears.

But the question remains: why does Digital Art thrive in museum environments while Digital Literature is perceived in some quarters as being ‘already dead’?

Certainly audience expectation plays no small role in answering this question. People who step into modern art galleries go so with the understanding that some of what they see will confound them. There is, if you will, a certain humility within the museum-goer. Or at least a marked willingness to engage with that which she cannot immediately understand.

That tolerance for the new and the stylistically different does not exist at the same level in the literary world. Instead, people expect to understand that which they read. When they come across complex or experimental works that resist easy comprehension, readers grumble. American book culture, with its emphasis on accessibility and sales, punishes writers who take risks. Earlier this year, we came across an essay indicating that Donald Barthelme — one of the country’s most respected short story innovators — never sold more than 7,000 copies of any of his collections in his lifetime (he died in 1989). We would be shocked if more than a few of today’s most experimental writers sell half as well as Barthelme.

Seen in this light, should it be surprising that Digital Literature remains at the cultural periphery? Because it is a complex and evolving form born from aggressive experimentalism, it is not as user-friendly as, say, a Harlequin romance. Digital Literature, luckily, resists pandering. Style and complexity, more than any other factor, explains why mainstream culture has yet to embrace the form.

In our survey of the field, we’ve yet to stumble upon the equivalent of a digital Harlequin. Should such a thing exist, and we’re not convinced that it can, its blatant accessibility could very well ensure it a mass-market niche, and perhaps even critical acclaim, for despite however pure-minded we like to imagine Criticism, there is a link in the digital world between accessibility and acclaim.

One of the more fascinating observations in N. Katherine Hayles’ Electronic Literature — New Horizons for the Literary (University of Notre Dame Press, 2008 — order it now, it’s good!) is on the responses garnered by two Michael Joyce hypertexts. The first, 1990’s afternoon: a story, was developed in hypertext’s infancy and in many ways can be seen as an adaptation of a standard book-form narrative for the computer screen. In Hayles’ analysis, ‘afternoon has received many excellent interpretations.’

Joyce’s Twelve Blue appeared just one year later (1991) but was much more complex, both in its technological interpretations and its aesthetic and intellectual intentions. Despite these advances, or, more precisely, because of these advances, reader response suffered. As Hayles notes, ‘The player who comes to Twelve Blue with expectations formed by print will inevitably find it frustrating and enigmatic, perhaps so much so that she will give up before fully experiencing the work. It is no accident that compared to afternoon, Twelve Blue has received far fewer good interpretations and, if I may say so, less comprehension even among people otherwise familiar with electronic literature.’

The good news is that the more creative technologies infuse themselves into daily mainstream life, Electronic Literature as a form will appear less ‘frustrating and enigmatic’ to casual readers.

As Amerika notes, ‘Net Art has changed — let’s call it Net Art 2.0 — it’s really more embedded in daily practice. So when we think of the practice of every day life, Net Art is no longer like this kind of left field thing coming out of nowhere… [People are no longer asking,] ‘What are these artists trying to do?’

‘A lot of people have integrated all this media into their own daily experiences and so for them to experience art as well as part of that networked environment isn’t so odd any more.’

Beware though: leavening is a two-way street. Early hypertexts with their link-heavy emphasis on interactivity helped form what we expect — if not demand — from electronic media. As web usage changes the way we perceive and interact with media, digital literature changes — meaning that digital literature can not remain static.

David Foster Wallace, in perhaps his most insightful essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” deconstructed the reasons why contemporary post-modern fiction can seem stale and out-dated. The self-conscious irony that was the hallmark of post-modernists and meta-fictionists of Barthelme’s generation has been appropriated to better and more pervasive effect by Television: ‘And this is the reason why this irreverent postmodern approach fails…TV has beaten [today’s post-modernists] to the punch.’

There is ample reason to believe digital literature will not be ‘beaten to the punch’ any time soon by other forms. Five of those reasons — Andy Campbell, Angela Ferraiola, Michael J. Maguire, Nick Montfort, and the combo of Davin Heckman & Jason Nelson — are included in this issue. Many more submissions of excellent quality were sent for our consideration — and we received more submissions for this New River Journal issue than any previous issue.

…Despite Gallix’s suspicions, electronic literature is not a stillborn or moribund form. He is not, to say the least, prone to good cheer. Nor is he blindly dismissive. Instead, he is sober in his assessment — which is healthy, if not necessary. We enjoyed his column for the difficult questions it posed about the form’s state of development.

And this made us think. Absent something as crass as sales or distribution figures, how does a new form prove its relevancy? Are there critical or aesthetic benchmarks that we should strive for?

Grigar is quoted by Gallix as saying, ‘One of the most difficult aspects of e-lit is the ability to talk about it fast enough, so fast is the landscape changing.’

Which brings us back to Coover’s guarded yet hopeful keynote:

‘That no such widely acknowledged masters have as yet made their mark on the digital landscape is hardly surprising. All previous masters of a form were born into its technology and environed by it and so far only for pre-teens is that really true today.

‘The new computer technology of our age is still developing and may well need another half century to achieve some sort of maturity… meaning that even if digital novelistic masterpieces are improbably already being created, it will likely take at least that long for them to be widely recognized as such.’

It took generations for the contemporary art institution to become as welcoming as it is today to aggressive experimentalism. Remember how the Impressionists, whose work seems positively quaint today, could not gain entry into officially-sanctioned salons; at the same time, James Abbot McNeil Whistler was being slandered in the London popular press by the age’s most esteemed critic as being not an artist but a ‘cockney… coxcomb… flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.’

Given the speed in which new technologies are being embraced in what Amerika calls our ‘daily practices,’ we are hopeful that Digital Literature’s gestation period will not be as long as Coover suggests. Which is a good thing, for we believe that the writers presented in this current issue are close to delivering the ‘digital novelistic masterpieces’ we all seek.”