The Effort Must Happen: Discourse on E-Literature

Strange new devices for viewing text are great entertainment. It is exciting to be able to hear some music and sound effects with a story as you unravel the text from the glowing screen. There is a sense of fun and even some discourse between the creator and the viewer that happens via the interactivity. But really, what is gleaned from multi-media textual adventures? Like with film you are not allowed to interpret things yourself or re-imagine. There is only one lens to look through, which makes interpretation hard. With multi-media texts and films, there is one story, one way to see it, and hardly any literary fun to be had. Symbolism is one such literary treat readers look for—meaning deeper than the words. `Not that this is impossible to get across in multi-media literature, just that it usually doesn’t because there are other bells and whistles to focus on. However, what if there was a great film that got to symbolism?
I recently watched a film for another class called “The Spitfire Grill” that was rather low on some cinematic levels, but had a vast store of symbolism and “hidden messages” in every name and event in the movie. Supposing films were held up to the same standards that traditional literature is, films reaching this far into meaning could probably make the cut. So maybe the answer lies in taking different approaches to film or similar approaches to film that are asked of in literature.
I think though, that traditional literature poses more of an athletic challenge for our minds in contrast to video or some multimedia literature. When there is just text on a page, your mind has to work for the story and the images. The reader must meet the author halfway and put out some effort to understand what is being said. This is not just ambiguity like in some modern poetry. It’s just an inch harder to read something and then see it in your mind’s eye than it is to click and view what the text is saying. A way I’ve seen such multimedia trying to break from this is video poems which use images that add to the poem. They show images that give an interpretation of their own words. This gives dual meaning and more to think about and is more up to the viewer to decide, which is why readers like to read: they like to be provoked to thought.
There is a certain higher level of thought and “human” touch that goes into writing that is not coming across in other media outlets though. The human touch is a conscious effort on the side of the author to give his true thoughts and feelings on a subject via a story. That can get lost in the neon and strobe lights of multimedia since it’s too exciting to experiment with the tech rather than the words. The author’s job is to write well and write what he means and what he thinks other people need to hear. It has a responsibility to be worth something. John Gardner says that a story about a villain and hero pitted against each other is fine (translate to “a story of click and read”), but it is not good enough; “it can contain cleverness and preachments, but not the struggle of thought” (109). The French word essayer means “to try”. This is what readers want to see in literature. A deeper kind of trying thought beyond “I tried to put an electronic nonlinear narrative together” and it is just bad quality with no provocative insight. Of course, that can happen in traditional literature too, but there are less ways to forgive print and therefore (fewer sound bites to hide behind and fewer graphics to grade) it is judged more harshly and therefore must try harder to be better. Maybe someday multimedia will be there. There are some interesting things happening on its horizon. The human touch from the reader is to be one of willingness to find. You could say, “I am willing to try multi-media text and storytelling” and it would be a good thing to try but I think should still be held up to the higher standards of traditional literature. And readers must also look for that standard.
If modern texts want to be taken as seriously as the tried and true method of books, then it needs to step up and take the responsibility to be that good. Brief flashes of text are not sufficient. Gardner says that “Moral fiction communicates meanings discovered by the process of fiction’s creation” (108). Again, to try. Words must be written out in order to discover. Ideas flow that way. When Gardner says “moral” he doesn’t mean to be religiously right or a “good person”. But perhaps he is trying to get a reaction out of readers with that word who are more likely to say that all fiction doesn’t have to be righteous and good. “Moral” here, however, meaning: well done, quality, thought out, useful, intelligent, and (maybe) thought provoking. And it also lies on the part of the reader. An interactive story I found during the semester was about a girl who was beaten by her father. A sad story, but one I’ve heard a million times. The layout was black and white with solemn music in the background with “haunting” images floating around. But the text was sparse. It didn’t let me know how this girl felt. It didn’t invite me into her world (despite the images it was trying to get across) and didn’t tell me what she was thinking or how it applied to the world on a larger scale. It was simply, “How sad, child abuse is bad!” I know that. Show me something about it. Electronics have a hard time communicating to humans. Right? Philip K. Dick and John Sundman, the author of “Cheap Complex Devices” essayer on this topic in their books about technology.
If we take Gardner’s definition of “moral” and apply it to our technology, we can begin to discuss “Blade Runner”. What moral obligation do these humans have to the androids in Dick’s novel? Well, they destroy them if they get too out of hand and start to live like humans or retreat to earth. Therefore, it was Deckard’s job to stop them from mixing with humans. What if we look at the androids as literature? The moral obligation of the humans then is to make them well and useful. Deckard even discovers a little of himself through hunting the androids. He essays about them while going after them. He almost falls in love with one. He decides he likes being human. He realizes he’s human (other theories accepted) because he wants that animal but he wants his wife more.
Then the androids wonder why they have to serve the humans and then go rogue. Can literature go rogue? I think Sundman answers this with his question of “can computers write good fiction?” in Cheap Complex Devices. Supposedly a story about a computer who wrote a novel, if it’s carefully read, it may be seen as a very out-side-of-itself story. Meaning, what if the computer wrote not just the story, but the introduction as well? That would mean that the computer made up the story about the computer-written novel contest and created the characters in the Notes section. In this section, the computer would be telling a story about how clever it was in sending out the Bremser spam and deleting all other entries for the contest. What a clever story for a computer. And it has a bit of an ego too, in this case.
Assuming this is what Cheap Complex Devices is about, then it is good literature even by Gardner’s standards. It has characters, plots, discoveries, and is morally good; our thoughts are provoked by it. If literature can be written by computers and if androids can assimilate that well into human society, why do we need humans in the future of literature? To answer, Gardner uses the illustration of electronic music which can be very similar to electronic literature whether created by machine or viewed on a machine: “The synthesizer kills the dynamics, smashes through nuances, and equalizes the music’s progression of events so that we can feel no dramatic profluence” (Gardner 63). Granted, the French duo Daft Punk are an internationally famous electric band and I have all of their albums. However, what Gardner says is still true even for these successful and innovative masters: there are no changes in sound level and the same drum beat is played throughout and becomes, after a few minutes, hard to listen to. I can get through the first few minutes of Daft Punk’s older songs, but as they eveolved as a band (they only appear in public dressed as robots) their songs did become more complicated and they relied less on synthesizers and played live. Regular synth-music is played onto a computer and then performed by pressing buttons. Songs recorded live have more variety. For example, being a dancer means I find the nuances in music and translate them into movement. Raqs sharqi (Arabic for “dance of the east”) especially thrives on little nuances since sometimes the dance must be performed off beat or between a beat. I dance specifically to the singer sometimes and follow his voice in every waver and twitch. Those little things, the imperfections maybe, are what make it real and what a dancer like myself tries to interpret in her movements. A machine cannot make a mistake, we program them not to. In Dick’s novel, the problem arises when the androids start acting human.
So now it can be assumed that our mistakes are what make us human. I happen to be a drafter: I absolutely cannot write well in a first draft. I have to go back, see what I did that is not working and work it over again. But when I find a slip up or something not sounding how I meant it to, sometimes I take from that and create something else. I see less and less drafting in the future for literature. Humans will not want to go back and look over their work once we have editing machines that can fix our sentences to sound perfect and yet “natural”. Therefore, people will have to think less and we’ll wonder what authors are even there for. Will we just be there to take down the rogue literature like Deckard? What makes those lit-cops know what rogue literature is even? No one will even really be writing by then.
I’ve taken to writing differently than I used to simply because I’m reading differently now. For reading, I used to just like or not like something. But this class has taught me that I better have a lot of firm backup for why I like something. Austen for example. Of course, I am a lower-middle class female who has never dated, so naturally Pride and Prejudice appeals to me as that kind of reader. From a writer’s point of view, or reading as a writer, I have to apply the same rules (taken mostly from Gardner) that I apply to literature that I don’t like to see if it passes or is “good literature”. However, there is a snafu in this theory (despite how correct I think Gardner is). The writer can only do so much of her moral duty as is humanly possible for her. Then it comes to the moral duty of the reader to look for those things that the writer has put in and read it the same way the writer wrote it. This is not likely to happen as everyone has differing levels of intelligence, points of view, contexts, and life situations in general. How readers will usually read and how I believe is the best way to approach a piece of work is the way Roland Barthes suggests: “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author” (Barthes). Bathes means that readers cannot constantly be having the author looking over their shoulder correcting what they think or how they read something.
If the writer has taken up their burden of writing moral (good, according to Gardner) fiction, then they are above reproach and cannot be blamed if their literature is not popular or understood. Maybe ever. So after the writer has done his job, he must be removed from the work and now it is up for interpretation by the reader, who should then take up their moral duty and read intelligently or with thought. It is also then up to the re-creators to do a good, thorough reading and understand the traditional text before they try to adapt it or re-interpret or even change the meaning. Yes, the author must be removed for interpretation for that to happen.
I take this argument to pardon the electronic literature of today. I don’t ever really think of the author when viewing this new media, but maybe I am looking too deep, or not seeing what they intended. Perhaps I, the reader, am just missing it. Multimedia literature is a strange and exciting new horizon that needs willing people to do it justice.
My hope for literature and technology is that the combination does more than just mix the two. If technology can bring something to words that could not come across on their own (images and sound are fantastic), then that would be successful. If it is for the sake of entertainment, then it’s rather unnecessary. Art should provoke humans to thought.

Works Cited
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image – Music – Text. Ed New York: Hill and
Wang, 1977. 142-148.
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Ballantine, 1996. Print.
Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction. New York: Basic, 1978. Print.
Sundman, John Compton. Cheap Complex Devices. Tisbury, MA: Rosalita Assoc., 2002.


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