The Buzz on Electronic Writing: Fiction Goes Digital

Some of the best reads this season are being produced by electronic writers — techies devoted to the life of literature off the printed page. Their experimental fiction and poetry is colorful, cacophonous, animated and interactive — and often mediated by a host of different technologies. The term “electronic literature” usually refers to writing that is “digital-born” — created in a digital environment, and often intended to be read or viewed on a computer. Other than that, there are no rules, and very few guidelines.

“Since so few people are familiar with it, every new work is so new and radically different,” says Aya Karpinska, an electronic writer and interactive designer. “If anything, the entire field is interested in considering what writing can be in the 21st Century,” adds Talan Memmott, an electronic writer, digital artist, and lecturer, and the first graduate fellow of Brown University’s Electronic Writing Program. “How is meaning made, defied, resisted, and sustained in the digital age, in a culture where media technology for the production of work is easily accessible?”

In the late-eighties and early nineties, electronic writers wrote hypertext fiction and poetry, the classic example being afternoon, a story by Michael Joyce. In hypertext literature the narrative unfolds through a long series of links that produce different outcomes — but now the shrapnel of the technological explosion includes hundreds of sub-categories, each completely unique.

“I often use the term applied poetics here, because I think that each electronic writer comes to form a sort of micro-genre through a highly individualized practice, one almost exclusive to him or her,” says Memmott. Karpinska first came to the practice of electronic writing in 1999, when she saw a virtual-reality piece in which words, space, and objects navigated through the letter “O.” “I thought, I want to do that,” said Karpinska, “I immediately wondered what I could do on a computer that I couldn’t do on a font page.” Other writers, artists and programmers thought the same, and in the past two decades they’ve created a large and incomparable body of electronic writing.

Some major subgenres and works include:
– Writing as animation, as exemplified by the work of Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, who synchronize text with jazz scores. Dakota is based on a close reading of Ezra Pound’s Cantos I and the first part of II.
– Work that is self-referential, like Mai Ueda’s Domain Poems, a work composed entirely of found domain names. (Says Karpinksa: “It’s like poets of the Romantic era would go on lengthy walks in the countryside, and these experiences made it into their writing.”)
Writing as data and organization, such as Open Outcry, Ben Rubin’s audio documentation of the old stock market practice of call and response, played at the World Financial Center.
Writing as hacking the system, like Christophe Bruno’s happening, in which he launched a poetry ad campaign using Google AdWords.
Writing as participation with the audience. In Paul Notzold’s TXTual Healing actors in windows performed dialog provided by text messages from passersby on the street.
Writing as participation in display, as in Camille Utterback’s installation Text Rain, in which the shadows of participants’ bodies are showered with projected words.
Writing as interactive performance. In Karpinska’s lala, a doll rigged-up with Wii accelerometer technology serves as the controller for the display of the poem’s sing-song-like text.
Writing in interactive games, like Jason Nelson’s this is how you will die, a poetic slot machine that generates death narratives.
Time-based writing; for example, No Time Machine, created by Karpinska and Daniel Howe, which pulls variations of the phrase “I don’t have time” and remixes them according to a set of rules to create a poetic conversation.
Spam writing, inspired by or borrowing from spam. See the Brothers McLeod’s animated video Spamland#3.
3D “Cave” writing. Works are created in a cube lined with computer servers, video projectors, and stereo speakers. One example is Memmott’s E_cephalopedia // novellex, which was adapted for Brown University’s Cave.
Writing for a mobile device, like Karpinska’s own Shadows Never Sleep, which explores “zooming” as a reading interface. The work is available as an iPhone app.

Since they’re not constrained by the physical world, electronic writers convene in person and online. There are academic conferences (attended by 30 or so familiar faces) and a nonprofit, the Electronic Literature Organization, whose mission is to “promote the writing, publishing, and reading of literature in electronic media.” The Electronic Book Review is a sort of curated archive of electronic literature; another online journal, The Electronic Poetry Review published its final issue last year, but its site attests to the rich life of digital poetry since 1995.

Then there are umpteen Google Groups dedicated to digital writing. Members of these groups troubleshoot technical issues and get feedback, publicize e-writing events, and discuss the nature of the genre philosophically. Some umbrella digital-art forums, like Net-Art host small sub-communities of electronic writers. (The site also has a mortuary of dead links to lost web art, which it implores readers to locate; Karpinska adds that the amount of electronic writing that’s lost on the web is a problem for the continuity of the movement.) And it’s no surprise that some electronic writers — like Alan Sondheim and Sandy Baldwin — choose to show their work in the virtual world of Second Life.

Electronic literature — which often requires above-average technical knowledge — currently has a small user base. Still, digital writers insist that the art form attracts more interest with every new gadget that goes on the market. “So many jobs and practices require verbal communication in the digital space,” concludes Karpinska. “In a way, we’re all electronic writers.”