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Literatures in the Digital Era: Theory and Praxis

Editor: Amelia Sanz, Dolores Romero
Publisher: Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007
Review Published: November 2009

 REVIEW 1: Sara Humphreys

This collection of papers comes from a 2006 seminar entitled "Literatures: From Text to Hypertext" and represents one of the more comprehensive engagements with a rapidly evolving area of literary production. While certain contributors (even the editors) tend to rehash what have become critical commonplaces in the study of digital literatures, such as claims for the emancipatory and democratic nature of digital media, the use-value of this collection outweighs this minor criticism. The sheer number of topics covered on the practice and function of digital media -- from ludology to the erotics of reading -- answers the urgent need for the formulation of approaches and strategies to facilitate (and encourage!) the study of digital literatures.

One of the outstanding features of this text is its careful organization. The collection is separated into three major parts: Hyper-Paradigm; Hyper-(W)reader; and Hyper-Editing. Each section contains essays that run the gamut of critical issues pertaining to the construction, reception, and function of digital literatures. Here is where my job as the "reviewer" becomes problematic. The entire text comprises twenty-one chapters on subjects that are of intense interest to my research and teaching program -- such as Juan B. Gutiérrez's fascinating chapter on the connections between digital and print narratives, entitled "The Boundaries of Digital Narrative: A Functional Analysis," to chapters that are so far removed from my area of knowledge that I cannot ethically supply any critique. After much rumination regarding how to provide a relevant review of a work of such breadth, I have decided to relate my experience using this collection as a tool to construct a course in modern fiction.

I wanted to incorporate the study of digital literatures into my course, perhaps focussing on a blog or two and including concepts drawn from autobiography studies into the analysis of these blogs. However, after reading Alexandra Saemmer's chapter "Reading Guidelines for Electronic Literature," I decided to assign one or two digital stories from the online creative journal Dream Methods as required reading. In addition to these electronic works, students will read excerpts from Saemmer's chapter, in which she provides a narratological and semiotic approach to reading electronic literature, and Anastasia Natsina's chapter "Hypertext: An Alternative Route to Short Story Theorizing," in which she creates connections and makes distinctions between print short story collections and hypertext collections of digital literature. Both chapters offer upper-year students useful approaches to the study of digital literature. As Gutiérrez notes, we are "in the middle of a shift from printed media to digital media" (85), and our pedagogical approaches need to meet the needs of a student population who have been raised on a diet of digital media. Literatures in a Digital Era is an excellent tool that can facilitate the integration of digital literatures into English courses.

If there are drawbacks to this collection, it rests in the decision to publish this text in print form alone. It is ironic that a collection of essays intent on discussing approaches to reading, writing, editing, and analyzing digital media would not have an electronic component. Certainly, the way in which some of the information is presented in the text requires the interactivity and visual clarity of digital media. For example, George Landow's discussion of stretchtext as "an alternative to the node-and-link form" (34) of hypertext would have been much clearer if the reader had been allowed to interactively compare stretchtext to the node-and-link form of textual representation. A similar problem occurs in Laura Borràs' investigation of the physical, sensorial pleasures of the visual text. In this chapter, Borràs references the color spectrum used in the production of medieval manuscripts. The examples are printed in black and white, which detracts from her argument about the impact of color on the act of reading. Aside from this difficulty in textual representation, this collection offers those contemplating how to approach the study of digital literatures the means and methods to get started.

Sara Humphreys:
Sara Humphreys currently works as an assistant professor in the English Department at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. When she isn't writing about the material culture of westerns or the ways in which digital environments circulate sentimentality, she can be found hiking with her dog on the Peterborough trails.  <sarahumphreys@trentu.ca>

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