Under the Gargoyles: Literature in a New Medium

April 1, 2009
N. Katherine Hayles

N. Katherine Hayles. Credit: Les Todd

Say "literature" and the image springing to mind will likely be a print book. In this computationally intensive era, however, literature (like everything else) has moved into the computer. "Digital-born" literature, created and meant to be read on the computer, is emerging as an important part of the twenty-first-century literary repertoire. Does this mean, as some have proclaimed, that books are dead, or perhaps that they have become the undead, lingering on after their proper demise now that the Age of Print is passing? Or, on the contrary, that electronic literature is a glitzy flash unable to hold a candle to "real" (that is, print) writing?

To my mind, both of these positions are wrong. They underestimate the resiliency and capacities of print on the one hand, and the achievements and potential of electronic literature on the other. Worse, they fail to see the ways in which print and digital literary texts, far from being isolated from one another, are in robust and dynamic conversation. We do not see either whole unless we see their shared interactions.

Bringing the horse back in front of the cart, we might ask, what is electronic literature? Whereas print exists as ink marks durably impressed on paper, electronic literature can change every time a reader accesses it, offering different reading paths or combinations depending on the reader's choices. Jim Andrews' Blue Hyacinth, for example, begins with four different pieces of short fiction, each colored in a different shade of blue. When the user passes the cursor over one of these texts, portions of the three other texts jump into it. The possible combinations for such texts (which increase not by addition but multiplication for every single word change) can exceed, Andrews calculates, the number of atoms in the universe. The fun of the piece is playing around with different possibilities, looking for that witty or startling combination that will light up the neocortex.

Another example is Rob Kendall's "Faith," a lyric poem programmed using Flash software commonly used to create time-based digital art. In some ways, the poem could scarcely be more traditional, proceeding through five different screens as the poetic voice alternates between faith and reason. The addition of music, color, animation, and kinetic interactions between letters, however, creates new interpretive possibilities that make the poem much richer and more densely textured than it would be if it simply appeared as black ink on a white page. (The tradition of Concrete poetry, which experimented with possibilities offered by print such as color, iconic word shapes, and unusual spacing, has been an important influence on experimental electronic poetry, as documented at the Electronic Poetry Center: http://epc.buffalo.edu/.)

Why isn't everyone gaga, then, for the new literary art forms emerging in digital media? One reason is the "bathtub" argument: Folks say they can't read a digital artwork in the bathtub or curl up with it in bed. That is changing with digital readers like the Kindle. Of course, it is hard to beat the portability, low cost, and convenience of the paperback book. Unlike computers, even very old books almost always work when you open them. Still, if we have learned anything since programming was done by plugging cords into ENIAC, it is never say never when it comes to advances in networked and programmable media.A more serious objection is the charge that electronic literature lacks the subtlety, richness, and resonance of print literature. In part, I think this objection comes about because literary critics, nearly all of whom took in print with mother's milk, do not fully understand how to read digital art. They tend to focus first, and often exclusively, on the text, ignoring other elements such as sound, animation, graphics, and color and failing to understand the richness and significance of their interactions with the words. Digital literary art lives not by the word alone but by navigation, interface design, user interaction, and programming code, not to mention all of the nonverbal signifying elements that appear on screen. Right now, writers and artists are way out in front of the critics, many of whom do not realize the boat has not only left the dock but is making considerable headway in the open sea.

Print authors, for their part, have not been idly twiddling their writing digits. No doubt reluctant that digital writers should have all the fun, they are engaged in exploring how the strategies of digital art might be adapted to re-envision even such a print-specific form as the novel. Mark Danielewski's brilliant hypertext novel House of Leaves is an example, offering multiple reading paths; different coding systems, including Braille, signal flags, and alchemical symbols; and passages peppered with holes reminiscent of the falling letters in "Faith." The ending of Don DeLillo's masterful novel Underworld specifically evokes digital hypertext links, as does John Barth's short story "Click."

As educators and practitioners of literary art, we must have an expanded sense of literacy that, without abandoning all we have learned from centuries of print experimentation and achievement, reaches out to encompass the new complexities added by networked and programmable media. If you want to try your own hand at it, check out the Electronic Literature Collection Volume 1 at http://collection.eliterature.org.