By Andrew Klobucar
In consideration of the many intrinsically visual, or perhaps we should simply say “non-verbal,” aspects of the written word, it shouldn’t seem too surprising that we are now on the verge of surrendering both the object and concept of the page for the screen. As a medium, the screen renders language in ways that speech cannot even begin to replicate, formally denying one of the most important aspects of literary value we tend to attribute to “important” works of written prose: a natural mimicry of the voice in the process of telling a good story. While clever experiments in fiction and poetics have long questioned and taken to task this particular conceit – that the book is talking to us, enduring works of accepted literary mastery hold fast to techniques and ideas capable of advancing a general respect for the author’s voice speaking through characters and complex narrative overlays to a passive, but willing audience.
A recent experiment in electronic literature shows well how strong this concept holds even among supposedly progressive, revisionary writers in contemporary Anglo-American poetry. Some weeks ago, the writers Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter, best known for their digital works, “Erica T. Carter” and “The Prosthetic Imagination,” released their collaborative project “Issue 1,” a massive tome (in PDF) that purports to collect together over 4000 worthy works by still worthier poets. A quick glance at the table of contents even shows a number of Vancouver writers to be important contributors to this literary event.
A slower, more nuanced glance, however, will likely demonstrate that not any of the works were actually written by their supposed authors; rather they were generated by software and prepared by the editors as a kind of facsimile of a print journal, all formal elements firmly intact. So what do we have here? The electronic mark-up of a journal in progress? A practical joke? A commentary on the journal itself as a fictional structure to be conceived and written like any other literary work? The votes are still being counted as far as how best to interpret or assess this work, yet, one might note here that, for many writers hailed by the event as official contributors revealing new (and in some cases like William Shakespeare), long awaited poetic creations, the project amounted to nothing less than a kind of literary libel. These authors immediately demanded of the editors a formal “cease and desist,” instructing them to either remove their contributions and good names, or face charges of copyright infringement. To see such an event as a marked threat to so many authors, questioning their respective authenticities as unique voices linked to unique selves, I feel, is proof enough that the screen is capable of challenging even the most progressive views of what is and what isn’t sacred to literary production.
It took centuries in the literary arts to devise commonly agreed upon methods for assessing and interpreting the printed page as an art form, so it may take decades still before a similar canon of established responses and ideas take shape with respect to electronic literature. One important step that needs to be taken, perhaps, is to find a way to establish a new idea of the story-teller as subject, one capable of weaning the structure (if that is in deed what it merely is) from the oral quality of communication in favour of focusing on what it means to communicate visually.