Expanded Literature Part 1: Internet Literature

While eating breakfast the other day, I thought it might be funny to go to ask.com and pose the question, “What is internet literature?” I thought it’d cause a few giggles, and I thought that perhaps it would result in something I could screen-cap to submit for Internet Poetry. I mean, the fact that I typed “askjeeves.com” into my browser alone I found to be ironic, because when I think of AskJeeves, I think of 2002.

Well, AskJeeves is now just Ask.com, I guess, and it turns out that the first search result actually proved relevant. The page is from February 18th, 2004–by now this should read as antiquated, right? The speed of technology arguably renders us far further into the future; between 2004 and now–than any time before. But despite a few caveats, the definition here seems to me far more interesting in consideration of capabilities than anything that would seem to actually define “internet literature.”

The page suggests the following list as a definition of hypertext literature:

The first item on the list seems to be the only tenant that is hyper-present in what we currently know as “internet literature” today, no? HTMLGIANT itself is subtitled “the internet literature magazine blog of the future.” Now, I assume that mouthful is slightly tongue in cheek. But, as recent press seems to cement, there is a subculture surrounding this blog; writers that engage with one another on the internet, that publish primarily on the internet, etc. So, even here at the internet magazine blog of the future, it seems like we’re (mostly) stuck on item one. So what the hell are the other nine items?

The other nine items on the list suggest an expanded consideration of literature. Consider the the printed page: at the beginning of (printed) history, setting letterpress was a difficult, time consuming task. It made sense to organize our words in a consistent manner, to align everything to the left of the page, to create consistent visual-stylistic choices, etc. The breakthrough of the printed page was the liberation of knowledge via a far more accessible & affordable dispersal of information.

Fast-forward to the 1980s. Personal computers are now available & most printed pages are facilitated, in at least some way, by a digital mediator; i.e. a computer. Suddenly (or not so suddenly, we skipped a lot of steps of progress here) no one had to meticulously lay metal letters out on a tray, one at a time, in order to build the page. We can now put text wherever we want on the page thanks to software text layout programs. Even on Microsoft Word, arguably the most present word-processing program of all time, provides ample tools to, shall we say, fuck with your layout.

Why this didn’t result in the destruction of the homogeneous text-layouts that populate literature today is something I plan on discussing in a later part of this series, but the parallel I want to suggest holds. When the internet officially became “a thing”–sometime in the mid-90s for the sake of convenience here–it seemed like the ultimate in liberation. A non-hierarchical platform where everyone with the available technology could, theoretically, present anything they wanted to as wide of an audience as could potentially reach the internet. Beyond that, by learning simple programming skills, one could create heterogeneous pages to communicate information.

The point is that people got excited about working with the idea of literature in a new medium: namely, the internet. Early attempts ( many of which are available within the first volume of the Electronic Literature Collection ) show a true joissance, an engagement with form, and a really experimental & earnest spirit here. A lot of it is ugly, and a lot of it really just doesn’t work, but it’s truly inspiring to see this kind of stuff. One of my favorite things I’ve found in the collection is “The Fall of the Site of Marsha,” described as “a comic romp that uses the form of the common early-web ‘homepage’ in three states of disrepair to tell a comic tale of domestic discord” (Though I would like to insist there’s a true idea of terror here, applying the descriptor of “comic” to the work seems to devalue the work, similar to an ‘only-ironic’ appreciation of sci-fi or something).

So what happened? Well, I don’t know. I’ve read N. Katherine Hayles book on electronic literature but unfortunately the historical information inside doesn’t help too much (and I’d make the argument that the book is frustratingly unhelpful and reductive in its own right, but whatever). I suppose there are obvious facts here: if you are a writing you don’t necessarily have any interest in learning HTML or DHTML. If you are a writing it is very possible that you don’t care about anything other than the words, right? If you are a writer it’s possible that you feel no desire in mastering specific software suites like those of Adobe or Macromedia (which I guess is actually part of Adobe now, huh).

I wish more people did. I wish people would start approaching the internet more as a medium than as a simple conduit, storage. There is a world of difference between the printed page and a page of a website. Why are they so often approached the same way?

The world of internet literature that surrounds the little internet realm of HTMLGIANT seems to strictly concern itself with words on a page that would read the same whether on a screen or on a piece of paper. This is somewhat frustrating to me, as I’m someone who is interested in literature that does more than represent. It seems to me that an entire realm of tools are continually ignored in the communication of meaning.

So, let’s look at this list in closer detail.

2. Linear narratives written specifically for the internet that use some of the capacities of the Web to add color,etc to the text […]

This reads to me like a facsimile of what I call ‘visual fiction’ (spoiler alert: that’s what the “Expanded Literature Part 2” post will be about): narratives that do not specifically engage the medium of the internet, but do use the inherent design capabilities of the internet to add extra-textual elements to expand the narrative.

3. Hypertext narrative, poetry, and nonfiction on the Net.

The keyword here is hypertext: knowing the zeitgeist that this page undoubtedly grew out of, it’s worth noting that it’s possible to read “hypertext” as “non-linear” in this case. The primo example of hypertext literature is probably Michael Joyce’s “Afternoon, a story”, though to be fair I think its initial release was more offered as a “video game” than something available on the internet. It was created in primitive software called Storyspace, but it seems to me that this would be ridiculously easy to port to HTML. I haven’t read this because the publisher wants $25 for a CD-Rom of a hypertext narrative created in 1987, and that is outrageous (especially when you consider that FC2 sells Steve Tomasula’s DVD-Rom hypertext, TOC, for $15).

4. Blogs (and novels written as blogs)

I’m been thinking lately about how much I hate the homogeneity of the blog format. All blogs essentially look the same, and I’m sure the argument is that, through practice and experience, the audience of the internet as a whole is most responsive to this design and format (I’m totally bored with the structure of blogs [says the man typing a blog post]).

Blogs were another thing that were heralded as, basically, the second coming of Christ upon their inception, but as we all know; the capacity to state your opinion in ‘public’ doesn’t mean you should (e.g. every YouTube comment ever).

I can’t think of a novel written in blog form. At least not one that would bow to the pretense of being “literary.” Seems like there are probably just as many young-adult novels written in blog form as there were as written in journal form. Do these novels exploit the inclusion of comments & continued threads of thought that lead from them? Dennis Cooper’s The Sluts pretty fantastically exploits the realm of the message board, so that’s close.

5. Animated text[/images]
I’ve added the images thing, because I think there’s a strong narrative potential to be found in, for instance, animated GIFs (I hate Adobe Flash, so I am basically just avoiding mentioning it here- I’m fine with it as, say, a platform for something else [i.e. YouTube], but most of the work done in Flash for the sake of being done in Flash is basically Too Terrible To Deal With). This month’s Everyday Genius has been pitting Animated Gifs as prompts towards short fictions, and while there’s not a total interaction here, I think it’s interesting and a definite step in the direction of an expanded literature.

A really great example of animated text (though admittedly done in Flash; I’ll allow an exception here) is Y0UNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES. This seems to float between the world of Net Art & hypertext literature, but it sits more within the realm of literature to me than anything else. I recommend checking out DAK0TA for an example of how dynamic text alone can function (in Chang’s work there is a heavy connection between the rhythm of sounds and the presentation of text– not speech, but text).

My own attempt at combining item 3 with the idea of animated images & text, can be found here. It’s fairly tacky to include my own work within a sort of case study of a zone of literature, but while I don’t think it’s the most fantastic piece of work in the world, I self-published it in LIES/ISLE issue 2 with the hope of getting more people to submit narratives that actually make use of the internet (note: no one has yet, and that is what continues to disappoint me).

6. Stretchtext poetry and prose on the internet
I didn’t know what Stretchtext was, so wikipedia has so graciously informed me that it’s basically a dead “hypertext feature” that was never adapted into widespread use. So let’s move on.

7. Game-like literature
In the Spring 2009 issue of The New River (which, let’s admit it, looks like it was designed by a hobbyist in 2002), Jason Nelson has a “game-like literature” piece, I guess. However, perhaps it’s due to the fact that I’m terrible at video games, or else it’s due to the fact that I have like no attention span at all 50% of the time, but instead of, basically, reading any of the text, I found myself simply trying to get through the levels as quickly as possible. I don’t think this is probably that much of an odd thing, all things considered.

I’ve been interested, so to speak, in “literature-like games” in the past, perhaps take the Silent Hill series, or any number of RPGs. These are narratives that feature interactivity that can modify the plot & also provide stimulation. If we are rooting this in the internet, and sticking to narrative here, we could consider ARGs “game-like literature.” I’ve spent a portion of my weekend immersed in an ARGish intertextual ‘video series’ called Marble Hornets this weekend. There’s a distinct aestheticism that runs through the videos; the positioning of reality affected by apocrypha is always appealing. And, at least so far, what’s happened has been pulled off very tightly.

When considering the construction of narrative, especially within the realm of horror/suspense, a lot of these ARGs seem to be tapping into the cultural psyche far more efficiently than blockbuster horror films. Also, I would insist on calling this literature due to a distinct interaction between text & video (inter-titles contextualize the footage, not a voice-over or narration). ARG as a form seems like something that could be brilliantly expanded on, which is why it’s so ultimately disappointing that the medium has been all but taken over by advertisers wanting to cash in on the latest trends in viral marketing.

8. Literature in the form of e-mail, etc. (revival of the 18C epistolary novel)
Another thing that seems less dependent to me upon the medium or form of the internet than on an adaptation of one of its facets. Fred Sasaki’s Letters of Interest take this form to humorous & successful heights.

9. MOOs and MUDs
Thanks to wikipedia, we can know that a MOO “is a text-based online virtual reality system to which multiple users (players) are connected at the same time” and a MUD is a multi-user dungeon/dimension/domain. “MUDs combine elements of role-playing games, hack and slash, player versus player, interactive fiction, and online chat.” If we leave the creation of these things as literature then we’re left in the same position that item #7 presents.

However, there have, recently, been some pretty wonderful examples of appropriating these early online interactions into literature: Mike Meginnis’s Angband, or, his 55 desires which was published at The Collagist, and Russ Wood’s SOLAR D, published at Red Lightbulbs. Both of these stories/poems/texts appropriate elements of MUDs and MOOs into a new work that cleary is meant to exist on the internet alone, and still carries the affect that ‘regular’ literature can have.

10. Works using the internet to create telepresence.

Telepresence refers to a set of technologies which allow a person to feel as if they were present, to give the appearance that they were present, or to have an effect, via telerobotics, at a place other than their true location.

Telepresence requires that the users’ senses be provided with such stimuli as to give the feeling of being in that other location. Additionally, users may be given the ability to affect the remote location. In this case, the user’s position, movements, actions, voice, etc. may be sensed, transmitted and duplicated in the remote location to bring about this effect. Therefore information may be traveling in both directions between the user and the remote location.

Yes please?

I guess the point of this, in breaking down what 2004 declared as internet literature, is my positing a question: Why, when we clearly have the capacity, without changing any of the available technology, to create expanded works of literature on the internet, are we simply using the internet the same way we would be using the printed page? It’s possible that artists aren’t designers (and I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of time ‘visual literature’ and hypertext fiction looks really fucking ugly and terrible because the people creating it just don’t have the same experience they do with writing as they might with these expanded factors), but if we begin to incorporate an expanded vocabulary in crafting literature, it is likely that the literature that we are crafting will become something more than it is now.

I believe that it’s not a futile gesture for someone who considers herself a ‘writer’ to study design as often as studying grammar, to learn Adobe Creative Suite simultaneously with word processing, to learn HTML alongside spelling. Literature is, arguably, communication– why refuse to expand the tools you have to communicate with?