on “e-literature” as a field

By putting our MLA 2012 panel proposal online I was hoping to generate enthusiasm not only for the fact that panels on e-literature are becoming ever-more accepted at MLA but also for the various innovative approaches we all take to the notion of ‘interface’ and e-literature. However, Mark Bernstein recently posted on his website on our panel to point out that when I write “It is remarkable that in just ten years, since the publication of the first book on electronic literature (Loss Glazier’s Digital Poetics in 2001)…” that “this overlooks Jay David Bolter’s Writing Machines, George P. Landow’s Hypertext, Michael Joyce’s Of Two Minds, Silvio Gaggi’s From Text To Hypertext, Jane Yellowlees Douglas’s The End of Books, and I shudder to think what I’m forgetting. In other fields, it’s the Professors of English and the Librarians who play the role of dusty pedants. Sigh.” Sigh indeed.

But perhaps it’s worthwhile for me to spell out a bit more clearly and even vehemently here that of course books on computer-mediated literary works – especially those on hypertext – existed before Loss Glazier’s Digital Poetics. However, what did not exist until the founding of the Electronic Literature Organization in 1999 (thanks to Scott Rettberg, Robert Coover, and Jeff Ballowe) is a name, a concept, even a brand with which a remarkably diverse range of digital writing practices could identify: electronic literature. Moreover, it’s not simply that writers had something by which to bind them together and identify with but it’s also that increasingly e-literature became known as something of a coherent field with a wide, yet still bounded spectrum of means by which critics, teachers, students, scholars could talk about their work. In other words, e-literature became something much more than just hypertext, as valuable as that particular mode of writing may be.

That said, I do think there’s a lively discussion to be had about the potential drawbacks to institutionalization – about how e-literature is in in the unusual position of coming into being at the exact moment that critics, all of whom are contemporaneous to the writers themselves, are attempting to define and delineate the field. There must be something to the fact that we, critics, may be over-determining the field at the same time as we’re helping to support and give shape to it.

There you go – I’ve fulfilled my role as dusty pedant.

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Categories: criticism

Author:Lori Emerson

I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I'm the author of Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound and co-editor of the Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media.

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  1. The history of the term “electronic literature” | jill/txt - January 3, 2012

    [...] remarkably diverse range of digital writing practices could identity: electronic literature,” as Lori explains in a blog post. Seen in this perspective, the first book on electronic literature is Loss Glazier’s Digital [...]

  2. Weekly Reader | William Patrick Wend - February 27, 2012

    [...] Emerson on Electronic Literature as a [...]

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