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Electronic Literature Collection (Volume 1)

Editor: N. Katherine Hayles, Nick Montfort, Scott Rettberg, Stephanie Strickland
Publisher: College Park, MD: Electronic Literature Organization, 2006
Review Published: May 2008

 REVIEW 1: Kimberly De Vries
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: N. Katherine Hayles
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Scott Rettberg

I will say that I appreciate very much Kimberly De Vries's review very much. I'm glad that she took the time to detail her response to several of the pieces in the Collection. Like her, I find Shelley Jackson's "My Body -- a Wunderkammer" to be one of the best pieces in the ELC in spite of the fact that it is one of the older pieces, and from a purely technological perspective one of the simpler pieces. It is a reminder that even relatively straightforward uses of technologies such as image maps and linking can be quite powerful. I mention that piece in particular because it always works very well in the classroom. The author is not only describing the parts of her body, but constructing a fanciful, humorous, and meaningful memoir from it. Jackson explores the way in which our bodies become a kind of personal map, our blemishes, scars, muscles, organs, skin and bones serve as a kind of skeleton key to our identities.

One type of work not mentioned in the review -- that is represented in the Collection by Emily Short's "Galatea" and "Savoir Faire," Aaron A. Reed's "Whom the Telling Changed," Jon Ingold's "All Roads," and Dan Shiovitz's "Bad Machine" -- is interactive fiction, which also often works very well in teaching situations. This fall I used Short's and Reed's pieces to introduce my students to this conversational interface-based form, descended from Infocom text adventures games such as the Zork series, which has flourished in recent years. Pieces such as Short's "Galatea," which invites the reader to politely interrogate the mythical speaking statue, really bring alive the power of the computational properties of the computer to enrich the experience of participating in a direct way with a story as it unfolds.

One of my favorite things about the collection is its great breadth and diversity. Many of the pieces in it, such as Jim Andrews's "Nio," Giselle Beiguelman's "Code Movie 1" and Maria Mencia's "Birds Singing Other Birds Songs," really push us to reconsider what the limits of literature might be. How is Andrews's work, which encourages the user to remix visual and auditory signs, a "poem" and how is it an "instrument?" In what sense is the swiftly moving stream of hexidecimal code in Beiguelman's piece "writing," and can we distinguish between literary writing and transcriptions? Does the piece encourage us to consider the subdermal layer of code that underlies all computational artifacts as literary in itself? In what ways does Mencia's playful toy in which we activate birdsongs (sung by people and represented on the screen as moving bird shapes formed from text) challenge our conventional notions of representation?

The Collection is very much about potentiality, and about encouraging readers and writers to consider all the possibilities that new media hold for our collective literary future. While I understand De Vries's comparison to the Norton Anthology, I would in fact encourage readers to consider this collection of 60 works a sampling rather than a definitive canon. In fact, the editors of the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 2, Talan Memmott, Rita Raley, and Brian Kim Stefans, have only just begun their work and will issue a call for works in May 2008. We're also in the middle of trying to raise the $9,000 or so it will take to produce the ELC2, this time both on the web and on a DVD. The ELC2, like the first Collection, will be freely available -- its production will be supported by organizational partners and by contributions from readers like you. I would encourage anyone who finds the first Collection as useful and compelling as I do to consider making a donation in support of the ELC's continued production.

Scott Rettberg


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