The Electronic World is Round -- There is No Digital Edge
by Jennifer Ley
Two years into the new millennium, one would think certain Modernist literary affectations would have bitten the proverbial dust; among them, a preoccupation with what Michael Joyce has called 'first-ness', avant garde edginess, and the continuing need many writers and editors seem to feel to point out that people prefer the feel of paper under their fingers to reading at the flickering hearth of their computer screens. I have a secret to share with all of you. Most publishers, editors and publishers of online literary magazines, and creators of the hypertext and hypermedia works they often showcase, still like to read printed matter. Many are a bit weary of the book/magazine metaphorical underpinnings used to anchor most discussions of literature in a digital environment, but we're as likely to curl up with a book as anyone. There -- our dirty little secret is out.
Print-specific writers and editors can perhaps be forgiven their need to continually state a desire to drag books to the bathtub -- and to frame most of their discussions about literature on the Web in an either/or, book vs. byte context. The first wave of hypertext pundits did have a nasty habit of proclaiming the Death of the Book, as if digital literature could not exist theater/film-like alongside print published literature. The development of film as an art form, including its historical roots in theater, is not a bad parallel for what has happened as writers and publishers move onto the New World shores of the Internet. Like early films, where the camera primarily played the role of recorder, and actors engaged it, not it, them, many early online literary magazines saw the Web merely as an alternative distribution medium for an established creative form. The proscenium arch approach to presenting writing for reader consumption remained intact.
But online literary magazines debuted in the mid-90's, thus any edginess inherent in the mere use of the Web as a distribution form for writing is long past. Today, even elementary school children can code and create their own web sites, while literature has taken many small steps evocative of giant leaps onto the new terra firma of digital form. "Without Covers://literary_magazines@the_digital_edge," a collection of essays its editors commissioned when "our staff consisted entirely of writers and lovers of literature -- no business advisor or techie wiz to guide us into the next century ..." 1, as if love of literature, a knowledge of technology and a small degree of business acumen were mutually exclusive talents, proceeds from some very dated assumptions. In a field where so little has been published on paper about how digital technology has affected literature, the title promises far more than the book delivers.
There is writing of interest within the books covers, once one gets past the tendency many of the essay writers show to pen remarks suited to placing their own efforts into the yet to be written history of early Web published literature. Paula Geyh's essay, The "Literary Magazine, the Web, and the Changing of the Avant-Garde" effectively traces parallels between our current evolving use of digital technology, both as carrier and constructor, to media developments in pre-digital arts and writing movements. Robert Kendall's "The Editor in an Internet Age" engages some of the new possibilities the Web affords writers and editors, while John Tranter's "The Left Hand of Capitalism" demonstrates the philosophical shift many online editors have made in their thinking about e-publishing and profit. And from Michael Joyce, arguably the author of the first hypertext novel and equally important, co-author with Jay David Bolter, John B. Smith and Mark Bernstein, of the Storyspace software which made the creation and publication of that novel possible, the essay "A Marriage that Might Have Been" challenges the premise that it is impossible to sift through all the puppy-dog poetry self- published on the Web to that which the audience for this book might wish to encounter. Joyce provides a very thorough webliography to "the truly literary electronic little magazines, [which] like their predecessors and contemporaries, are characterized by their attention to good writing as it has been irregularly and contentiously understood through one full century plus a year ... " 2
One essential component that sets these essays apart is an underlying commitment, long recognized by online-literary editors and publishers, to discuss and promote the community-building opportunities the global environment of the internet has given to the literary world of the 21st century, where "audience share in the electrosphere" 3 to quote Alt-X network's founder Mark Amerika, has become our new currency.
It would seem even traditional print publishers are beginning to agree, given Penguin's recent publication of Stephanie Strickland's print poetry collection, "V: WaveSon.Nets/Losing L'una," a reading experience created with two covers and one free access web site non-cover http://www.Vniverse.com referenced from the book's center. With no edges, no specific beginning or end, Strickland's work aptly demonstrates that our literary universe, like the one in which we live, is infinite and ever expanding, with covers or without.
1 Hurliman, Lesha and Kunakermakom, Numsiri C. Without Covers://literary_magazines@the_digital_edge. "Preface." Pg xi
2 Joyce, Michael. 2002. Without Covers://literary_magazines@the_digital_edge. "A Marriage that Might Have Been." Pg 32
3 Mark Amerika. 2000. trAce Ink.ubation Conference "Ink.ubation Introduction"
This review was commissioned by and originally published in American Book Review, July/August 2003, Vol 24 Number 5