traditional literature, to words: sit still, behave

One of those questions digital media requires us to ask all the time is “why are we still doing it this way?” Why are we building online classrooms complete with desks and doors and blackboards? Why are we using new technology to remake more traditional forms when the older technology does that just fine?

In the case of literature, why do we still hold to the page-sized, static frame?

For all that I like thinking about the impact technology is having on us (see previous rants), I also want to use this space to think about the impact that creativity can have on technology, especially with the written word.

It’s particularly important because technologies like digital tablets are begging for more interactive forms of all kinds of literature. There are amazing animated book apps out there already – The Pedlar Lady, for one. The Alice in Wonderland App for another. They use audio, movement, and words all together to make something, rather than remake something.

I think this is one of my biggest concerns with last week’s Publisher’s Weekly article about Ampersand. I know there’s a huge problem putting poems on electronic readers. I’m glad Ampersand’s been developed to address that. But I want more.

I want what electronic literature promised me ten years ago – a way to tell a six-sided story on a self-directed course. I want a way to weave a poem with a database, and to let a story interact with the world around us. I want Neal Stephenson’s Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. (My friend Joe Essid will say that’s the flying car I’m waiting for.)

I want an evolution that brings the sensibilities of Hypercard, the beauty of Flash, and the changeability of dynamic websites to literature, and then I want to see what literature does back.

Words want to move, I know they do.

They move in Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden, in the work of John Cayley, and in the cultural memory of Walt Whitman walking down the street, talking his poems to passers-by.

I love when artists like Neil Gaiman publish pieces that want to tell their story with graphics and words, and seem ready to move, like The Day The Saucers Came

I watch my daughter play with the moveable objects in her Alice in Wonderland book, and I want that kind of “reach in and touch” aspect for my own work. Well, for some of it.

I think about how Nick Montfort’s Curveship works as an interactive fiction system, letting the readers help the story move. And how text-based games evolve when the player interacts with them.

I’m betting words will move at University of Buffalo for the ePoetry event in May. I’d love to be able to go.

But what I really want is for it, and all its cousins, to come to me. I want to meld all these approaches in my tablet. I want them to become mainstream and easy for programmers and non-programmers alike. I want them to be something that we do because we can.

Because we won’t sit still.



  1. Why do you think that literary hypertext never became a mainstream genre? I spent a long time trying to each the Eastgate hypertexts Patchwork Girl, Afternoon, and Victory Garden about 15 years ago. The Gen-X crowd hated the non-linearity of them with the same passion that Millennials hate virtual worlds.

    Over the years at conferences, I’d collar Michael Joyce for long chats about the future of these narratives. I recall how he believed in a transformative potential of hypertext that reminds me of the euphoria of a few years back for virtual worlds. Was he the Pathfinder Lester of hypertext?

    Technologies do change the world. I am not sure that the blogosphere or e-reader would exist in their current forms without the Eastgate authors’ work.

    Perhaps Stephenon’s primer will emerge on tablet computers. The technology is now within easy reach.

    At the same time, the other part of my mind says “yeah, just like the flying car or fusion reactor: always 20 years in our future.”

    • Hi Iggy! Thanks for your comments – and for mentioning more hypertext from Eastgate! (as for Gen X hating on the non-linearity… not so sure about that. It’s what drew me, anyway.)

      I think transformative potential is another draw – by the way, why do you think that I think that literary hypertext never went mainstream? My point was more that I want what is represented in Eastgate’s work, and in other emerging and emerged media, like Curveship and text-base games, as well as more graphic techniques to be incorporated in publishing tools, so that more writers can take advantage of them.

      Yup. I want a compiler. And Borges’ Book of Sand.

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