This panel was presented at the Electronic Literature Organization 2018 conference in Montreal on August 14, 2018. This post offers both the proposal for the panel and presentations, and video documentation of the presentations themselves. The participants (in order of appearance) are: Dr. Leonardo Flores, Dr. Kathi Inman Berens, and Dr. Lyle Skains.
We are witnessing the emergence of a third generation of electronic literature, one that breaks with the publishing paradigms and e-literary traditions of the past and present.
N. Katherine Hayles first historicized electronic literature by establishing 1995 as the break point between a text heavy and link driven first generation and a multimodal second generation “with a wide variety of navigation schemes and interface metaphors” (“Electronic Literature: What Is It?”). Even though Hayles has since rebranded the first wave of electronic literature as “classical,” generational demarcations are still useful, especially when enriching the first generation with pre-Web genres described by Christopher Funkhouser in Prehistoric Digital Poetry and others. My paper redefines the second generation as one aligned with Modernist poetics of innovation by creating interfaces and multimodal works in which form is invented to fit content.
Third generation electronic literature emerges with the rise of social media networks, the
development of mobile, touchscreen, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)
platforms. This generation is less concerned with inventing form and more with remixing
and creating work within well established platforms and their interfaces, parallel to a return
to recognizable poetic forms, Romantic subjectivity, and pastiche in Postmodern poetry.
This includes Instagram poetry, bots, apps, kinetic typography, lyric videos, memes, Twine
games, and works that take advantage of smartphone, touchscreen, and VR technologies.
This generation leaves behind book and open Web publishing paradigms and embraces
new funding models, such as crowdfunding and software distribution platforms.
Even though the first generation of e-lit ended about 20 years ago, the second and third
generation currently coexist, much as Modernist and Postmodernist literature do. And while
second generation works are currently more sophisticated, complex, and aligned with
academia, the third generation will produce the first massively successful works because
they operate in platforms with large audiences that need little to no training to reading them.
So while second generation works will continue to attract critical acclaim with limited
audiences, it is the third generation that will produce the field’s first #1 hit.
Populist Modernism: Printed Instagram Poetry and the Literary Highbrow
“InstaPoets” are a collection of individual Instagrammers who’ve converted their social media
capital (hundreds of thousands of followers, millions of “likes” and reposts) into printed book
bestseller status. Rupi Kaur alone tallied 1.4 million sales of her first book of Insta Poetry, Milk
and Honey, in 2017. Uniquely among books by social media celebrities (c.f. books by YouTube
celebrities), fans of InstaPoets buy printed book versions of exactly the same content that’s
available for free in an Instagram feed. Why do these fans buy what they already have for free?
This paper describes the Instagram Poetry phenomenon, then situates it in two contexts:
debates about high- and lowbrow digital literary culture; and book industry efforts to
understand–and monetize–digital interactivity.
Electronic literature artists emulate the high modernist aesthetic of difficulty. Once a small
community of North American and Western European academics, e-lit is now global, and its
canonical status is established: e-lit is featured on university syllabi, publishes its own curated
and peer-reviewed collections, has launched a branch of digital humanities scholarship, and
awards prizes. Bestselling InstaPoetry, in this context, is a populist upstart at odds with “digital
literature” as it’s been construed. However, the InstaPoets provide clues about how digital
literary interactivity might be financially sustainable outside of university sponsorship—a
conversation that transpired at ELO 2017 in my talk: “What Book Publishers can Learn from
Electronic Literature Installation,” on a panel chaired by Lyle Skains. Later, Leonardo Flores
openly asked Matt Kirschenbaum in the QA after his keynote: what is e-lit’s #1 hit? My paper is
one response to that question.
Printed Instagram Poetry’s “warm materiality” (McLuhan) converts the social media capital of
algorithmic reinscription (likes, shares, reposts) into book sales and bestseller status. This
paper analyzes what the Instagram Poets’ social and economic success tell us about new
practices of digital-born authorship and e-literature’s financial sustainability.
Lyle Skains, “Not Sold in Stores: The Commercialization Potential of Digital Fiction”
Since Will Crowther created the first text-adventure game in 1976 (Jerz 2007), digital media has provided ample opportunity for fictional storytelling to evolve. One evolutionary pathway has led to computer games, now the most dominant form of entertainment media. Digital fiction, however, has developed along a more understated pathway, and has yet to emerge into its mainstream or commercial niche; it is not sold on Amazon, Google Play, or Steam; it is not regularly reviewed in The New Yorker or The Guardian; it does not get adapted into popular films or television shows. Yet digital fiction persists, and in recent years has expanded beyond its roots as experimental texts created and shared amongst academics and avant garde artists, as demonstrated by trends in book apps, Twine games, and educational tools.
It is possible that digital fiction remains on the fringes not because the mainstream public
dislikes it, but simply because they can’t find it. Publishing models for digital fiction have not
yet emerged; rather, it is still primarily shared on the “gift economy” (Currah 2007) of the
internet. Promising avenues have emerged in the indie games sphere in the form of Twine
games and walking sims, but the generally single-authored, narrative-driven digital fiction
has yet to find a solid footing in mainstream, commercial publishing spheres.
This presentation summarizes the convergent evolution in different media, from e-lit to indie
games to webcomics, and examines each for its successes and failures in terms of
commercialization. It offers insight into the future of digital fiction based on these case
studies, as well as the author’s own practice-based research into publishing and
commercializing digital fiction as both a creator and a publisher (in the form of Wonderbox
This panel was inspired by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s keynote at ELO 2017 in Porto, titled “ELO and the Electric Light Orchestra: Electronic Literature Lessons from Prog Rock” available here and my follow up question “What do you think will be e-lit’s first #1 hit?” See the video documentation of the keynote below.
I was recently invited to give a lecture at the University of Bergen on January 31, 2018 and the recording is now available. My talk, titled “Third Generation Electronic Literature” offers a historical overview of electronic literature, builds upon genealogies of the field by Hayles and Funkhouser, and describes a third wave of e-literature that emerged circa 2005. I believe this third generation will produce massively popular works and lead to mainstream adoption of electronic literature.
Big thanks to Scott Rettberg, Jill Walker Rettbert, Daniel Apollon, Daniel Jung, Álvaro Seiça, Mia Zamora, and the Digital Culture students, faculty, and staff at UiB for the invitation, warm welcome, great questions, and video production.
Share your meme on Facebook or Twitter using the #criticalmemes hashtag.
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Mi ponencia “Los Niños de Ahora y la Literatura Electrónica: Preparación para el Siglo 21” está disponible en la Segunda Cumbre Internacional Los Padres de Ahora. Para más detalles, visiten I ♥︎ E-Poetry, donde he preparado un recurso descargable con más de 20 obras de literatura electrónica para niños de todas las edades. A continuación el video promocional (de 30 segundos).
How will electronic literature be remembered and studied a century or two from now? Will there even be a concept of electronic literature? Will terms like electronic, digital, or whatever comes next have disappeared back into literature as computing becomes ubiquitous to new generations?
I suspect as much, but I can also imagine e-lit will become framed in historical, literary, and technological ways. The periodization done by Funkhouser and Hayles into “prehistoric,” and “generations” will be fused into a single period spanning from the early computer generated works to a few decades from now. What characterizes our moment? We’re the transitional generation that was raised in a print-centered world and saw its dominance challenged and replaced by the digital. We are the early adopters: the ones who test and explore the expressive potential of digital media in its infancy while living in the late age of print. And that includes our children, who are not as digitally native as we might think.
The notion of digital natives was coined by Marc Prensky in 2001 when he sought to address the educational needs of contemporary students in the face of rapidly developing digital media technologies. It gestures toward a generational shift marked around 1980 This concept has been applied to the generations born after 1980 because they were raised around digital technologies such as video games, personal computers, the Internet, smartphones, touchscreen and wearable devices. The term digital immigrant was applied to everyone born before 1980 for whom such technologies were not as naturalized, who to a greater or lesser extent struggle with adapting to new digital media technologies.
As convenient and problematic as those terms are, I want to suggest that we’re all digital immigrants. Even our children. And our children’s children. Because we still live in the world of the book. Let me explain: I have two children, aged 8 and 5, for whom my wife and I bought pens, pencils, markers, notebooks, and other paper based products for school. In 3rd and 1st grade, respectively, they’ve been learning to write on paper. They are learning to learn on paper. They are learning cursive writing—a writing technique designed to speed up their ability to write, so they can commit to memory ideas presented through lecture and dictation. What’s ahead for them? Will they be taught shorthand? Touch typing would be more relevant, but for how long? How about programming, scripting, coding?
Sure, these skills are available as electives in high school, but as such they reinforce a division between writing and programming. When writing with code and multimedia authoring tools become adopted in primary and secondary schools as the kind of literacy that students need at a foundational level. Those generations, true digital natives, will produce what we now call e-literature, but they’ll just call it writing. And writing will not just be the selection and arrangement of words with an inscription technology, but will include scripting what those words (or variables) do and under what conditions.
Then electronic literature will become naturalized, just as manuscript and typing have become to us.
But we are a bridge generation. We were raised in the world the book built and have embraced these new digital technologies and have an important role to play. In addition to creating and studying electronic literature, we need to preserve our work, so that future generations can look back and understand what people raised with the book made with early, rudimentary, digital tools. They will find the seeds of their developed literary genres in our video games, hypertexts, bots, kinetic and multimedia works, and the many forms electronic literature takes. We must build digital time capsules, for whatever future awaits, including apocalyptic ones.
The ELO has long been committed to digital preservation of electronic literature. Its main contributions are white papers on Preservation Archiving and Dissemination, the Electronic Literature Directory, two (soon to be three) Electronic Literature Collections, curating collections in the Internet Archive, and most recently with the Consortium of Electronic Literature. These ongoing efforts are essential to the longevity of the field, but there’s a piece missing. We need digital repositories of electronic literature, archives that not only store published works of electronic literature, but also editable source files, building materials, multiple drafts or versions of works. This improves their long term preservation prospects because they offer the raw materials of a work so that future media archaeologists can port them or emulate our computational environments to run the works.
And we should also contemplate apocalyptic scenarios. I want us to send a copy of the ELCs and the Electronic Literature Archives on the next Voyager probe launched out of the solar system. We should get e-lit to be included in Humanity’s Greatest Hits.
To achieve that, writers and artists need to continue doing what they do: create great e-literature. Scholars, librarians, and archivists need to continue their work, applying their training towards the study and preservation of this work. Let us keep doing what we do well but with an eye towards the big picture: we are exploring the literacy and literature of our present and the future.
And let us work together to create electronic literature archives so these works can survive the the test of time and what comes after electronic literature.