So far all our other interviews have been about conventional printed books. We’ve talked to Lev Grossman about the development of the internet, and he gave us some conventional print books about that. What we haven’t talked about, yet, is books that are either written directly for the internet and are authored by it, or are affected profoundly by the internet. Is that what we are going to do?
We’re talking about digital textuality and what happens to literature when it interfaces with the prospect of the digital – of digital technology and digital culture. And we’re talking about readers who are becoming literate, and perhaps even more literate, on the screen rather than on the page.
When you say ‘literate’, do you mean ‘literary’, or that they’re actually learning how to read on the net?
That is, I think, the question that I’m interested in…the division between those faculties is really interesting. I’ve been invited to talk on panels about ‘new literacies’, and certainly literacy is quite different from ‘literariness’, because people are just reading in different ways online. Rather than engaging with a single book and a single author for a sustained amount of time, people are reading in the kind of Web 2.0 social networking ways that I think Lev’s interview was bringing up: they’re reading hypertextually across web pages, and they’re also producing their own content. But the question of the literary is really the question that I’m most interested in, because I’m approaching this from a literature background first, rather than, say, a computer programming background.
I’m looking at the recommendations that you’ve made here, and you’ve divided them into categories – that which is born digital and that which is influenced by digital technology. Shall we talk about the digital literature first? Why are people tempted to write in this way rather than writing on paper?
Born digital describes works that are created with a computer and are meant to be read on the computer. They’re not works that you print out. The computational aspect of the work is part of its aesthetic and its reception. So born digital, as you can see, can encompass a wide variety of genres and works. And then, on the question of why now, why people are writing digital literature now… Actually, the field has origins beyond the current moment. Unsurprisingly, when humans create a new technology, any kind of reading or writing technology, they find ways to use it for artistic purposes. Electronic literature is generally acknowledged as having a 20-year or so history, going back to Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story , but its origins can be pushed further back to ASCII art, early chatbots like ELIZA, and other computer-mediated forms of art.
And obviously, in order for something to take off, as a sort of literary phenomenon, it has to be recognised as a literary phenomenon. And who really is the audience for this sort of literature so far?
Well, there’s an interesting situation going on wherein literary critics are intimately involved in producing the literary phenomenon that is the field of digital literature.
And beyond the academy – is it variegating at all, the audience? I mean are there different sorts of people being drawn into this?
There are. It’s certainly not located in the academy. And neither are the artists. And neither is it located in one place in the world. It’s an international phenomenon, happening in different languages, as you can imagine. It’s the internet, so anyone who has access can create and publish their stuff. And works go viral, in terms of what people are reading and who becomes popular. Moreover, the question of genre becomes more complicated, because some of these works are considered film or art more than literature. For example Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries’ work. Their website contains a lot of different works, and all of them, I think, are wonderful. That’s the site that I go to when I need to show people what I mean by digital literature.
I spent some time on that site. And it is amazing. In fact I was just reading ‘North Korean Cunnilingus’, which is hilarious. As you say, it’s kind of a misnomer, really, to call it ‘writing’, because it combines several different media. So it’s very internet-specific, and more than that, it’s incredibly exciting. So, can you describe briefly what it’s doing?
Well, first, it’s collaboration between two writers. And that’s something that is perhaps not internet-specific but certainly supported by the web. Collaboration is now more understood as being associated with the internet than with print-based conceptions of a single author. But what’s wonderful about their work is that it’s both sophisticated and simple. It’s both shocking and completely approachable. It’s fun and, as you spend time with it, also really elevated in terms of its intertextuality and the kinds of political and aesthetic statements it’s making. So what it’s doing is creating this multi-modal literary artwork in which text cannot be separated from the image of text, or from sound, or from movement. It creates a performance – a textual performance – online that challenges the ways in which we describe and understand what we mean by ‘literature’.
As a result it’s, in a way, quite hard to talk about in terms of content.
I think that that’s true, because you can describe – and I’m sure you can imagine, this is my conundrum – you can try to describe digital literature, and Young-hae Chang’s work in particular, using thousands of words. But it becomes so much clearer when you just look at it for three seconds. You understand the implications such work has for thinking about literature and certainly for reading it, writing about it, or teaching it.