Electronic Literature: The Black Sheep of the Web


Trina Lazzara


The role of technology in our lives is always a relevant topic in this changing world, and for good reason. With the increasing dominance of multimedia journalism and blogging, sharing online has never been so easy or so important, and words on paper are far less prevalent than they were even just a decade ago. But too much is still being left out of the discussion, particularly when it comes to electronic literature.

In an interview with the Paris Review, the late Ray Bradbury was asked what he thought of eBooks such as those on Amazon’s Kindle, and this was his response: “A computer does not smell…A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hands and pray to it…And it stays with you forever. But the computer doesn’t do that.”

While Bradbury’s answer is understandable (and certainly shared by many book lovers), it reflects a massive roadblock in the conversation about online reading. This is not his fault, of course. He was asked a common yes-no, dead end question, one that portrays eBooks as the be-all and end-all of digital storytelling. Nor can we really blame the interviewer, for this polarized question always seems to be floating around. In 2009, for instance, Stephen Fry famously tweeted: “One technology doesn’t replace another, it complements. Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.”

Fry’s opinion may be more open-minded than Bradbury’s, but it is in some ways just as constrained. Yes, technology complements the paper book, but Fry is still referring to eBooks in the traditional sense - that is, scans or transcriptions of printed texts that are hardly different from the original versions. Beyond this repetitive exchange about what Kindles, iPads, and Nooks are to us, shouldn’t we be asking how technology is extending past eBooks to more dramatically change our reading experience?

There is an abundance of analytical reading platforms at our fingertips on the Web. The popular site Genius.com allows users to read and write annotations on an infinite array of songs, books, and essays; Re: Joyce does something similar with James Joyce’s works in podcast form. Digital humanities scholars such as those at Stanford use data visualization and analysis to make sense of cultural and literary trends (UC Santa Barbara’s Alan Liu has written extensively on the subject). None of these analytical resources would be possible without technology, and even so they are nothing compared with actual literature that lives on the Web.

This literature, called electronic literature or digital books (“dBooks”), extends beyond the boundaries set by paper and eBooks. A few obvious examples are Pottermore, Only Revolutions, and Where You Are, which recreate the stories of their print counterparts in digitized form, using media and complex user interfaces to make readers participate in the story as they read. Other electronic stories are born on the Internet and could never exist without it, based on video, maps, and even just sound clips. Many of these unconventional books defy explanation and can be re-read in countless configurations. But aside from a few well-known, respected examples (Pottermore, for example, or The Silent History), dBooks are in many ways the black sheep of the Web, waiting to be acknowledged and explored.

This is not to say that we should stop asking the yes-no questions. The choice between print books and eBooks is certainly no less relevant than it was when Bradbury weighed in on the subject. But eBooks are just that - a choice, a possible mode of reading, and this is an essential distinction. dBooks are something more; electronic literature is not just mode but medium, an art form in its own right, one that is in constant flux. And, as with stories on paper, if you’ve seen one, you certainly haven’t seen them all.