Pride and Prejudice about Electronic Publishing

By Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 27, 1996 | Go to article overview

Pride and Prejudice about Electronic Publishing


Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


For centuries, readers wanting literature turned to books. There they found Homer, Cicero, Shakespeare, and Faulkner. Books are how one generation passed its literary tradition to the next.

But this tightly bound relationship is coming unglued. A growing band of writers is challenging traditional notions about the book with new electronic forms of literature. Does one page always have to follow another? Does a book have to stay within two covers? Does it have to exist as a physical object at all?

Maybe not. Using computer technology, writers are generating new literary forms that one day may replace the paper-based book as the main means of communicating ideas. Literary conservatives warn against this trend, and even supporters aren't sure whether the experiments will fly. But the movement is getting serious attention. This week, scholars at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association will devote several sessions to hypertext novels and, for the first time, electronic poems. "It's a very distinguished conference," says Loss Pequeno Glazier, a digital poet and director of the Electronic Poetry Center at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "The mere fact that it has been included ... shows that academia is beginning to open its eyes to the possibilities." Digital literature ranges from electronic poems, which display on-screen but just as easily could be printed on paper, to sophisticated poems and novels that offer multiple paths through which the reader can travel. This latter electronic form is called hypertext. Instead of reading from beginning to end, hypertext encourages the reader to skip around via electronic links. One of the first hypertext novels to gain prominence was a 1992 work called "Afternoon, a Story." Author Michael Joyce writes about Peter, who on his way home from work sees the aftermath of a car wreck and suspects it involves his wife and son. The reader can choose to move in disjointed fashion through the story screen by screen. But at the "end," it's not clear what has happened to the mother and child. If readers click on various key words in the text, they can pick alternative routes that yield additional clues and context for other characters in the story. Hypertext may be even more useful to poets, says Mr. Glazier. That's because poets have to use few words to convey an idea. And if a reader doesn't understand the phrase, he can quickly link to material that explains it. Uninformed readers might see a picture of a Grecian urn, for instance, while reading Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Glazier's own poems link to other poetic material, which lead to other allusions, creating a kind of literary environment. …

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