We may consider the current agonizing over what is and isn’t a book to be the result of our preoccupation with mobile electronic devices, but non-print literature has a longer history than the existence of e-readers would imply. Electronic literature, or e-lit, dates from shortly after Steve Jobs first donned his trademark black turtleneck, back to the early 1980s when advancements in computers and computing technology began to accelerate and reach the collective consciousness of mainstream America. A forthcoming festival at the Library of Congress—Electronic Literature Showcase—will highlight the past, present, and future of electronic literature through exhibits, discussions, and presentations.
The festival takes place April 3-5 at the library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, and is free to the public. Electronic Literature & Its Emerging Forms, the accompanying exhibit, will trace five distinct narratives, transformations, and lineages within the field, illustrating themes like the fragmentation of narrative, the relationship between artist books and electronic art, and the changing characteristics of games used in electronic literature. Speakers and panelists will discuss e-lit’s impact on reading and scholarship across disciplines, and authors will perform several readings.
It may be helpful, at this point, to explain what is meant by “electronic literature.” As with graphic novels, another literary format that blends text with visual “writing” and even tactile sensations, electronic literature is a richly varied field. According to event organizers, electronic literature is:
...hypertext narrative, literary games, interactive fiction, kinetic poetry. Not just a new way to display the written word, electronic literature exploits the digital world's capacity for multiplicity and interactivity to create new forms of literary expression that can't be fully replicated in print. Like all literature, it explores the human condition—but as 'born digital' content it is now mediated by underlying computer code, often combining the written word with sound, images, animation, and video.
Electronic literature in this way represents the confluence of art, writing, reading, gaming, and the history of technology. As Rita Raley explained in a talk at the MIT Department of Comparative Media Studies, new definitions of social reading have also resulted from this confluence.
She cites ‘Signal to Noise’ by Ian Hatcher (2007), in which two people simultaneously reading the same text can interact through it: the “text” is a web interface and reader interaction changes its code. (See timestamp 21:20 in the above video for more of this discussion.)
There will be much to take in at the library’s Showcase for anyone interested in new forms of storytelling and new uses for media, and much to learn for students encountering the literary possibilities of technology for the first time. While the advent of e-books, e-readers, and tablets may have revolutionized reading, any creative narrative forms they’ve produced remain nascent. Visitors to the exhibit will doubtless take note of how even relatively unsophisticated hard- and software—many involving floppy discs—have been manipulated to great effect.
Format is as important to electronic literature as it has always been to print books, distinguishing it further from today’s recommendation that web designers and journalists separate “content” from “wrapper” in order to reach the largest number of readers on the widest range of devices. Many works of electronic literature might also be characterized as installation art, given their reliance on the physical arrangement of display devices.
The Deena Larsen Collection, which will be associated with the Showcase from its home at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities in College Park, highlights e-lit’s singularity as an artistic medium and preservation challenge. The Collection was built from the donation of early personal computers, software, and work by e-lit pioneer Deena Larsen and her contemporaries. The preservation of born-digital materials is an oft-debated topic among librarians and archivists, and it’s considered good practice for both institutions and individuals to preserve files in formats that aren’t software-dependent and therefore prone to expiration as technology leaps forward.
No such guidelines existed—or at least, none such were followed—in electronic literature’s early years, and the result is that researchers must rely on increasingly rare machines like those in the Larsen collection for access to older works. For teachers in the Washington area, a visit to the Larsen Collection would be a great way to introduce students to concepts like digital preservation and the obsolescence of technology, both fertile ground for imagining future careers and scholarship.
A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.