ELO18 Panel: Towards E-Lit’s #1 Hit

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.

Leonardo Flores, “Third Generation Electronic Literature”

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.

Leonardo Flores, “Third Generation Electronic Literature”

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.

Kathi Inman Berens, “Populist Modernism: Printed Instagram Poetry and the Literary Highbrow”

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 Publishing).

Lyle Skains, “Not Sold in Stores: The Commercialization Potential of Digital Fiction”


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.