Is E-literature Just One Big Anti-Climax?

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. Mark 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?

I’ll Be Your Mirror: Andy Warhol’s Writing Degree (Less Than) Zero

This appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 24 May 2008:

I’ll Be Your Mirror: Andy Warhol’s Writing Degree (Less Than) Zero

Life and books entertain complex and sometimes paradoxical relations. Authors routinely explain that the lie of fiction is a roundabout way of grasping the truth of fact. Although I suspect this to be the majority view, it is by no means the only one.

Take the Aesthetic Movement’s struggle for artistic self-determination (symbolised by Des Esseintes‘ rejection of nature). Wilde famously wrote that “Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life” and so it was with literature: fiction came to be seen as an alternative to, rather than a reflection of, living — an activity best left to servants according to one of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam‘s characters.

Attempts have also been made at a life-literature merger. Here, you can usually expect macho posturing, violent deaths and spontaneous prose that disappears up its own ars rhetorica — sometimes all three. A prime example is that of the hardcore Dadaists who tried to do away with the “revolting dualism of real and described life” (Boris Poplavsky) by turning themselves into works of art before committing suicide to prove that they were 4 Real, like.

There is a third way; one that chimes with our spectacular times: the literary takeover bid. This trend goes back to the beautifully-barmy magna opera which — from Coleridge‘s omnium-gatherum to Mallarmé‘s “Grand Oeuvre” and beyond — aspired to shoehorn the whole of Creation between the covers of a book. In 1974, Georges Perec wrote down everything he saw from his café table in a bid to record “what happens when nothing happens”. B. S. Johnson was guided by the equally hubristic ambition to include what he called the “enormity of life” in a novel. The infamous “FUCK ALL THIS LYING” diatribe at the end of Albert Angelo, which shatters the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, is nothing short of an anti-fiction manifesto: “telling stories is telling lies and I want to tell the truth”.

Jonathan Coe has convincingly argued that Johnson’s “pursuit of literary naturalism” — “his perverse desire to reduce the novel to the status of real life” — was one of the factors that contributed to his suicide. “Go into one of the cafés in Islington and turn on your tape recorder and record people’s conversations,” he advises him posthumously, “Then come home and transcribe them and keep doing that until you’ve got two or three hundred pages. There you will have your ‘authentic’ naturalism and you know as well as I do that there is not a single person in the world who would want to read it. It would be unreadable.” This “‘authentic’ naturalism” was implemented in 1968 (four years after the publication of Albert Angelo) by Andy Warhol.

‘Renaissance Man’ is an overused cliché, but Warhol fits the bill perfectly. He was a painter, illustrator, designer, photographer, filmmaker, producer, journalist, editor, anchorman, model and many other things besides. In her latest book — Warhol Spirit — Cécile Guilbert argues, somewhat more contentiously, that he was also a serious writer.


She highlights his influence on Bret Easton Ellis by juxtaposing an extract from American Psycho with a social column penned by Warhol in 1973. The similarities are so obvious — same tonal blankness, compulsive name-dropping and seemingly endless lists of designer goods — that no commentary is necessary. (Fittingly, the film adaptation of American Psycho was directed by Mary Harron whose previous movie had been I Shot Andy Warhol.)

Warhol’s name has cropped up time and again — silkscreen-print-fashion — in reviews of Ellis’s work, but never before had the connection been so clearly established. Except by Ellis himself, that is. One of the characters in Glamorama — his most Warholian novel to date — is mocked because she only owns two books: the Bible plus The Andy Warhol Diaries (“and the Bible was a gift”). The inference is that the Diaries only appeal to illiterate hipsters, but the juxtaposition with scripture is just as significant. The Pope of Pop presides over the celebrity culture and branded environment Glamorama is steeped in, but his all-pervasive presence runs the paradoxical risk of being taken for granted or even overlooked. When Victor, the protagonist, quotes one of Warhol’s epigrams (“Baby, Andy once said that beauty is a sign of intelligence”), it is immediately disproved by his girlfriend’s admission that she has no idea who he is (“Andy who?”). The fact that she could have walked straight out of the Factory or the Chelsea Hotel adds a nice touch of dramatic irony.

The two men met at a launch party for Less Than Zero in 1985. Warhol had not read Ellis’s debut, but was much taken with its title (a nod to Elvis Costello) that resonated with his own rhetoric. Cécile Guilbert zeroes in on the quasi-Zen minimalism of his interview performances. She sees Warhol as a Candide-like figure rather than the usual sub-Wildean ironist: a mystical idiot savant whose very passivity turns him into a mirror (to quote Nico and Lou Reed) or (more appropriately as we shall see) a tape recorder. In POPism, his memoir, Warhol claimed that the words he uttered during interviews always seemed to be “coming from someplace else, someplace behind [him]”. This oracular ventriloquism raises fundamental issues of authorship as does his approach to the novel.


a, A Novel — Warhol’s answer to Ulysses — is the verbatim transcription of a series of taped conversations between the author and actor Ondine. The typescripts (courtesy of four typists including Velvet Underground drummer Mo Tucker who excised all swear words) were themselves faithfully reproduced down to the last typo and abbreviation.

There is a stark contrast between this obsessive all-inclusiveness and the terseness of the truncated title. Guilbert points out that Warhol had contemplated calling his novel “Cock”, but finally plumped for a which just happens to be the missing vowel from his real surname (Warhola). One could argue that this “symbolic castration” also refers to the surgical removal (through the absence of editing) of the author’s authority.

Andy Warhol was a prescient writer if not a great one. With a, he deliberately set out to produce a “bad” novel — an experiment which announces the avant-pulp of people like Stewart Home. His hands-off approach provided a nice take on Barthes“Death of the Author” (an almost literal one given the Valerie Solanas incident which had just taken place). He can also be credited with taking the objectivity of the nouveau roman to its logical conclusion. Perhaps more significantly, he anticipated that the truth of fiction would be ditched in favour of the fictionalization of truth (and invented reality TV in the process).

Warhol is not usually thought of as a writer and in a way he was not one at all since his books were either dictated or transcribed from recordings. From this point of view, he was part of a curiously old-fashioned tradition that predates the Gutenberg Galaxy.