By the end of the 1980's, an avant-garde of literary talent was already experimenting with digital narrative forms that yielded a plasticity heretofore only conceptually suggested by works like Julio Cortazar's "Hopscotch" or Jorge Luis Borges's "The Library of Babel." The prominent American fiction writer and novelist Robert Coover was an early advocate and adopter, and by 1987 Buffalo native and Canisius College alumnus Michael Joyce's "afternoon, a story" became the first widely-circulated example of what came to be known as "hypertext fiction" published by the digital arts software company Eastgate Systems.
Before long critics and literary journalists--including yours truly--were touting digital literature as the Next Big Thing, and some cases, even suggesting that within a decade or two, hypertext fiction would render the traditional linear means of storytelling obsolete, consigning the novel and even the Chekovian short story to the ash-heap of history in the name of technological narrative progress.
Fortunately, most of those columns and essays appeared in hard copy, limited circulation publications. Except where assiduously archived, few copies of them remain to embarrass their authors with the inaccuracy of their speculations today. What none of us could anticipate at the time was the wholesale transliteration of linear narrative into the familiar e-books format designed specifically for low-cost mobile devices such as Amazon's Kindle, tablet computers and their successor technologies, or the subsumption of more experimental narrative innovations into new, interactive and emergent web-based forms like blogging and social networking. What, after all, are Facebook comment streams and Twitter feeds but new and emergent forms of real-time cultural narrative?
There have been some notable successes in the field of digital literature, and some significant ways the interactive possibilities of digital literature have been reinscribed within conventional, literary fiction. Think of Jennifer Egan's reverse engineering of a Powerpoint presentation into her 2011 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critic's Circle Award-winning novel "A Visit from the Goon Squad, " for example. Within the parameters of hypertext fiction, Shirley Jackson's "Patchwork Girl" (1995) stands out as "digital-born" narrative that succeeds in reworking the material from Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" in a female gendered voice and from a feminist narrative perspective that would simply not be possible using traditional, linear narrative.
So while the ascendancy of digital literature has been to a large extent pre-empted by other technological developments in the culture (including computer gaming, which is a separate subject onto itself), for a number of dedicated scholars and practitioners, its promise remains inchoate and undiminished, perhaps even enhanced by its lack of penetration into the commercial marketplace.
Here in Buffalo--arguably one of the focal points of literary innovation over the past fifty years in North America--we are fortunate to have a strong connection to ongoing developments in field thanks to two individuals at its forefront: University at Buffalo Media Studies professor Loss Pequeño Glazier, a leading scholar and innovator in the field and the author of "Digital Poetics: the Making of E-Poetries" (University of Alabama Press) and Alan Bigelow, professor of Humanities at Medaille College, and an international award-winning author and expert in digital literature and a thought leader in the field.
Bigelow is the creator of the digital literature website WEBYARNS (http://www.webyarns.com), a user-friendly archive of some of the Adobe Flash Player based shorter multimedia narratives he has written over the years that are by traditional narrative standards alternately engaging and whimsical, philosophical and self-effacing, haunting and indeterminate, formally playful and sometimes even disarmingly sincere. If you think digital literature is just for geeks, Bigelow's WEBYARNS will persuade you otherwise. They are an emergent form as accessible as the fable or the 21st century ghost-in-the-machine story.
Bigelow will the featured guest of The Write Thing Reading Series tonight at 7 p.m. for a talk about and digital presentation of some of his more recent WEBYARNS in The Academic Commons area , located on the Fourth Floor of the Main Building, on Medaille College's city campus, 18 Agassiz Circle in Buffalo.
The event is free and open to the public, and a brief reception will follow the presentation.