A Digital Education

Meredith Dabek, Maynooth University

Category: reading

Take Two: Literature and DH

Recently, two intriguing articles from well-respected Digital Humanities scholars came through in my feed reader, and as they align quite nicely with my own interests in the intersection of technology and literature, I thought I’d share them here.

What is an @uthor? by Matthew Kirschenbaum

Writing for the LA Review of Books, Kirschenbaum (perhaps best known for his article “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?”), explores how the evolving landscape of social media and author engagement with audiences online is changing the nature of literary criticism and the very idea of authorship itself:

Today you cannot write seriously about contemporary literature without taking into account myriad channels and venues for online exchange. That in and of itself may seem uncontroversial, but I submit we have not yet fully grasped all of the ramifications. We might start by examining the extent to which social media and writers’ online presences or platforms are reinscribing the authority of authorship. The mere profusion of images of the celebrity author visually cohabitating the same embodied space as us, the abundance of first-person audio/visual documentation, the pressure on authors to self-mediate and self-promote their work through their individual online identities, and the impact of the kind of online interactions described above (those Woody Allenesque “wobbles”) have all changed the nature of authorial presence. Authorship, in short, has become a kind of media, algorithmically tractable and traceable and disseminated and distributed across the same networks and infrastructure carrying other kinds of previously differentiated cultural production.

There are Only Six Basic Book Plots 

In an article for Motherboard, contributing editor Ben Richmond interviewed Matthew Jockers (textual analysis proponent and author of Macroanalysis) about his algorithmic model that identifies archetypal plot shapes. According to his research, about 90% of the time, results showed six basic plots (with the remaining 10% indicating seven basic plots). While some of his data remains unknown, Jockers did release his tools on GitHub to encourage others to try the same experiment for themselves:

Most books that measure the number of plots seem aimed at writers and would-be writers, but Jockers’s work has implications for readers, librarians, and even literature snobs, or anyone who wants to put snobs in their places.

As he was charting plots, Jockers noticed that some genres that are derided for being “formulaic,” like romance, aren’t just relying on boy-meets-girl.

“Romance showed some proclivity for two of the six plot shapes, but it wasn’t an overwhelming case of all the plots falling into one,” Jockers said. “It was a much more evenly distributed from these six shapes.”

Choose Your Own Twitter Adventure

Within the larger world of electronic (digital) literature is the genre of hypertext fiction, a non-linear approach to reading that gives readers links or modes to jump from one part of the text to another. It is, by its nature, interactive, with the reader guiding the narrative depending on the choices she makes. Hypertext fiction also isn’t necessarily limited to e-books or online stories.  The term can also apply to traditionally published books (many prior to the advent of the web) with nonlinear narratives, such as Joyce’s Ulysses.

For many of my generation, the Choose Your Own Adventure novels are the best example of a traditionally published hypertext novel. Though not explicitly referred to or marketed as such, the CYOA books were hypertextual and interactive. The reader could choose any number of paths through the story that would alter the story’s outcome, and many readers (myself included) often tried to guess or predicate what would happen next, mostly to avoid the dreaded “you’ve died” message.

Now, thanks to one clever and imaginative Twitter user, the principals behind the CYOA books specifically and hypertext fiction in general have come to social media. Twitter user Terence Eden (@edent) created a “Choose Your Own Adventure” narrative for Twitter. The story takes place entirely within the Twitter platform / website, and web-savvy readers and fans can navigate through a series of choices in a mysterious story. Should you run or hide? Investigate that glowing light? Fight back or flee? Each choice brings you to a another, until (of course) you die.

Eden’s CYOA Twitter story works well for a couple of reasons. Thanks to Twitter’s setup, the @ symbol will automatically link to a user name, which allowed Eden to create a variety of user names for this specific project without having to rely on outside webpages or excessively long hyperlinks (that take up valuable “real estate” on the 140-character platform). Furthermore, Twitter allows for pinned tweets, which means Eden could keep all the relevant information at the top of a user profile, negating the need for CYOA readers to scroll. Plus, Eden kept the narrative portions of the tweets are short and to the point, compelling readers to keep clicking. The result is an addictive and entertaining story completely enclosed within this one social network. It will be interesting to see what happens next to push hypertext fiction forward even more.

End of Term Reflections

Well, it’s been four months, and my first semester as a Digital Humanities student is (for all intents and purposes) finished. From my perspective, the last sixteen weeks have been incredibly productive, informative and thought-provoking. I’ve not only learned a great deal, but I’ve also had the opportunity to think critically about what I’ve learned, and how I believe those lessons fit within the overall Digital Humanities field. Below are some of my reflections and thoughts about this past term, and some ideas for the future.

Though my technical and coding skills have vastly improved (especially when compared to the days and months when I was teaching myself), I still believe this is one area where I can do better. I’ve grappled with data modeling, encoding, and metadata schemas, but practice makes perfect, and there is always more to learn. I do wish there had been some follow up to the intensive, pre-term Java course we took; I did well with the module at the time, but feel I’ve lost some of the knowledge since due to non-use.

The intersections between Digital Humanities, media and digital (electronic) literature remains a strong area of interest for me, as one might have guessed based on some of my previous posts. I’ve been attempting to expand my knowledge of this area by reading on my own, and I’m fascinated by the creativity and ingenuity found in some of these new digital literature projects. In looking forward to the future, I’ve started working on a PhD proposal for doctoral-level research specifically addressing digital (electronic) literature. It’s still very much a work in progress, but I’m passionate about this particular area of study and look forward to what comes next.

My MA program is, as the name implies, Digital Humanities, so many of the readings and lectures have had a literature and/or history focus to them. As a result, I am very curious about what doesn’t come up as often, namely the state of the digital arts, and how that intersects with Digital Humanities. Some colleagues and lecturers are working in the art history and cultural heritage sectors, but I still sense that there is still a huge gap in awareness between Digital Humanities and digital arts (or music or performance). There could be many reasons for this (I have a few theories of my own), but I also believe there’s a world of untapped potential with the digital arts (the What’s the Score? project at the Bodelian Library is one project that immediately comes to mind) and I’d love to know more. I’m very interested in learning more about applying digital ideas and techniques to the art world, which is why I’m especially excited for my upcoming practicum next semester with the Irish Museum of Modern Art. More on that next term!

Similarly, I’m also curious about issues of diversity, race, gender and sex in the Digital Humanities. From my (admittedly somewhat limited) perspective, I see the field as one in which the majority of thought leaders and researchers are still male and overwhelmingly white. I’m interested about that dynamic and what it means both for the DH field and for DH projects and research. To my mind, there is a clear and identifiable need for more diversity within the field. I don’t know that I’m the best person to propose any solutions, but I would love to see a more concerted effort to think critically about expanding DH to include those voices that aren’t necessarily being heard. (Of course, if anyone has suggestions for readings that address this very topic and would like to point me in the right direction, I’d be most appreciative.)

These are just a few thoughts; like so many things in life, learning about Digital Humanities is an ongoing process (especially since it is an evolving field itself) and I know I’ll have much more to stay in 2015.

Until then, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year!

“Wasting Time” as a Way to Read

These days in the United States, students can take college- and university-level courses in just about anything. From lectures centered on pop culture behemoths like Harry Potter and Star Trek to classes entitled “The Art of Walking” or “Understanding Basket Weaving,” apparently nothing is off limits in the realm of higher education.

Now, from the University of Pennsylvania, comes the course “Wasting Time on the Internet.” In a recent article for The New Yorker, course instructor Kenneth Goldsmith explained his rationale behind the course, which is aimed at creative writing students.  His course will attempt to help students capture the distractions of the Internet in order to remake them into works of literature.

For Goldsmith, “drifting, daydreaming, and procrastination have long been a part of the writing process” and the Internet provides these in spades. Of course, critics of digital modes of reading and information processing believe the World Wide Web is actually making us dumber. But according to Goldsmith, the digital world we live in merely provides a new way of reading – one that isn’t better or worse, simply different:

Every click is indicative of who we are: indicative of our likes, our dislikes, our emotions, our politics, our world view. Of course, marketers have long recognized this, but literature hasn’t yet learned to treasure—and exploit—this situation… We’re reading and writing more than we have in a generation, but we are reading and writing differently—skimming, parsing, grazing, bookmarking, forwarding, retweeting, reblogging, and spamming language—in ways that aren’t yet recognized as literary.

In a previous post, I talked about digital literature and how it differs from traditional literature and even e-books. Goldsmith’s course is offering yet another way of thinking about digital literature and how it’s created. While his students may indeed end up creating a literary work that more closely resembles a traditional format, the process of getting there is entirely digital. I’m very curious to see what might come out of this course – and how it connects to other digital literature.

Digital Literature and “Click Lit”

computer-books-300x233In 2007, postmodern literary critic N. Katherine Hayles defined electronic literature (also known as digital literature) as literature that is “generally considered to exclude print literature that has been digitized” (e.g., e-books) and “is by contrast ‘digital born,’ a first-generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer.” Wikipedia extends Hayles’ definition by contrasting electronic literature with e-books, pointing out that electronic literature may have elements that require computation: links, multi-media, animation or reader interaction (source).

[Note: From here on, I’ll refer to electronic literature as digital literature. This is both a personal preference and a reflection of the rapid advancements made in digital technologies since 2007, when Hayles published her definition.]

The publishing industry has seen a significant shift towards the digital in the last decade, and while many e-books still have an analog companion, there are an increasing number of authors (both those who have traditional contracts with a publisher and those who self-publish) who are producing born-digital novels and books that are never released in print format. There is also a rise in e-books with digital content – books that could be classified as digital literature, thanks to the inclusion of hyperlinks, videos and more.

From this rise in digital literature comes “click lit,” a term coined by Rosetta Books, an independent e-book publisher. Rosetta Books recently published a new e-book entitled Find Me I’m Yours. While this romantic comedy’s plot may sound familiar, its format takes interactive reading to a new level. The e-book is only one part of the story, which is supplemented by more than three dozen websites and online videos. Readers are actively encouraged to play a role in the story by visiting the various “custom-designed narrative platforms” and posting their own pictures, videos and stories.

“Click lit” turns the idea of reading on its head. Gone is the process of linear reading and in its place, a multimedia narrative that moves forwards, backwards, and sideways, changing every time a new reader experiences the story – and adds his or her own contributions. It’s a narrative that is constantly evolving.

So, what does “click lit” mean for digital literature and literary studies? How do you begin to analyze and study a story that is spread out over more than 30 websites? Is the e-book itself of primary importance, or do you have to consider it within the context of the digital world created by the publisher? How do you distinguish between content that may have been created by an author, and content added by a reader? Is one more legitimate than the other, or are both an integral part of the narrative?

As of right now, it seems to me that “click lit” raises more questions than it answers. Besides questions pertaining to the academic research of something like “click lit,” there are potential issues of feasibility. According to the New York Times, Rosetta Books’ latest publication took three years and $400K to develop – compare that to the cost and time of publishing a “regular” e-book or even a print book. There are also issues of commercialization, as some “click lit” books are also experimenting with product placement and sponsorship, further blurring the lines between what is literature and what is a paid advertisement.

As a lifelong avid reader and someone deeply interested in the future of digital literature, I plan to keep watching the “click lit” space to see how it does with other readers. It may be that “click lit” will resonate more with younger generations, those who have grown up in a digital world and have no trouble navigating a wide-spread multimedia narrative. There’s potential with “click lit” for sure, but what kind of potential? That remains to be seen.

Further Reading:

The Future of Multi-Platform Novels (“Though undeniably entertaining, a multi-media book takes away this sense of imagination, of wonder.”)

Click Lit (The Guardian)

The Future of the Book – CNN (“”This is how Millenials will consume all content one day. It’s going to start a revolution.”)

[Photo Credit: Book Riot]

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