Let’s Talk Digital Literature

Our classroom is high tech. We sit facing each other at circular tables, grouped around computers fit into the center of our community desks. A monitor is fit to the wall above each table. There are about six or seven of these set ups. We are sitting at a back table and it’s only the second or third day of class. Our professor is going over the syllabus one last time before we leap into our first discussion of the assigned reading. This is an English class but it is nothing like I’ve been trained to expect.

I’m itching to raise my hand. I already complained to you about my problem and you, obviously being unable to solve it, urged me to ask our professor.

“Alright, do we have any questions so far?” And my hand shoots up.

She calls on me and, I admit, I’m always nervous to speak in class. But this is crucial.

“The USB for Patchwork Girl hasn’t been working on my computer. I looked at the details of the program and it looks like it’s only for Macs?”

Patchwork Girl is a novel. Written by Shelley Jackson, it exists only through a program for Mac computers. It was the first reading assigned to us for the semester and it immediately began to pose problems for the class. Half of us own PCs and the other half own Macs. Our teacher cut us some initial slack, encouraged us to use the computers in Love Library, and later in the semester brought it back for a lesson:

           “One of the problems with digital literature is accessibility.”

Digital Literature is a wide field of work. The simplest way to describe what digital literature is is to know that it is created through a computer, to be used on a computer, and if it were to be transferred to a traditional book it would lose important aspects of its form and even content. Digital literature is not an ebook as many initially assume. However, digital literature is difficult to define in any one way because it can take many forms from Flash animated poetry to interactive fiction. I recommend any of the works I’ve listed down below to give a wide illustration of what digital literature can be.

pg-screenshot
Screenshot from Shelley Jackson’s “Patchwork Girl.”

Accessibility was a word that applied to books probably more frequently before our modern era of libraries and bookstores and a highly literate population. However, it’s coming back into the language of literary conversations with the introduction of digital literature. I experienced it in that first week of class and even up to today I wrestle with how to enjoy all works of digital literature when I can’t access all of the works that are available.

Today, some pieces make use of Virtual Reality (VR) headsets. Some are apps on the iPhone. Some must be downloaded and then hosted by a downloadable program so that you can run the piece of literature you just downloaded. Really, the largest obstacle to accessing digital literature is that pieces of digital literature aren’t generally listed in traditional locations for literature. They can’t be found in bookstores or libraries, because they aren’t books. Instead, they can be found mingling with video games, on the sites of their creators, and in the archives of the programs used to make them. If you don’t have a lead to go off of, you might never stumble onto one.

In order to fully understand what I’ve been facing, I want you to pause here and go this site: http://collection.eliterature.org/3/. Fumble around there – click on each piece and try to figure out how to access it. Look for download links and system requirements. If you find yourself confused at any point, then you are experiencing precisely the form of inaccessibility that seems to dominate any first time forays into the field.

The ease with which digital literature can become inaccessible became one of my recurring nightmares. Some of the nightmare is pushed by my knowledge that until I gain access to an iPhone I will never be able to read Pry, an app written by the creators Tender Claws, LLC. I recommend that you read Lily’s review here (hyperlink) and then go find an iPhone and read it for me. In fact, tell me how it goes! Perhaps, my nightmares will be soothed when I know that others are able to enjoy what I cannot.

pry-scrnshot
Screen Shot from “Pry,” by Tender Claws, LLC.

You see, a book is, technically, easier to read. We are comfortable with books. We know the main elements of a book and we can expect those. Sometimes, people get a little creative with books and that can either please us or make us uncomfortable. Sometimes, books are translated onto the screen as ebooks. The main thing to remember is that these still look like books. Pages. Cover pages. Each page follows the next. It’s very linear. An ebook is not electronic literature. If you clicked on the link above, you just experienced a self-led introduction to a class called, “What is Electronic Literature?” and you can probably now say that electronic literature is not just a book on a screen.

In my experience, the initial response to digital lit can be a strong inaccessibility point. It is not a book and it is unfamiliar. Looking for a “book” and finding Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl is a shock and not a welcome one. Our class first disliked that the USBs were Mac only. Then, when we finally accessed the content, the most common emotional response to the question, “What did you think of Patchwork Girl?” was “Angry.” Confusion, frustration, and even outrage filled class discussion as we tried to understand just what the hell we were looking at and expected to read – much less analyze and draw any conclusions over.

That’s not to say that Patchwork Girl is poorly written. It’s fantastic. But it’s difficult because we were not used to its form and its content. That seems to happen frequently with digital literature. Flash programmed poetry, augmented reality films, and games don’t fit into our idea of what “literature” can and should be. And so, I encourage everyone and anyone to take a chance and read. Once you’ve got a basic understanding of what literature can be, you can join me as I languish in the pit of Android users unable to access iPhone apps.

For more information on digital literature, head over to these sites!

SDSU E-literature Description

For news and more information!

E-lit from SDSU

Flash generated poetry

Interactive Fiction

Augmented Reality storytelling

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