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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.”