Ten (Or More) Misconceptions About Electronic Literature

Electronic literature (or digital literature, as it is sometimes called) is difficult to define. It is described by Kathi Inman Berens and Dene Grigar, co-curators of a recent exhibition of electronic literature at MLA 2013 in Boston, as “literary works involving various forms and combinations of digital media, such as video, animation, sound, virtual environments, and multimedia installations, for desktop computers, mobile devices, and live performance.” This definition seems a concise and useful one, and among the best of the many circulating online and in conferences, festivals, galleries, and classrooms around the world.

One result of its slippery nature is that electronic literature, when it is recognized as such, is often misunderstood. So here are

Ten (Or More) Misconceptions About Electronic Literature

that you might hear while out and about:

(1) Digital literature is dead.

I was at the eNarrative5 Conference at MIT in 2003, and a Canadian critic claimed to a packed conference room that electronic literature was dead. He said it like the corpse was lying at his feet, and if we only looked down, we would see it.

He was wrong, of course. But even today, the claim still surfaces despite new generations of digital writers, the increasing number of online (and offline) venues for digital literature, demands for digital writers and theoreticians in colleges and universities, and international media notices.

So is electronic literature dead? If so, then the world missed its funeral.

(2) Electronic literature may not be dead, but what’s the difference if no one reads it?

Chances are, if you went to your local pub, or a gallery opening, or a church social, and asked how many people read digital literature, the answer would be few, or none. Most would not even know what digital literature is.

But if you are wondering who reads digital literature, maybe the answer is found in the virtual world, not your neighbor’s backyard. Loosely speaking, if you are on Facebook, you are reading a form of electronic literature every day. People are sharing their stories with images, video, text, and audio. They are using multimedia to tell their tales. This is digital literature, of a sort, and most of us are reading it.

A related question is, What about the digital writers, not the ones who are solely on Facebook, but the ones who have higher pretensions for the world of online electronic literature? How do these web-based writers compare in terms of readership to the average writer in traditional print format?

Let’s say you are a digital writer on the web (which means you might actually write for the web, or your work appears in another medium but is available on the web). Let’s say you get twenty visitors a day—that’s visitors, not hits. Let’s remove the visitors who made it to your website by mistake, and the ones who took one look and fled in horror (or confusion), and the ones who read a bit and didn’t like it. Then let’s get rid of the multiple visits from a single reader—we’ll only count him or her once.

That leaves, say, five readers a day, which equates to 1,825 readers a year. I personally know a dozen traditional print writers who would kill for that kind of readership.

So is anyone reading digital literature? Don’t ask at the nearest art opening; check Facebook or the number of your web visitors.

(3) Digital literature is all about hypertext, and nothing else.

Anyone who knows digital literature knows that—with new developments in HTML5, more sophisticated web browsers, interactive video, and enhanced technologies for new media installations and performances—digital literature now finds outlets in many related forms, and in diverse venues.

To say digital literature finds its voice just in hypertext is like scanning your radio and expecting to hear the same station every time. Why would you want to?

(4) If you read digital literature, you are at a higher risk for strokes, brain tumors, car accidents, or insomnia.

Well, insomnia, maybe. Once you start to read it, you can’t stop.

(5) If you write digital literature, you are at a higher risk for strokes, brain tumors, car accidents, or insomnia.

This is undoubtedly true. Most writers, in any form, are driven. Unfortunately, digital writers are no different—they are doing the driving, and it’s at breakneck speeds on roads that are off the map.

(6) The next generation(s) of digital writers, and readers, are few or non-existent.

Let’s try a syllogism:

Antoine Anyone is on Facebook;

All users on Facebook use text, images, audio, or

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video in their posts;

Therefore, Antoine Anyone reads, or writes, with multimedia.

(7) You can take a book to the beach, but what about digital literature?

Rowling, Collins, Robbins, King, L’Amour… Add sand, surf, a Kindle, and a beach chair, and you’re at home with approximately two billion other people who have read these authors.

Mix in an iPhone or Droid, and soon, if not already, you’ve got all the digital literature you need, for free.

(8) But I like the feel of turning pages in a book. How can digital literature beat that?

Imagine a book that feels like a book, looks like a book, and has pages that turn like a book. But all the pages are browser-enabled, online, and infinitely refillable with any content you want.

This technology is already here.

(9) Digital Literature is a

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flash in the pan.

Flintlock muskets used

to have small pans to hold charges of gunpowder. A “flash in the pan” was when, upon firing the musket, the gunpowder flared up without firing a bullet.

The metaphor endures today, even though the technology does not. Which is to say, bullets are still fired, but from different guns, and for a digital purpose.

(10) Digital Literature is the death of the book.

The book isn’t dead—books will always be around. Now, they must share the stage with other ways of reading a poem or a story.

(11) Add your misconception here…