Quick tour to the land of digital literature

At the Symposium on Manitoba Writing held in Winnipeg last week, I signed up for a 3-hour “Reading digital literature” workshop, which wasn’t strictly Manitoban but a bonus opportunity because of the presence of Manuel Portela of Portugal, a scholar of the field. (He did a paper at the conference on “typographic notation” in the poetry of Dennis Cooley.) Having signed up, I almost regretted it, because the abstract was full of words like modularity, permutational, kenetic, audiotextuality, materiality, hyperlinks, nodes, and more. But once in the room, I found Mr. Portela not nearly as imposing as his words and his presentation accessible and informative.

In sharing my foray into digital literature via this workshop, I’m afraid I’ll sound very much the tourist, impressed to be sure but still mostly ignorant of the scene. I learned that digital literature is a hybrid form, using simultaneously cinematic and literary techniques. All literature, it’s probably fair to say, deals with perception — invites to new perceptions — but digital literature challenges us in ways that are often unfamiliar and for which we do not yet have an adequate vocabulary. To the question whether the reader is required to be more active in digital literature, Portela said, firmly, “No, readers are always active, but the nature of the seeing and reading is different.” The reader may have to struggle to “conquer” the text (have I read it all? come to the end?).

I was struck by how differently the body is involved in such reading: the hand has to read with the eye, becomes directive in a sense. And none of it happens without code. The www is a publishing space but, as Katherine Hayles notes, “electronic text remains distinct from print in that it literally cannot be accessed until it is performed by properly executed code.”

Well, there was a lot more, but better to simply look for oneself. Two pieces of digital literature that delighted and/or intrigued me this morning were “Fitting the Pattern” (memoir) and “Faith” (poetry). There’s lots more to see/read/hear/embody (whatever the word one uses) at the two volumes of work (60 pieces each) in the Electronic Literature . I’ve bookmarked it and will return to explore some more, so at the very least I sound and act less like a tourist.

(Additional brief notes on the symposium at my author site.)

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