I know 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.

     Back 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. Sound familiar?
     Eighteenth-century 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.
     I 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.
     I 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.
         

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