Researching E-Lit and Its Printed Materials

Think back. It’s 1991, and you’ve just bought yourself a home computer. It’s one of those cute, little Macintosh Classics that smile at you as it boots up. Never in your life have you ever used a computer, but now you plan to learn. You had a friend set it up for you and show you how to turn it on. It took you a while to master the mouse. The experience of moving your hand on the pad and seeing the cursor move in unison somewhere on the monitor was freaky at first, but you did get the hang of it. You learned how to put a floppy disk in the slot––the drive they called it––and double-click on the icon to open a file. You like knowing the right terms for these things. It makes you feel confident and at ease with the environment. Today you received Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story, a work you had read about in the New York Times Review of Books, in the mail from Eastgate Systems, Inc. You want to read it. It is the work you just slipped into the drive. It opens––that is, you watch a screen that shows links and paths loading––and finally shift to a title page, something decidedly more familiar though the typography remains odd. You sit and consider what to do next. Beside you is the folio that the floppy disk came packaged in. At first glance, it looks strangely bookish, but you were not fooled when you opened it. You knew it contained the disk. You were pleasantly surprised that it also held a manual, one that showed you how to read the work. In fact, it told you exactly how to use the disk with the computer. Step by step. It was, you said to yourself, a piece of cake.

What you came to realize over time, though, is that each work you purchased could very well have a different accompanying print-based object. Sometimes the variations were keyed to the software program, but more often than not, they were quirks of the works themselves. Unlike a print book that you knew exactly what to expect from its material expression, electronic literary works seemed to differ greatly from one another. Sarah Smith’s King of Space asked you to make a folder on the desktop and move the contents from the two disks to it before you could read the work, while Stuart’s Moulthrop’s Victory Garden just needed you to double-click on the disk icon and wait till it loaded. To make matters more complex, the printed material that came packaged with or was associated in some way with the digital also varied in degrees in its relationship to the digital. The digital content for Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s Between Page and Screen, for instance, cannot be instantiated without its printed book and the printed book with its pages of symbols made no sense without the digital site. Diana Slattery’s The Glide Project on the other hand illuminates the details of the glyph language and the culture found in her book, The Maze Game. For those early hypertext works you were trying to get a handle on in 1991, though, the paper, printed content that accompanied the physical artifact of the disk became the book while the digital work of literature was that something else, that thing that back in 1991 called hypertext fiction. As Robert Coover said in that article in the New York Times Review of Books you read that drove you to buy Joyce’s “novel,” this was definitely not a book, but the end of books.

I am writing about this topic because Élika Ortega, from Northeastern University, has been spending the week in ELL studying the printed texts that accompany electronic literature. Actually because her scope focuses on the relationship of the print to the digital, I have pulled from the shelves a wide range of works like Joyce’s hypertext novel, but also Judy Malloy’s Uncle Roger, Version 3.3 (with its plastic box of paper inserts and 5.25″ floppy disks), Borsuk and Bouse’s Between Page and Screen (a book full of augmented reality triggers that reveal an unrequited love story), Slattery’s The Glide Project (or what is left of the online site), and other treasures. It has been exciting and fun to have a fellow e-lit scholar using the lab and library, especially one who has curated such a wonderful electronic literature exhibit and so knowledgeable about the work. Her project, which will lead to a book, will be both timely and useful for scholars who are trying to understand the way in which digital and print have worked together, sometimes resulting in an experience in which neither can comfortably function without the other, sometimes in which the print adds little, sometimes where the digital takes a back seat to the printed text, and spaces in between. But for those of us in those early days who relied on the print content contained in those folios in order to make sense of the weird plastic object we held in our hand that was supposed to be a novel, we appreciated the paper breadcrumbs of the familiar place we knew we were leaving far behind.