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Lit. 101000101

Can traditional; notions of literature survive the technical innovations of an increasingly online culture?

By John Rodat

Way back in 1992, Robert Coover—whom many critics believed to be one of the most innovative of the postmodern writers, one of those most successfully animating an allegedly faltering form—wrote an essay for The New York Times titled, ominously, “The End of Books.”

“In the real world nowadays,” Coover wrote, “that is to say in the world of video transmissions, cellular phones, fax machines, computer networks, and in particular out in the humming digitalized precincts of avant-garde computer hackers, cyberpunks and hyperspace freaks, you will often hear it said that the print medium is a doomed and outdated technology. . . . Indeed, the very proliferation of books and other print-based media . . . is held to be a sign of its feverish moribundity, the last futile gasp of a once vital form before it finally passes away forever, dead as God.”

These dire predictions now seem premature. Books—that is, printed books of text, actual physical objects—continue to be written, manufactured, sold, consumed and debated. The authors of such books still tour the big-box retailers (of which there are more) and independent bookstores (of which there are far fewer) reading from, signing and hawking products with actual heft and weight—literally, if not always literarily. And the more prominent of those authors still grant interviews and make the rounds of talk shows—or, amid much fuss and tiptoeing round Oprah, don’t make the rounds. Books are obviously still out there.

But were Coover’s doomsayers completely off-base? The cyberpunks, the hyperspace freaks, were they little more than millenarian-type crackpots cranked up on caffeine and binary code? Does the publishing industry remain untouched by the computer revolution? Well, duh, of course not.

One of the more interesting and practical developments is the advent of online publishing companies. Traditional publishing firms are, in keeping with other megacorporations, downsizing and consolidating in an attempt to remain profitable. The once highbrow aristocratic image of the industry has given way to a different type of exclusive elitism. In his book Rebel Yell: A Short Guide to Writing Fiction, Lance Olsen quotes the head of Knopf, Sonny Mehta, espousing his bottom-line philosophy: “Why should I publish books if they’re not going to make money?” And unless you’re Michael Crichton, Stephen King or a former president, chances are your book won’t. Which is why, according to Olsen, less than 1 percent of submitted manuscripts are accepted and published by traditional firms—a daunting figure in light of the fact that the American Council of Arts reports that more than 38 million Americans are currently writing creatively.

One computer-based solution is provided by online services such as iUniverse.com. Submit your finished manuscript, and for a base price of $99 (slightly higher if you submit via “snail mail”) you get “your work published as a high-quality, trade paperback print-on-demand book.” By printing only on demand—that is, only when a customer orders—iUniverse spares itself unnecessary expense and overhead and can, the theory is, put more money in the pocket of the author. (Metroland music writer J. Eric Smith went that route for his first novel, Eponymous.) The iUniverse Web site boasts a royalty rate of 20 percent, a rate significantly higher than the estimated industry average of 6 to 12 percent. In addition, the press promises to secure a unique ISBN (International Standard Book Number) for your book, allowing for its distribution through national retail bookstores, such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com.

However, the end result of that Internet-facilitated process is still a printed artifact, an actual book (many books if you’re talented and/or lucky). At this late date, a full decade after Coover’s seeming eulogy for print, shouldn’t we have an example of truly non-print-based literature? Well, sure.

It’s called hypertext, and at the time Coover was writing, it was already at least five years old. Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, released on floppy disk in 1987, is regarded as the first popularly significant example of hyperfiction, which Joyce defined as “true electronic text, what we will come to conceive as the natural form of multinodal, multisensual writing.” For a layman’s explanation, (or an example, anyway) of what multinodal, multisensual writing might look like, check out the online literary magazine of the University at Albany (www.albany.edu/~litmag /vol222):

“Repeat Rinse Sanitize,” by Davis Schneiderman, with contributions from Matt Kirkpatrick, begins as an e-mail file bearing the path heading: “reply-to: noone@somewhere.net.” The indicated sender is “anyonecanwrite.” A poetically rambling message follows.

It begins, “All communication is one way and RINSE—is an editor whose services are responsible for all formats of the associate consistent voice merchandising division . . .” By clicking on the ENTER HEAR link at the end of the message, you are presented with a triptych of scrolling windows bearing the titles Repeat, Rinse, Sanitize. Each scroll contains highlighted passages that, when clicked, propel you forward into the subsequent scroll, or at the end of the third, backward to the previous. The format—the triptych, the scrolls—suggests fine-art and religious history, but the words and the nonlinear, episodic nature of navigation through them, confound attempts to derive a dogmatic or pedagogical purpose: “Xiola explodes the plotlines of the Megalopolis, moving backwards, unfolding katydids, blooming lotus freeways . . .” Click. “Symbiote jogs ahead like a memory . . .” Click. “ACCOMMODATE THE LONG tirade of minute rewrites from the overworked sci-fi-fed brainiacs . . .” Click.

Or consider “1 With Pierre’s Words,” from the magazine’s CD-ROM anthology Gravitational Intrigue. Over a grid of photographs featuring seated musicians and a blurred dancer, words scroll in the right-hand margin: “Strum . . . strum . . . strum . . . mmmm . . . sssss.” They graphically reproduce a portion of the soundtrack, in which poet Pierre Joris intones those words over a composition for flute, conga and electronics.

Are these works of literature? Are they poems? Are they even stories—with their plotlines exploded? Unrecognizable, even chaotic, as they may seem to those familiar with the more-or-less orderly progression from “Call me Ishmael” to “Finis,” they are nonetheless crafted works. Don Byrd, professor of English at the University at Albany and faculty advisor to The Little Magazine, points to the wizard behind the screen.

“In hypertext, the idea is that you’re completely free inside the information,” he says, seemingly reiterating hypertext- revolutionary rhetoric. “But, in fact, you’re not. There is someone who already knows the map.”

So, despite the apparent avoidance of the traditional dramatic arc, there is still an authorial presence behind the works, an intention, however obscure. And the issue of hypertext documents’ definition as specifically literary works is just a splinter debate of a much larger—and hoary—discussion, according to Byrd.

“The whole idea of literary-ness is similar to the whole idea of art,” he says. “Art has always been this specialized zone, this kind of blessed zone where we manage to have a kind of freedom to design the world kind of as we want. And increasingly, we get to design the actual world, for instance, with control of the genome and with various kinds of interventions in the physical world—not just the aesthetic world. Suddenly, the real attraction comes not from designing this ideal logic off in an art space, but out in the real world.”

But what of time-honored categories and art-critical definitions, the blessed zone of the literary?

Byrd chuckles at what he typifies as a “tightassed” concern of the academic art scene. “Universities are conservative on purpose,” he says. “It’s their job to ensure that the inherited database does not get infected with charlatans and fads.” In other words, the argument as to what is, and is not, literature provides little more than an obstacle to the production of some really cool shit.

In the place of an elbow-patched scholarly-type transcribing meaning into printed text, Byrd proposes a different authorial archetype. “My model of the ideal relationship to information is the DJ, where the DJ has the box of vinyl there, and can select and move and produce stuff,” he says. “Where you’re actually intervening with the information in some way.” It’s the potential for real-time collaboration and interaction between author-composer and audience (readers-auditors-dancers) that most excites Byrd. And if that collaboration erases the traditional and discreet notions of author and audience, if they become one another, or if literature adopts an alias, so be it.

“If you get a situation where you’re actually plugged into the information flow, it’s a much more powerful relationship to information,” Byrd says.

And, he says, strange as the new forms may appear to the uninitiated or the archly conservative, this oddity is only an appropriate beginning. After all, he notes with a laugh, “I’ve never been able to find things to read that are as weird as life.”

So, though it is likely still too soon to order flowers for the graveside of the book, we almost certainly have experienced the beginning of a new, unique and parallel literary environment—one for which you won’t have to make quite as much shelf space.



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