Electronic Literature

Hello everyone! My name is Aisling Burke, I am a recent graduate of University College Cork with a BA Single Honours in English with Computer Science. As a student whose background is predominantly based on English literature, I am keen to explore how digital technologies are now being exploited in order to explore new forms and genres of literature. My current areas of interest include: digital literature, intertextuality, combinatorial literature, publishing, and E-ink technologies.

An interesting area that I have recently come across is electronic literature. Katherine Hayles provides a concise description of e-lit as literature that is “digital born”, a first-generation digital object that has been created on a computer and that is usually meant to be read on a computer, as opposed to print literature that has been digitized. (Electronic Literature: What is it?) The Electronic Literature Organization which was set up in 1999 to encourage the teaching, reading and writing of literature as it changes in the digital world, adds further clarity by defining e-lit as “works with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer.”

In contrast to print literature that appears on a page, electronic literature is designed to engage the reader’s senses. The reader experiences the literature in a range of ways which incorporate sight, sound, touch and interactivity. The reader/user also plays a part in the narrative, which transforms the narrative from a static linear text to a dynamic and sometimes fragmented one, thus allowing a new form of engagement with the text. Therefore in electronic literature the reading process becomes active and exploratory rather than passive and predetermined (Swiss, Electronic Literature: Discourses, Communities, Traditions, 288).

Electronic literature incorporates a diverse range of forms in its construction of narratives which include: hypertext fiction and poetry, kinetic poetry, computer art installation, chat bots, computer generated stories and poetry, collaborative writing and interactive fiction.  For a comprehensive description of the above mentioned forms it is highly recommendable to visit the Electronic Literature Organization’s website. Electronic literature is an embodiment of the ever growing influence of the web and internet on society and culture. The many genres and forms which electronic literature incorporates illustrate the current fascination with films, computer games, narratives, graphics, animations, social media and the digital in general.

E-lit, in my opinion, should not be viewed as separate from print literature but as a new innovative extension that has arisen from the influence of print literature. Like all new experiences the past will influence the present, and I believe this is particularly true of electronic literature, a novice of e-lit will view and judge the literature based on their past influences and knowledge of traditional print literature or as Katherine Hayles (Electronic Literature: What is it?) more eloquently puts it “readers come to digital literature with expectations formed by print, of necessity e-lit must build on these expectations even as it modifies and transforms them.”

Traditionally, in print literature there are two fundamental components, the author and the reader, however, e-lit is designed to be read on a computer thus introducing another paramount component, the computer. A paramount aspect to understanding e-lit is the incorporation and use of code. Print books have an organised structure, for example, a table of contents, page numbers, end-notes, chapter titles and so forth, similarly, e-lit that is run through computing code has a structure and set of rules which it must follow. Unlike traditional print narratives, electronic literature cannot be read/played until it is run through properly executed code. Thus, e-lit is both a literary and technical creation. As the complexity of code has evolved over the years so too has the complexity of e-lit progressed. In comparison to recent aesthetically pleasing and complex works, the first examples of e-lit tended to be far more basic, with large blocks of text, few animations, graphics and colours (Hayles). Hayles further argues that while hypertext is considered the distinguishing feature of the earlier works, later works utilise complex navigation schemes and interface metaphors which has led her to categorise the earlier works as “first generation” and the later works as “second generation”. The categorisation system not only exemplifies the evolution of the use of technology in literature, it also serves as a useful tool to the literary scholar when taking a critical approach to electronic literature. An understanding of both print literature and of code is important in digital humanities research.

As with traditional print literature preservation and archiving of e-lit are vital. There is a strong possibility that certain forms of e-lit may become unplayable after a time due to new platforms being introduced. As a result a number of preservation and archiving databases and websites have been established in an effort to counteract the threat. The Electronic Literature Collection which is a publication of the Electronic Literature Organisation is one such website. Other organizations include:

Undoubtedly, computers are playing an increasing role in our lives, a clear understanding of the roles which digital culture plays in society, individual lives and in the scholarly community as a whole are paramount, as Espen Aarseth notes: “the emerging new media technologies are not important in themselves, nor as alternatives to older media, but should be studied for what they can tell us about the principles and evolution of human communication” (17). It is paramount to draw on traditional literature and its associated scholarly studies and criticisms in the digital humanities. It is also vital that the traditional is merged with recent and evolving modes of networked and programmable media, in order words it is essential to “think digital” (Hayles). E-lit is enthralling as it shows the evolution that writing and publishing has undergone. Not only can you now access literature in print, you can access and experience literature in new and exciting ways online, whether good or bad, new experiences are always a learning tool and electronic literature is important in the digital humanities as it is writing in a new form that may be attributed to digital culture.



Works Cited:

“What Is E-Lit?” The Electronic Literature Organization. The Electronic Literature Organization, 1999. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Print.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Electronic Literature: What Is It?” The Electronic Literature Organization. The Electronic Literature Organization, 02 Jan. 2007. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.

Swiss, Thomas. “Electronic Literature Discourses, Communities, Traditions.”Memory Bytes: History, Technology, and Digital Culture. Ed. Lauren Rabinovitz and Abraham Geil. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. 283-304. Print.

Exploring the new ways of sharing knowledge

Lorenzo_Valla_aport011Since the entrance of the humanities into the digital world, philology has been changing, and in my opinion the most significant shift involves scholars’ aims and ways of thinking.

In the past, choices had to be made as to whether to edit and publish a version of a manuscript, even an error-ridden one, based on one single version, or to try to produce the ‘best’ edition using many different versions, when either choice necessitated the inclusion of footnotes to accommodate the extra material. In the current technological age, digital tools allow us to move beyond these kinds of issues. One of the best examples of this concept is John Bryant’s fluid text edition of Herman Melville’s Typee. The aim is no longer, or not necessarily, to produce definitive, static, scholarly editions restricted by the  boundaries of print. Culture is becoming more democratic than ever, and scholars are sharing knowledge and ideas via many different platforms, allowing potentially every internet user to share in, and collaborate with these ideas. An example of this collaborative culture may be seen in the Transcribe Bentham project, promoted by UCL.

I come from a  background of philology and literary critique, and in the coming months I intend to explore how philologists can, and have already, placed themselves within this framework and study these new interactive and democratic ways of producing and sharing knowledge. Moreover, I propose to contribute by working on archival material and thinking about engaging ways to share my findings. The project I am interested in is the creation of a portrait of Tilly Fleischmann, who was a musician, teacher, and writer. She was born in Cork and studied piano in Munich with two students of Franz Liszt. Some information about her can be found here. I am fascinated by her character, as she is a figure who, in a certain sense, belongs to the “female genealogy” we need in the world of today– to use the terminology of the feminist scholar Luce Irigaray. You can follow how my research is progressing and where my readings are bringing me on my website, which bares the appropriate name of Wibbly wobbly literary stuff.

My interest in these new, digital ways of sharing knowledge prompted me to apply for an internship with the CELT project. Currently I am working on a brief report written by Lorenzo Magalotti regarding the journey he made to Ireland as entourage for Cosimo III de’ Medici in 1669. I am proof-reading the original version, from the Italian Renaissance, taking care of the XML markup, and translating and summarizing the introduction. These are simple tasks, but the work is pleasing and interesting, and above all, the idea of bringing a contribution in the sharing of culture, even if in a small part, satisfies me greatly.


2000, University College London-Gower Street- London- WC1E 6BT Tel: +4420 7679. “UCL Transcribe Bentham.” N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Jan. 2015.

Burke, Carolyn, Naomi Schor, and Margaret Whitford. Engaging with Irigaray: Feminist Philosophy and Modern European Thought. Columbia University Press, 1994. Print.

Fleischmann, Ruth. “TILLY FLEISCHMANN NÉE SWERTZ (1882-1967).” N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Aug. 2015.

Melville, Herman. “Herman Melville’s ‘Typee’ : A Fluid-Text Edition.” Text. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Jan. 2015.

Image source

de, Boissard, Jean-Jacques; Bry, Theodor. Lorenzo Valla, Humanist. N.p., [object HTMLTableCellElement]. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 8 Jan. 2015.