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The Curator's Egg

The Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1

edited by N Katherine Hayles, Nick Montfort, Scott Rettberg and Stephanie Strickland

available online, or on DVD if requested, from

reviewed by Edward Picot

The Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1 (ELC1 for short) contains some extremely powerful, beautiful, clever, amusing and moving pieces of work, but it isn't entirely without flaws. For one thing, its design isn't very well thought out: when you click to launch an individual work it appears in the "parent" browser window rather than a "child" window, which means that when you want to return to the main index-page you are often faced with either having to click the "back" arrow lots of times, or re-opening the collection all over again. There are also some amateurish errors: at the time of writing ELC1 contains two works ("The Set of U" and "Chemical Landscapes Digital Tales") which will only function if viewed with Firefox, not Internet Explorer, due to a coding error. Cross-browser problems of this kind are notoriously difficult to spot and weed out: but all the same, in a prestigious work such as this, they do knock some of the gloss off the finished product.

A more fundamental problem is that the collection may strike "ordinary readers" as daunting rather than welcoming. There is no general introduction to tell us a little bit about electronic literature or whet our appetites for the treats in store. The editors evidently expect us to know something about the genre already, and seem to regard themselves as scholarly curators rather than popularisers. They do provide a short introduction to each of the individual works, along with another short introduction from the author(s), and a technical note on how each piece operates; but since these introductory texts are placed at the entrance to each work, instead of being appended as optional extras, the effect is to delay and mediate our access to the works themselves. It's rather as if we were being presented with a series of specimens in cases, complete with little notes to indicate what's interesting about each one.

Image from [the house] by Mary FlanaganIn this way ELC1 mixes slightly amateurish design and production values with a rather bookishly-knowing curatorial style. It also presents us with far more material than any one person is ever likely to want to read. There are sixty works here, and one of them alone, Alan Sondheim's "Internet Text", contains 191 files. Another, Kenneth Goldsmith's "Soliloquy", "is an unedited document of every word I spoke during the week of April 15-21, 1996, from the moment I woke up Monday morning to the moment I went to sleep on Sunday night", in seventy sections, each section running into thousands of words. Many of the other works are shorter and easier to digest than these two, but the fact remains that ELC1 as a whole is dauntingly huge.

One of the questions which needs to be asked about works of hyperliterature, admittedly, is whether they are actually designed to be read in their entirety. There isn't a simple answer to this - some are, and some aren't - but certainly one difference between hyperliterature and "traditional" literature is that when we approach a work of hyperliterature we are often given very few clues about how big it is, how we are going to find our way through it, whether we are supposed to read it right through, and if so how much time it will take. "Internet Text" and "Soliloquy" are both comparatively clear from the outset about the amount of material they contain, but other works of hyperliterature, including many in this collection, can be bewilderingly uninformative about the size and arrangement of their contents, and intimidating to newcomers for precisely this reason. This is not the fault of the ELC1 editors, but it does add to the daunting effect which their collection is likely to have on "ordinary" readers.

Scott Rettberg, one of the editors, recently gave an interview about the collection to Furtherfield ("Curating Ambiguity - ELO"), the online new media magazine, which sheds some light on the process of putting ELC1 together. He claims that "Essentially, we want everyone who might be interested to be exposed to this work", but he goes on to admit that

While I would say that the target audience is very broad -- "readers" -- we were thinking in particular of how the project might be utilized in classrooms, and perhaps included in library collections... thinking about trying to represent multiple modalities of electronic writing, and to achieve a balance among several different identifiable types... preservation is an important aspect of the ELC1 as a project... The Collection as a whole is an awesome tool for me as an educator, as it includes several works that I have taught in the past, and has exposed me to many that I will teach in the future. It's a kind of semester-in-a-box for those of us who teach Electronic Literature.

In other words, the collection has really been designed with an academic audience in mind, and it is intended to act simultaneously as a teaching-aid, a survey of the genre, and an archive for some of its more important achievements.

Image from urbanalities by babel and eschaThere remains, however, a certain confusion of tone: at times the editors seem unsure whether they should address themselves to an audience of jargon-savvy experts or complete novices. Here, for example, is their introduction to William Poundstone's "Project for Tachistoscope [Bottomless Pit]":

While deploying its bottomless (and looping) narrative of a geological anomaly though rapid serial visualization, Poundstone's project also opens a quiet assault of, and perhaps on, icons.

Below this, on the same page, the "technical note" begins:

To hear the sound, turn on the computer's speakers or plug in headphones. Click "Start" to begin...

Well, duh. Similarly, there is some confusion about how the Collection functions as a survey of the hyperliterature field. Is it attempting to summarise the history of the genre, or to show things as they are now? Rettberg, in his interview, suggests the latter:

Something like the ELC1 is more of a snapshot of a moment in time in the life of the field...

As a matter of fact, however, eleven of the sixty works in the Collection are dated pre-2000 - the earliest is Michael Joyce's "Twelve Blue", 1996. Joyce himself hasn't published a work of hyperliterature for years, and no longer even maintains a web presence. It seems clear from this that the Collection isn't really "a snapshot" of the field as it is now, but a hybrid mixture of contemporary work and acknowledged "classics".

Image from Tao by Alan Sondheim and Reiner StrasserMany of the "big names" of hyperliterature are here - Jim Andrews, John Cayley, M D Coverley, Ed Falco, geniwate, Loss Pequeno Glazier, Shelley Jackson, Michael Joyce, Robert Kendall, Stuart Moulthrop, Alan Sondheim, Reiner Strasser, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Rob Wittig - but there are also some notable absences: Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries and Mark Amerika spring immediately to mind. Also noteworthy is the absence of certain forms of electronic writing. There are no e-mail novels (particularly surprizing since Scott Rettberg has authored one himself: namely Kind of Blue, 2003), no interactive or Flash-animated comics, and no extracts from blogs. Of course, once any kind of selection process is used there are bound to be winners and losers, and any given list of names and works is bound to seem questionable to some. Having said this, however, the contents of the Electronic Literature Collection do seem to bespeak a certain view, not only of what constitutes "literary quality", but of what constitutes electronic literature.

One senses that the editors themselves are aware of the dangers of clinging too hard to an established canon which in time may come to be seen as outdated and questionable. Rettberg says that

The editorial board will rotate with each iteration of the ELC, so I personally won't be involved in editing it. We hope to produce the ELC on a biennial basis, so I anticipate that the next one will emerge in 2008.

If any areas have been overlooked this time around, in other words, there will be opportunities to fill the gaps later on; and since other people will be doing the editing, presumably there will also be opportunities for a different view of hyperliterature to be represented.

And it must be reaffirmed, once all the above qualifications have been taken into account, that this collection has got some wonderful work in it, both old and new. One very welcome aspect of it is that the editors have been prepared to include comparatively low-tech work alongside the heavily-coded stuff. This gives a real sense of the breadth of the field: how it shades into modernist and postmodernist literature at one end, and into new media art at the other. For me, it also demonstrates that the pieces which succeed best are not always the most technologically-advanced, but the ones where the technology is most completely integrated with the writing, so that it becomes not just a means of illustrating what the writing is saying, or an interface through which we gain access to the text and interact with it, but a part of what is being said. To illustrate this, I will briefly look at two pieces which don't seem to work particularly well, and two which strike me as successes.

"MyBALL" by Shawn Rider, as the author explains in his introductory note, is "a satirical work masquerading as an informative Flash-based commercial site. It presents an innovative children's toy, myBALL, which is a robotic friend and robust parental surveillance unit." It features slick, commercial-looking graphics, commercial-style copywriting ("The future of robotic toys is now.") and a slightly-sinister audio track. It has its funny moments ("Love your child, but hate his idiot friends?"), but using Flash animation to satirize Flash-animated commercials, and through them the values of corporate and consumerist America, is a little bit like shooting fish in a barrel, and the satire here never really gets beyond the obvious. The real weak point of the piece, however, is an "About Us" section which laboriously explains what is being satirized: "MyBALL is... a satirical solution to what far too many individuals see as a problem - the time and effort involved in raising children... [It is] an answer to a problem that shouldn't be solved." If you're going to explain your satire, why bother with the satire in the first place? Why not just have the explanation? The result of this section is to absolve the audience from any responsibility to think for themselves; and in terms of the success of "MyBALL" as hyperliterature, it reduces it to the status of a slick and well-executed interface showcasing a rather indifferent piece of writing.

Image from carrier (becoming symborg) by Melinda Rackham and Damien Everett"carrier (becoming symborg)", by Melinda Rackham and Damien Everett, is about the Hepatitis C virus. At the start you are asked to enter your name so that the piece can interact with you: it then starts to talk to you and ask you to make choices: for example "she smiles slowly...she reaches out with sticky hands...hello Edward...let me be your portal inside", followed by two radio-buttons labelled "yes" and "no". The "she" in the piece is the Hepatitis C virus, asking you to give in to her, and whichever options you select you eventually arrive at a screen which tells you that you are now a carrier. The text is displayed in small letters, usually red, against a black background on which there also appear jiggly little multicoloured graphics representing the virus. The soundtrack is Darth-Vader-style breathing-through-a-mask noises against a background of science-fiction-style electronic bleeping and twittering. This is where the first difficulty comes in: both graphics and audio effects embody cliches of "how to represent microscopic activity on-screen", to such an extent that you feel yourself to be in the grip of a rather predictable doomsday science fiction film. But after the screen informs you that you are a carrier, small windows begin to pop up containing what is presumably real-life testimony from Hepatitis-C sufferers and their families, describing the progress and treatment of the disease, or their grief at having lost loved ones to it:

My marriage has suffered since my illness but not all because of fear, it has mainly been my being so sick and not able to have the life we used to and my struggling with myself internally...

This is where the second difficulty arises. These real-life testimonies are simply far more powerful and moving than the pseudo-sinister text, interactivity, audio and graphics which have led up to them, with the result that one immediately feels the new media elements to be not simply cliched but inappropriate. A much more powerful piece could have been made if all this had been stripped away completely, and people facing the problems of Hepatitis C had been left to tell their own stories in their own way.

"The Jew's Daughter", by Judd Morrissey, is a particularly uncompromising example of a problem I mentioned earlier: that readers making a start on a work of hyperliterature are often given very little idea by the author how much time and effort is going to be required from them. This particular work, when launched, presents us with a "page" of text on which a single word is highlighted in blue to indicate that it acts as a link. When you mouseover this link, part of the text on the page changes, and a different word is highlighted. When you mouseover again, another part of the text changes; and in this way, all of the text which was originally on the page is gradually replaced by something new. Keep going, and this new text is incrementally replaced too, and so is the next one, and so on and so forth. Naturally enough there comes a point when you start to ask yourself how long this is going to last. In fact there are 608 pages in "The Jew's Daughter". Despite its length, however, it does hold your attention; and the main reason for this is the excellence of the writing, particularly the descriptive writing:

The heavy metallic river angles in and beyond the river is where the sun sets, kindling the stained glass, and disappearing, a rusty glow behind blue shadow mountains. And who is he? this absurd adolecent man: love handles, crooked glasses and a child's lisp. And yet he harbors within him something so sinister, like a psycho-kinetic child, and he stimulates bad dreams that all share a very particular quality. A friend who sees him once tells me that he has woken in a sweat: puppets hanging on crooked strings and the flabby pale face peers out from behind a black theater curtain.

As can be sensed from the passage above, the transitions from one text to another, one scene to another, are integral to the style rather than disruptive of it. The writing is always fluid and impressionistic, open to non-sequiturs, with the result that even when we start a passage reading about one thing but finish it reading about something entirely different - which often happens as the incremental transitions from one text to another take effect - we never feel completely lost, or that the narrative has completely broken down. What we feel instead is that meaning is washing over us in a series of waves rather than trickling by us in a thin continuous stream. Part of our sense of the dynamism of the text comes from the way in which our eyes travel across each new "page" as we touch a link, scanning to identify the area of shift and disturbance where old text has been replaced by new. In this way, although the use of links in this work is almost minimalist compared to many other hypertexts, it changes the way in which we read and experience the text, and this alteration is itself part of the meaning of the work.

Image from Windsound by John CayleyIn some respects John Cayley's "Windsound" is quite similar to "The Jew's Daughter": again, there is a process by which one text is incrementally broken to pieces and replaced by another. In this case the "nodal texts" are poems, and the process of breaking-apart and replacement is governed by an algorithm. The first poem appears onscreen in white letters on a black background. The text of the poem is then altered a few letters at a time, so that the words start to turn into nonsense, and within a few "passes" the whole poem has become a jumble of seemingly-random letters and spaces. The changes continue, however, and after a while the jumbled letters start to pull themselves together into words again, and a new poem materialises out of the chaos. Again there is a wavelike movement back and forth between sense and nonsense, in this case for twenty-three minutes, after which all the "nodal texts" have appeared onscreen and crumbled to pieces, and the work comes to an end.

This would probably have been enough by itself, but Cayley adds an extra dimension to the work by giving it an audio track. The basis of this track is the noise of a blustering wind, with snatches of conversation, clattering, clinking noises and the occasional buzz of traffic mixed in. But Cayley also uses voice-simulation software to "read out" the nodal texts in a clear voice; and when the nodal texts disintegrate into nonsense he uses the same software, processed to sound more distant and whispery, to read the nonsense too. The result is astonishingly three-dimensional and engaging: and as with "The Jew's Daughter" we find ourselves not simply reading the texts onscreen in the conventional way but scanning them, trying to spot the first signs of meaning as they emerge from the chaos of letters, and watching for the first signs of disintegration as they start to eat into the poems. In the end the sense of impermanence and mutability which is suggested by the title "Windsound" and by the texts of the poems themselves is brought home to us not just by those poems but by our experience of the work as a whole. It isn't interactive or nonlinear in any obvious sense, but its use of digital technology is completely appropriate and central to what it achieves as a work of art.

Flaws or no flaws, this is an essential collection. Anyone interested in the field of electronic literature should take the trouble to get it on DVD. Some of this material is priceless, and it may not be available on the Web indefinitely.

© Edward Picot, March 2007

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