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Why is electronic literature different than traditional print?

Nao!_text
As an ebook avoider who is more likely to thumb through an auto parts catalogue than actually look at an ebook, I realized that the first thing I had to do in exploring the world of digital literature was to get straight on what I’m talking about. I needed some definitions, because I had a sneaking suspicion that there’s a lot more out there to be curious about than just electronic books.  What exactly are the new forms that we’re seeing today?

I came across a 2013 Library of Congress program entitled “The Electronic Literature Showcase”, 3 days designed to raise awareness of the growing field of digital literary expression, which included the exhibit, “Electronic Literature & Its Emerging Forms.”

The curatorial statement for the exhibit defines electronic literature as a “digital born” literary work, or something created on a computer and usually meant to be read on a computer.

Which, honestly, makes me kind of start snoring a little bit.

But, hang on. Read through an overview of the exhibit, and it gets more interesting. Electronic literature, by this definition, is special because it takes advantage of what’s unique and different about computers and devices. It builds upon, experiments with, and extends what we’re already doing with print, but goes beyond it, in ways that print can’t.

The overview goes on to say:

Words dance across computer screens while games become poems become puzzles, or readers choose their own path through multi-layered hypertext narrative or use hand-held devices to view works that are location-aware.

It makes sense to me (especially after taking a look at some of the latest, best offerings, which I’ll share in a later post) that there really are new emerging forms of narrative that are their own animal. Think about the early days of television. People in the industry would have had to figure out that you couldn’t just slap a head-on stage production on TV – they had to figure out a whole new form, with cuts and camera angles and all the endless touches and techniques that differentiate screen from stage.

The exhibit’s notes also make the point that electronic literature is an artistic medium, just like any other medium. “Give an artist something, anything, to create with––air, animal skin, paper, computer screen––and she or he will find a way to use it for making art.” 

The takeaway: there’s a whole experimental form called “electronic literature”, which is so much more than just ebooks.