how I want my headstone to read: carved into a milky piece of marble,
the single, small word “Boo!” For me this epitaph contains the entire
essential joke of writing—our conspiracy *wink*, our beautiful, impossible
trick—the inanimate object that speaks (via letters traced in stone,
ink, or pixels on a screen) for the person who is absent.
I notice that every material detail of
the joke’s setup is important: the stone, the implied graveyard, the
implied visitor, the implied dead me, the quotation marks, the exclamation
point, the informal word in the formal setting, the speed with which
the word can be read, the word’s size and its surrounding space. Were
it not for electronic literature, such details would elude me.
Electronic literature has led many of
us to notice more about the materiality of writing. E-lit is shaking
up the look and behavior of text, making us rethink givens and reacquainting
us with parts of literary history that have been obscured for the last
couple of centuries by the Romantic/Industrial literary tool set.
I notice that as a practitioner of electronic
literature I am often placed in the position of answering for what is
seen as e-lit’s attack on ink-and-paper culture. *rolls eyes* I see
e-lit as a normal stage of literature’s long history.
My own adventures in electronic writing
date back to the early ’80s and the literary group IN.S.OMNIA’s (Invisible
Seattle’s Omnia) bulletin board system. IN.S.OMNIA was an old-style,
direct-dial, one-modem system that hosted a series of structured literary
collaborations. Projects like “Tristram’s Shanty” and “Miss Scarlet’s
Letter” (a collision between The Scarlet Letter and Gone With the Wind)
and discussions of poststructuralist theory flourished at the fingertips
of pseudonymous contributors like Multatuli, Eugene Correct, Mehitabel,
and “Big Phone” Bill.
One brief attempt to regularize IN.S.OMNIA’s
functions on the model of a print magazine (rooms called “Columns,”
“Features,” Reviews,” and the like) was chided with the mysterious appearance
of rooms called “Mailing Wrapper,” “Staples,” “Page Numbers,” “Perfume
Sample,” and “Blow Card” (those annoying, loose cards placed between
magazine pages). The point of this lampoon typified IN.S.OMNIAcs’ desire
to discourage the practice of aping print-world forms and to encourage
the development of forms specific to the electronic medium.
As we IN.S.OMNIACs watched phrases slowly
fill our screens and experienced the delicious vertigo of seeing text
out of context, we noticed that we had stumbled onto a place where we
could stand and view the world of print writing from the outside. *lightbulb*
We were never to look at ink on paper the same way again.
The fact that we were shocked at suddenly
perceiving what the brilliant theorist and critic of e-literature N.
Katherine Hayles *kowtow* calls “the specificity of print” is understandable
when you realize that we are nearing the end of a long period of unusual
stability in literary history. Since the beginning of the 19th century,
for all the small stylistic changes, the basics of the lit biz have
been remarkably consistent—the author-publisher-copyright-printer-bookstore
system promoted by magazines and reviews. What we invisibles saw when
we looked with our newly opened eyes was a collection of quaint and
arbitrary customs we had always taken for granted.
I notice that most who claim to leap to
the book’s defense against some imagined attack from electronic literature
*sigh* have a narrow definition of the book. What’s generally being
defended is one very specific, recent fashion of printing—the Victorian
“definitive scholarly edition” with its armature of notes and prefaces—and
not even the grubby magazines or artful small press editions that were
those collected works’ original habitat.
I love to send students to a good library,
like the Newberry in Chicago, to look at some of the oldest books in
the collection. I want them to hold these objects in their hands, see
hand-numbered leaves, peek inside uncut signatures *blush*, admire the
painted illustrations and fold-out plates, read the interactive marginalia,
experience what it’s like to read text with no spaces between words.
I notice that books are strange creatures.
For most of history they were not as they are now, and history assures
us that no fashion lasts forever. But, frankly, I think what’s being
defended most often by critics of e-lit is the validity and preciousness
of their own early, life-changing reading experiences. Of course, those
experiences are valid. Of course, they are to be respected.
Changes in technology don’t affect such
experiences. But to argue that certain types of reading experiences
are more valid than others, to insist that the style of one’s own education
was the best, seems like an unfortunate, if understandable, temptation.
in the 18th century, the scene was loose, wild, perplexing. Piracy,
anonymity, parody, and collaborative creative teams flourished in a
landscape littered with broadsides, pamphlets, typos, new printing technologies,
fledgling distribution networks, pay library schemes, and failed start-ups.
writers had the same agonizing doubts my writer friends struggle with
now. They worried about where and how to distribute texts and how that
choice would reflect on the seriousness of a writer’s career. No less
a figure than Goethe was racked by moments of shame about what he felt
were cheesy, high-tech, mass-market editions of his works, having been
taught that real poets make two handwritten copies of a real poem, one
for the patron, one for the files.
notice that I often remind my writer friends that Voltaire died convinced
that his reputation rested safely on his plays, plays that are basically
considered unproducible today. In fact we remember Voltaire for the
wacky, new, nonserious literature he wrote, the stories and articles—his
Web site, you might say.
notice I return to my dear 18th-century buddies for inspiration and
solace, often feeling much closer to them than to writers of the generation
preceding my own.