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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

Electronic Literature Collection, Volume One is a welcome resource for teachers, students, and fans of this literary genre. The nature of the collection however challenges assumptions about how best to define genre in electronic literature, because as this volume makes clear, that large category alone is insufficient to describe a work. Labeling a work of art as a painting tells us very little; we generally want to know what style was used, the size, and more specifics about the materials. Similarly, the sixty works contained in this volume illustrate the range of possibilities and suggest several ways they might be organized in the navigational paths available.

Electronic Literature Collection, Volume One was published in 2006 by the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) as part of their ongoing effort to encourage the production and dissemination of electronic literature. Active since 1999 and enjoying many top scholars and writers on their advisory and literary boards, ELO's publication of this volume provides a welcome resource for teachers, students, and fans of this literary genre.

For the rest of this discussion, note that the collection can be viewed either on a CD-ROM, or at the ELO website, and it's a credit to the designers of the collection that the two access modes are almost indistinguishable. The index page for the collection opens to reveal a bright blue background tiled with rectangular images, 92x62-pixel fragments of each work. Mousing over each tile causes the larger title tile to display the title and author of that work. The wide variety shown in these tiles hints at the diversity contained in the volume, but also prevents easily knowing which authors have been included. The editors thoughtfully include other navigational paths, and the contrasting impressions they create also reveal something about how the structure of information affects our interpretation. Looking at the author list, some contributors have several entries, some only have one. Since there are no page numbers, interpreting the meaning of multiple listings is difficult. There is a title list as well, but far more interesting than either of these traditional lists is a list organized by keywords, or tags.

These keywords illustrate the challenges to generic and disciplinary boundaries embodied in works of electronic literature. For example, some keywords reflect the specific digital medium of the work: flash, HTML, Java, QuickTime, etc. Others tell us something about how the reader might experience the work: ambient, interactive, or chatterbot. (My only quibble with this text is the large number of plug-ins and special programs required to view the works) Still other terms suggest characteristics of the author/s: women authors, collaboration, hacktivist. The list is quite long and while not all terms link to pieces in the collection and although it does not allow users to easily see which works fall into multiple categories, it is the most interesting path to explore, not only suggesting the many possible ways to categorize electronic literature, but also highlighting a reader's own preferences.

Wandering through these works, entries range from cleverly parodic, to dark and disturbing, to transcendently moving. Exploring will take time; some works seem infinite, like Shelley Jackson's "my body -- a Wunderkammer," which invites readers to explore the narrator's body by clicking its parts in a black and white drawing. Each part leads to shorter or longer texts that start with a description of that part, but ramble into intimate description of the narrator's life and emotional landscape. These descriptions at first seem astonishingly detailed, but real. The narrator shares her memories of and feelings for her body, from eyes, to elbows, to the hair on her toes, and just about everywhere in between. A vivid exploration of the ordinary makes her occasional slide into fantastical images all the more startling and humorous, treasures to be hunted as readers jump from text to text via linked words or phrases. Only the changing link color provides a sense of progress or location when a page is reached in which most links are already the color that marks a prior visitation. Finally readers are left feeling they know this narrator inside and out, but still a little uncertain about where exactly the boundaries are.

By contrast, the parodic category, "MyBALL," by Shawn Rider offers an impersonal, disturbing yet amusing take on corporate aesthetics and on our ongoing desire to solve problems with technology that really should not be solved at all. In this case, the "problem" is that raising children takes time, energy, and attention. Thanks to MyBALL parents can focus on other things, assured that the camera, GPS, built-in games, and other features will keep their children safe and happy. The assumptions made by the fictitious manufacturer about what parents want may inspire laughter, but those readers who are working parents may find it cuts almost too close to comfort, forcing our recognition of how little children are expected to "interfere" with certain kinds of careers or lives. This piece exemplifies the kind of work carried out so successfully by groups like The Yes Men, and if the work were exhibited on a stand-alone website it would probably fool many casual visitors.

One story in the collection, "Inanimate Alice, Episode 1: China," is written both from a child's point of view and with younger readers in mind. A young girl living in a yurt in China with her parents writes of a day when her father goes out one day and does not return. Alice and her mother wait and wait and as they do, Alice blogs about her life and her gradually increasing fear as her father's absences stretches on. Eventually, her mom decides they will search and off they drive, and drive and drive. By the time they and we reach the end of this quest, the resolution feels quite surreal, and having only the knowledge vouchsafed to Alice we share her bemusement. Although the story combines text, sound, and animation, the information carried by each is limited to what Alice focuses on in her narrative, thereby constraining readers to her viewpoint -- a surprising accomplishment in a multimedia narrative.

Finally, one of my favorite pieces is "Like Stars in a Clear Night Sky" by Sharif Ezzat. This piece combines Flash animated English text, an Arabic voice-over, and an elegant interface of glimmering stars to present a collection of traditional tales and parables. The English translations are just beautiful, beginning with questions to the listeners/readers like this one: "Shall I tell you of my water, which is getting thirsty?" Mousing over each blue star brings up again the questions which are also the titles and first lines of each piece. Clicking on each blue star opens a piece, none longer than can fit on one screen, but each capturing a complex feeling and idea.

I have mentioned some of the pieces I found most striking but these only scratch the surface because this collection's breadth and depth are belied by the size of the material text -- a single CD or the web interface of only a few pages. In fact, if printed, this text might resemble an old staple of literary studies, the Norton Anthology (of whatever literature). There are so many other works I enjoyed and found thought provoking; this is a strong collection and most readers will find something interesting. The quantity of work contained in this volume is actually greater than first suggested by the collage of contents which contains only sixty tiles, but some of these contain enormous texts themselves, like Alan Sondheim's "Internet Text" or "Self Portrait(s) [as Other(s)]" by Talan Memmott, a permutational piece that contains 120,000,000 possible combinations, not to mention the several examples of interactive fiction. In fact, this seeming infinity captures one quality quite distinct to digital texts -- the lack of a firm and visible border or end point. Particularly when one looks at the online version, a strong feeling is created that these texts could go on forever. Indeed, Sondheim is still adding to the "Internet Text" and some of the works that are presented as if they are websites could easily expand without new readers being the wiser. So here the collection draws attention to another important quality of the digital literature, offering a further avenue for discussion.

This collection need not be used only in classes focused on new media or electronic literature; it offers pieces that could certainly be integrated into a variety of literature classes. Contesting a monolithic perception of electronic literature may be the most important task facing scholars in the field today, because while the monolithic perception remains, the delightful, thought-provoking, poignant, funny, clever, and beautiful pieces in this collection may never find an audience outside of courses or conferences focused only on Electronic Literature.

Kimberly De Vries:
Kimberly De Vries is Director of Composition and Assistant Professor of English and California State University, Stanislaus. Her research interests center on the rhetorical construction of identity and community, particularly in contexts involving ICTs or new media. Current research projects involve a study of the institutionalization of new media in the Netherlands; the behavior and attitudes of academics in Facebook; and semi-biographical research on women's participation as scholars, artists, critics, and policy-makers in new media and ICTs.  <cuuixsilver@gmail.com>

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