March 15, 2007
Edward Picot recently posted a lengthy review of The Electronic Literature Collection, Volume One. Picot clearly spent a good deal of time with the collection, and has both positive and negative things to say about it. I think that Picot has attempted to be fair and balanced in his discussion of the collection, and I’m grateful to him for giving the ELC such careful consideration. He is one of the first people to review the ELC intelligently and at length in English, though as usual, the Swedes are ahead of the game.
In the end, Picot finds the ELC “an essential collection,” and encourages “Anyone interested in the field of electronic literature to get it on DVD,” though along the way he finds a few nits to pick. The collection is actually published on the web and CD-ROM (old-school) and along with Picot I encourage you to get your copy of the free, Creative Commons-licensed collection of electronic literature, and then make copies of it for your friends.
I’d like to just briefly address a few of the points Picot makes, in order to clarify my perspective as one of the editors. I hope that Nick, Stephanie, and Kate will also jump in with comments if they’d like. I’ll restrict my comments to Picot’s critique of the curatorial/editorial aspects of the project. Picot also reviews four works in the collection, two (“The Jew’s Daughter” by Judd Morrissey and “Windsound” by John Cayley) positively, and two (“MyBALL” by Shawn Rider and “Carrier” by Melanie Rackham) negatively. There are sixty works in the collection, and I think that everyone is entitled to their opinion of each of those works. None of them were included casually. Each of the four editors thought that each work merited inclusion.
Picot picks at a few technical errors, including a coding error that causes two of the Flash works not to function in Internet Explorer, although they do work in other browsers. To the extent that we’re able, we will fix these errors on the web version, though the CD is as fixed in time as any print edition of an anthology with a few typos would be.
Some aspects of Picot’s critique are however entirely subjective, and fall under the category of “One man’s bugs are another man’s features.” Picot, for instance, critiques the choice to have links function as simple links, rather than opening another child window. We decided to use simple links, making the ELC work just as most web documents work, rather than having targeted links that open up a profusion of windows or tabs when you click on them. This is debatable, but I think it’s standard web practice to have links that simply open into the same window. I think a lot of people find it irritating to have a webpage open new windows of its own volition, unless they ask it to do so. It’s fairly easy to bookmark a location or to open a link in a new tab if you, the user, choose to do so.
No work in the Electronic Literature Collection is more than two clicks away from the front page. Clicking on a tile of one of the screenshots of the works leads the reader to a page that includes the author’s description of the work, a short editorial description, technical instructions, and publishing history. Picot notes that some of the editorial descriptions might read as “jargon-savvy” in contrast with technical instructions such as “To hear the sound, turn on the computer’s speakers or plug in headphones. Click “Start” to begin,” that might seem like, “Well, duh.” I think there is value both to providing contextual descriptions for each work and to providing “idiot-proof” technical instructions. If you’re preparing to demonstrate a bunch of works of electronic literature to a large group in an auditorium, for instance, it’s not inconceivable that you might forget to plug in the audio cable unless you remember that the given work has sound. We tried to make it as easy as possible for people to operate these text machines.
Picot and others have found fault in the works that are not in the ELC. There are a few factors to take into account here. Although we asked some people to submit work, the vast majority of the works were submitted via an open call process. The authors were not paid anything, and were asked to agree to publish the work under a Creative Commons license. To put it simply: any author who did not submit their work, or did not agree to publish their work under that license was not published in the ELC. If I asked you to a dance, and you did not come, would you be mad at me for not dancing with you?
Some works were turned down by the editors. If there wasn’t unanimous agreement that a work should be included, it was rejected. As Picot notes, there will be future volumes of the ELC, which will present different perspectives on the field. Hopefully anyone who felt that their work was missing this time around will submit next year, or if they felt that a particular type of work was missing (for instance email novels), will encourage an author of that type of work to contribute.
I agree with Picot that the ELC is dauntingly huge, and I have no problem with that. Ulysses don’t scare me, neither. There is a lot of field here, and we’ve only begin to explore it. While no single individual is likely to read all of Alan Sondheim’s Internet Text, for instance, it comforts me to know that a lot of people are likely to read a little bit of it, and that we’ve increased the likelihood that someone will try.
Picot also desires “a general introduction to tell us a little bit about electronic literature.” While the purpose of the collection was more to present people with a wide variety of interesting electronic literature, not to define or limit what electronic literature could be, I’m pleased to note that the Electronic Literature Organization will soon publish a lengthy essay by N. Katherine Hayles, titled “Electronic Literature: What is it?” that presents a survey of the field, and that will hopefully provide just the sort of general introduction that Picot is looking for. Like Picot, all of us want to publicize and popularize this work any way we can. A CD-ROM copy of the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume One, will also be included in N. Katherine Hayles’ next book, Electronic Literature: Teaching, Interpreting, Playing (Notre Dame University Press, forthcoming 2007).
Thanks again to Edward Picot for his work on this review, and for his work in creating a directory that is helping to establish a market for electronic literature for sale on The Hyperliterature Exchange.