Review of Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary

Ben Bush


Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary
N. Katherine Hayles
University of Notre Dame Press
220 pages
$36.00 cloth, $18.00 paperback

With newspapers feeling the bite of advertisers’ migration to the internet and the music industry, for better or worse, in dire need of a new business model, the era of digital media seems to offer more fodder for fears than opportunities for innovation. Advances in electronic ink technology have brought resurgent interest to e-book devices, such as’s Kindle, and so readers of literature might be wondering if a similar fate awaits their medium of choice. N. Katherine Hayles’ Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary profiles the work of writers who are diving into the new creative methods headfirst. In her forward, Hayles makes explicit her aim to create a canon of electronic literature and to introduce it both to lay readers and the university classroom. Additionally, Hayles’ book provides an overview of the critical discourse on the subject, arguing that this new kind of writing will require a different critical perspective than its print predecessors, advocating an examination not just of what appears on screen but the coding beneath.

A former research chemist for the Xerox corporation and now a literature professor at UCLA, Hayles has been actively involved in the Electronic Literature Organization, which counts among its founders experimental novelist Robert Coover who has been exploring the possibilities for non-linnear narrative in both print and electronic forms since the 1960s. Hayles remarks that the most common question she receives from colleagues is “Where do I find the good stuff?” amidst the internet’s sometimes staggeringly bad ‘signal-to-noise’ ratio of worthwhile material. In a partial answer to this question, a CD-rom of the first biennial collection of e-lit from Coover’s organization is included with Hayles’ book. The collection showcases a wide variety of techniques: from William Poundstone’s throbbing, overstimulating “Project for Tachistoscope” to the more contemplative woodblock prints and hyperlinked text of Shelley Jackson’s “My Body.” Jackson is the closest thing to a household name in electronic literature; her “Patchwork Girl,” (1995) based on the works of L. Frank Baum and Mary Shelley, is routinely taught in undergraduate literature courses and is something of a classic in the genre’s brief canon.

Is it literature? Hayles demurs that the question of what is or is not literature is beyond the scope of her discussion and accepts an intentionally broad definition. Her criticism encompasses online literary archives, interactive multimedia and poetry generated from random permutations of text, as well as works that begin to resemble videogames or installation art. Appropriately so; it has often been experimental writers who have created electronic works and so their goal has typically been more about pushing boundaries than defining them.

One of the more remarkable works described in Hayles’ text is Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s “Screen” composed for a virtual reality projection room at the E.L.O.’s offices at the University of Maryland. The work begins with a voiceover from Coover, “In a world of illusions we hold ourselves in place by memories.” The text of two recollections, one from a man’s perspective the other from a woman’s, are projected on opposing walls. Viewed through 3-D goggles they soon begin to float off these surfaces. The reader can then attempt to hit them back into place using a ‘data glove,’ but the words careen off at unexpected angles, re-adhering to the walls to form nonsense and neologisms. Despite the reader’s best efforts, the words inevitably end up in an illegible pile on the floor. This three-walled virtual reality projection room recalls the ‘phono-color walls’ of Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 in which a lonely, suicidal housewife ‘interacts’ with performers projected onto the walls by reading aloud the script for a drama’s absent and acquiescent character. Despite the commendable innovations of the largely web-based works profiled in Hayles’ book, one has a hard time stomaching the idea that what residents of developed nations really need right now is more time in front of a screen.

If talk of the death of the book seems a bit premature at a time when print literature in many ways seems to be extraordinarily vital, Hayles attributes some of this vitality to the competition and interaction between the two media. Taking the works of Jonathon Safran Foer, Mark Z. Danielewski and Salvador Plascencia as her examples, Hayles cites their use of innovative computer-aided typography, interest in code and multimedia worldview as the result of an era in which nearly all literature is composed edited and printed using computers. “Digital technologies are now so thoroughly integrated with commercial printing processes that print is more properly considered a particular output form of electronic text than an entirely separate medium.” In Hayles’ view, the predominance of electronic literature is not only inevitable, it has already happened: all contemporary literature is already electronic literature.