Electronic literature

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Electronic literature or digital literature is a genre of literature encompassing works created exclusively on and for digital devices, such as computers, tablets, and mobile phones. A work of electronic literature can be defined as "a construction whose literary aesthetics emerge from computation", "work that could only exist in the space for which it was developed/written/coded—the digital space". [1] This means that these writings cannot be easily printed, or cannot be printed at all, because elements crucial to the text are unable to be carried over onto a printed version. The digital literature world continues to innovate print's conventions all the while challenging the boundaries between digitized literature and electronic literature. Some novels are exclusive to tablets and smartphones for the simple fact that they require a touchscreen. Digital literature tends to require a user to traverse through the literature through the digital setting, making the use of the medium part of the literary exchange. Espen J. Aarseth wrote in his book Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature that "it is possible to explore, get lost, and discover secret paths in these texts, not metaphorically, but through the topological structures of the textual machinery". [2]

Tablet computer mobile computer with display, circuitry and battery in a single unit

A tablet computer, commonly shortened to tablet, is a mobile device, typically with a mobile operating system and touchscreen display processing circuitry, and a rechargeable battery in a single, thin and flat package. Tablets, being computers, do what other personal computers do, but lack some input/output (I/O) abilities that others have. Modern tablets largely resemble modern smartphones, the only differences being that tablets are relatively larger than smartphones, with screens 7 inches (18 cm) or larger, measured diagonally, and may not support access to a cellular network.

Touchscreen input/output device usually layered on the top of an electronic visual display

A touchscreen, or touch screen, is a both input and output device and normally layered on the top of an electronic visual display of an information processing system. A user can give input or control the information processing system through simple or multi-touch gestures by touching the screen with a special stylus or one or more fingers. Some touchscreens use ordinary or specially coated gloves to work while others may only work using a special stylus or pen. The user can use the touchscreen to react to what is displayed and, if the software allows, to control how it is displayed; for example, zooming to increase the text size.



It is difficult to accurately define electronic literature. The phrase itself consists of two words, each with their own specific meanings. Arthur Krystal in What Is Literature explains that "lit(t)eratura referred to any writing formed with letters". [3] However, Krystal goes on to explore what literature has transformed into: "a record of one human being's sojourn on earth, proffered in verse or prose that artfully weaves together knowledge of the past with a heightened awareness of the present in ever new verbal configurations". Electronic denotes anything "of, relating to, or being a medium...by which information is transmitted electronically". [4] Thus electronic literature can be considered a branch from the main tree of literature. Katherine Hayles discusses the topic in the online article Electronic Literature: What Is It. [5] She argues "electronic literature, generally considered to exclude print literature that has been digitized, is by contrast 'digital born', and (usually) meant to be read on a computer". A definition offered by the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) states electronic literature "refers to works with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer".

The Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) is a nonprofit organization "established in 1999 to promote and facilitate the writing, publishing, and reading of electronic literature".

On its official website, the ELO offers this additional definition of electronic literature as consisting of works which are:

E-book Book-length publication in digital form

An electronic book, also known as an e-book or eBook, is a book publication made available in digital form, consisting of text, images, or both, readable on the flat-panel display of computers or other electronic devices. Although sometimes defined as "an electronic version of a printed book", some e-books exist without a printed equivalent. E-books can be read on dedicated e-reader devices, but also on any computer device that features a controllable viewing screen, including desktop computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones.

Digital poetry form of electronic literature

Digital poetry is a form of electronic literature, displaying a wide range of approaches to poetry, with a prominent and crucial use of computers. Digital poetry can be available in form of CD-ROM, DVD, as installations in art galleries, in certain cases also recorded as digital video or films, as digital holograms, on the World Wide Web or Internet, and as mobile phone apps.

Adobe Flash is a deprecated multimedia software platform used for production of animations, rich Internet applications, desktop applications, mobile applications, mobile games and embedded web browser video players. Flash displays text, vector graphics and raster graphics to provide animations, video games and applications. It allows streaming of audio and video, and can capture mouse, keyboard, microphone and camera input. Related development platform Adobe AIR continues to be supported.

While the ELO definition incorporates many aspects that are applied in digital literature, the definition lacks any solid guidelines and also fails to recognize literature created on social media platforms including Twitterature. With the apparent vagueness, many debate on what truly qualifies as a piece of e-literature. A large number of works fall through the cracks of the imprecise characteristics that generally make up electronic literature.

Twitterature is a literary use of the microblogging service of Twitter. It includes various genres, including aphorisms, poetry, and fiction written by individuals or collaboratively.


A gradual transition into the digital world beginning with new advancements in technology to makes things more efficient and accessible. This is comparable to the release of the printing press in the 15th century, as people did not consider it a major contributor to literature at first. In the 1960s and 1970s, the creation of the personal computer allowed people to begin expanding literature into the electronic realm.


In 1877, spoken word recordings began with the invention of the phonograph. [6] In the 1930s, the first "talking book" recordings were made to hold short stories and book chapters. [7] The 1970s were when the term "audiobook" became part of the vernacular as cassette tapes entered the public. [8] 1971 was the year officially accepted as the year of the first e-book. Although there were several contenders to the invention of an "electronic book" prior to this, Michael Hart, the founder of the Gutenberg Project, has been accepted as the official inventor of the e-book after creating a digital copy of the Declaration of Independence. [8]

Early history

In 1975–76, Will Crowther programmed a text game named Colossal Cave Adventure (also known as Adventure). Considered one of the earlier computer adventure games, it possessed a story that had the reader make choices on which way to go. These choices could lead the reader to the end, or to his or her untimely death. This non-linear format was later mimicked by the text adventure game, Zork , created by a group of MIT students in 1977–79. These two games are considered to be the first examples of interactive fiction as well as some of the earliest video games. The earliest pieces of electronic literature as presently defined were created using Storyspace, software developed by Jay David Bolter and Michael Joyce in the 1980s. [9] They sold the software in 1990 to Eastgate Systems, a small software company that has maintained and updated the code in Storyspace up to the present. [8] Storyspace and other similar programs use hypertext to create links within text. Literature using hypertext is frequently referred to as hypertext fiction. Originally, these stories were often disseminated on discs and later on CD. [7] Hypertext fiction is still being created today using not only Storyspace, but other programs such as Twine.

<i>Colossal Cave Adventure</i> 1975 video game

Colossal Cave Adventure is a text adventure game, developed between 1975-1977, by Will Crowther for the PDP-10 mainframe. The game was expanded upon in 1977, with help from Don Woods, and other programmers created variations on the game and ports to other systems in the following years.

<i>Zork</i> video game series

Zork is one of the earliest interactive fiction computer games, with roots drawn from the original genre game Colossal Cave Adventure. The first version of Zork was written between 1977 and 1979 using the MDL programming language on a DEC PDP-10 computer. The authors—Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling—were members of the MIT Dynamic Modelling Group.

Storyspace is a software program for creating, editing, and reading hypertext fiction. It can also be used for writing and organizing fiction and non-fiction intended for print. Maintained and distributed by Eastgate Systems, the software is available both for Windows and Mac.


While hypertext fiction is still being made and interactive fiction created with text stories and images, there is a discussion over the term, "literature" being used to describe video games. Though Adventure and Zork are considered video games, advancements in technology have evolved video gaming mediums from text to action and back to text. More often than not, video games are told as interactive literature where the player makes choices and alters the outcome of the story. The video game Mass Effect 's story is entirely based around these choices, and Mass Effect 3 is an even better example, changing character interactions with the player character and how the game ends is based on the player's actions.

In other instances the games are a story and the player exists to move the plot along. Journey , a game by Thatgamecompany released in 2012 for the PlayStation 3, is more story than game. The titular "journey" is the trek the player takes from start to finish as a character with limited mobility and world interaction. While the player can play with one other player at a time on the network, they cannot communicate through traditional means. With no actual words, this game takes the player through a world from prologue to epilogue.

In Espen Aarseth's Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, he defines "ergodic literature" as literature where "nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text". [7] An example from Aarseth states, "Since writing always has been a spatial activity, it is reasonable to assume that ergodic textuality has been practiced as long as linear writing. For instance, the wall inscriptions of the temples in ancient Egypt were often connected two-dimensionally (on one wall) or three-dimensionally (from wall to wall and from room to room), and this layout allowed a nonlinear arrangement of the religious text in accordance with the symbolic architectural layout of the temple." Using these examples hypertext fiction and interactive fiction can be considered ergodic literature, and under the umbrella of interactive fiction, so can video games. Electronic literature continues to evolve.

Preservation and archiving

Electronic literature, according to Hayles, becomes unplayable after a decade or less due to the "fluid nature of media". Therefore, electronic literature risks losing the opportunity to build the "traditions associated with print literature". [10] On the other hand, classics such as Michael Joyce's afternoon, a story (1987) are still read and have been republished on CD, while simple HTML hypertext fictions from the 1990s are still accessible online and can be read in modern browsers.

Several organizations are dedicated to preserving works of electronic literature. The UK-based Digital Preservation Coalition aims to preserve digital resources in general, while the Electronic Literature Organization's PAD (Preservation / Archiving / Dissemination) initiative gave recommendations on how to think ahead when writing and publishing electronic literature, as well as how to migrate works running on defunct platforms to current technologies. [11] [12]

The Electronic Literature Collection is a series of anthologies of electronic literature published by the Electronic Literature Organization, both on CD/DVD and online, and this is another strategy in working to make sure that electronic literature is available for future generations.

The Maryland Institute for Technologies in the Humanities and the Electronic Literature Lab at Washington State University - Vancouver also work towards the documentation and preservation of electronic literature and hypermedia.

Notable people and works

Noteworthy authors, critics, and works associated with electronic literature include:

Robert Coover, a professor of creative writing at Brown University, helped bring Talan Memmott to the university as its first graduate fellow of electronic writing. [13]

Pry, a novella, a collaboration between Danny Cannizzaro and Samantha Gorman (also known as Tender Claws). It is an electronic literature application for phones and tablets. By utilizing the touch-based gestures used on tablets, Pry proves to be a very dynamic approach to the emerging e-lit genre. The use of these gestures allow the reader to dig beneath the story at the surface of Pry.

Game, game, game and again game (2008), Nothing you have done deserves such praise (2013), I made this. you play this. we are enemies (2009), and Scrape Scraperteeth (2011) are important examples of the intersection of games and poetry. [14] They are created by digital poet and net-artist Jason Nelson whose career has been devoting to exploring interface, interactivity, and surrealism within electronic literature.

See also


  1. Heckman, Davin; O'Sullivan, James (2018). "Electronic Literature: Contexts and Poetics". Literary Studies in the Digital Age: An Evolving Anthology. Retrieved 2018-04-12.
  2. Aarseth, Espen J. (1997). "Ergodic Literature". Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (PDF). The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN   9780801855795.
  3. Krystal, Arthur (March 2014). "What Is Literature?". Harper's Magazine. Retrieved April 25, 2016.
  4. "Definition of ELECTRONIC". www.merriam-webster.com. Retrieved 2017-06-01.
  5. N. Katherine Hayles (January 2, 2007). "Electronic Literature: What is it?" . Retrieved April 25, 2016.
  6. Matthew Rubery, ed. (2011). "Introduction". Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies. Routledge. pp. 1–21. ISBN   978-0-415-88352-8
  7. 1 2 3 Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997
  8. 1 2 3 Barnet, Belinda. "Machine Enhanced (Re)minding: The Development of Storyspace."
  9. Bolter, J. David and Michael Joyce (1987). "Hypertext and Creative Writing", Proceedings of ACM Hypertext 1987, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States, pages 41-50
  10. 4 Preservation, Archiving, and Dissemination, Electronic Literature: What is it?
  11. Montfort, Nick and Noah Wardrip-Fruin "Acid-Free Bits: Recommendations for Long-Lasting Electronic Literature". The Electronic Literature Organization, 2004.
  12. Alan Liu, David Durand, Nick Montfort, Merrilee Proffitt, Liam R. E. Quin, Jean-Hugues Réty, and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. "2005 "Born-Again Bits: A Framework for Migrating Electronic Literature". Electronic Literature Organization, 2005.
  13. Baard, Mark. "Writing in 3-D" (July/August 2003). Brown Alumni Monthly. pp. 33–35.
  14. Szilak, Illya. "It's All Fun Until Someone Loses: E-lit Plays Games". Huffington Post.

Related Research Articles

Hypertext text displayed on a computer display or other electronic devices with references (hyperlinks) to other text which the reader can immediately access

Hypertext is text displayed on a computer display or other electronic devices with references (hyperlinks) to other text that the reader can immediately access. Hypertext documents are interconnected by hyperlinks, which are typically activated by a mouse click, keypress set or by touching the screen. Apart from text, the term "hypertext" is also sometimes used to describe tables, images, and other presentational content formats with integrated hyperlinks. Hypertext is one of the key underlying concepts of the World Wide Web, where Web pages are often written in the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). As implemented on the Web, hypertext enables the easy-to-use publication of information over the Internet.

Hypermedia, an extension of the term hypertext, is a nonlinear medium of information that includes graphics, audio, video, plain text and hyperlinks. This designation contrasts with the broader term multimedia, which may include non-interactive linear presentations as well as hypermedia. It is also related to the field of electronic literature. The term was first used in a 1965 article written by Ted Nelson.

Hypertext fiction is a genre of electronic literature, characterized by the use of hypertext links that provide a new context for non-linearity in literature and reader interaction. The reader typically chooses links to move from one node of text to the next, and in this fashion arranges a story from a deeper pool of potential stories. Its spirit can also be seen in interactive fiction.

Ergodic literature is a term coined by Espen J. Aarseth in his book Cybertext—Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Aarseth's book contains the most commonly cited definition:

In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text. If ergodic literature is to make sense as a concept, there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial, with no extranoematic responsibilities placed on the reader except eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages.

Espen J. Aarseth is a figure in the fields of video game studies and electronic literature. Aarseth completed his doctorate at the University of Bergen. He co-founded the Department of Humanistic Informatics at the University of Bergen, and worked there until 2003, at which time he was a full professor. He is currently a full professor and Head of Center at the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen.

Michael Joyce is a professor of English at Vassar College, New York, US. He is also an important author and critic of electronic literature.

<i>afternoon, a story</i> work of digital literature by Michael Joyce

afternoon, a story, spelled with a lowercase 'a', is a work of electronic literature written in 1987 by American author Michael Joyce. It was published by Eastgate Systems in 1990 and is known as one of the first works of hypertext fiction.

George Paul Landow is Professor of English and Art History Emeritus at Brown University. He is a leading authority on Victorian literature, art, and culture, as well as a pioneer in criticism and theory of Electronic literature, hypertext and hypermedia. He also pioneered the use of hypertext and the web in higher education.

<i>Patchwork Girl</i> (hypertext) Work of electronic literature by Shelley Jackson

Patchwork Girl is a work of electronic literature by American author Shelley Jackson. It was written in Storyspace and published by Eastgate Systems in 1995. It is often discussed along with Michael Joyce's afternoon, a story as an important work of hypertext fiction.

Jay David Bolter is the Wesley Chair of New Media and a professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His areas of study include the evolution of media, the use of technology in education, and the role of computers in the writing process. More recently, he has conducted research in the area of augmented reality and mixed media. Bolter collaborates with researchers in the Augmented Environments Lab, co-directed with Blair MacIntyre, to create apps for entertainment, cultural heritage and education for smart phones and tablets. This supports his theory regarding remediation where he discusses "all media functions as remediators and that remediation offers us a means of interpreting the work of earlier media as well".

J. Yellowlees Douglas American academic

Jane Yellowlees Douglas is a pioneer author and scholar of hypertext fiction. She began writing about hypermedia in the late 1980s, very early in the development of the medium. Her 1993 fiction I Have Said Nothing, was one of the first published works of hypertext fiction.

Eastgate Systems is a publisher and software company headquartered in Watertown, Massachusetts, which publishes hypertext.

Cybertext is the organization of text in order to analyze the influence of the medium as an integral part of the literary dynamic, as defined by Espen Aarseth in 1997. Aarseth defined it as a type of ergodic literature.

Deena Larsen is a new media, hypertext author. She is best known for creating structural patterns in hypermedia literature. Larsen has been working with electronic literature since the 1980s and is considered one of the pioneer artists in the field. Her work has been published in online journals such as the Iowa Review Web, Cauldron and Net, frAme, inFLECT, and Blue Moon Review. Since May 2007, the Deena Larsen Collection of early electronic literature has been housed at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.

Mary Ann Buckles is widely credited as the first academic to research and speculate about the emotional and cultural impact of videogames. Buckles’ dissertation, "Interactive Fiction: The Computer Storygame ‘Adventure’", gained attention twenty years after Buckles presented it to the department of German literature at the University of California, San Diego. Espen Aarseth, a researcher based in Copenhagen, is credited with raising the profile of Buckles’ dissertation, which Aarseth quotes eight times in his own book, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature.

Marjorie Luesebrink American author

Marjorie Coverley Luesebrink is an American writer, scholar, and teacher. Writing hypermedia fiction under the pen name M.D. Coverley, she is best known for her epic hypertext novels Califia and Egypt: The Book of Going Forth by Day. Her works incorporate text, image, animation, sound, and structure to create spatial, visual story worlds. A pioneer born-digital writer, she is part of the first generation of electronic literature authors that arose in the 1987–1997 period. Her career includes novels and short stories, scholarship, curating, editing, teaching, and publishing. She is a founding board member and past president of the Electronic Literature Organization and the first winner of the Electronic Literature Organization Career Achievement Award, which was named in her honor.

<i>Electronic Book Review</i>

Electronic Book Review (ebr) is a peer-reviewed scholarly journal with emphasis on the digital. Founded in 1995 by Joseph Tabbi and Mark Amerika, the journal was one of the first to devote a lasting web presence to the discussion of literature, theory, criticism, and the arts.


  1. Official website for Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary