Literature for a new medium

Adrian Miles interviews Scott Rettberg

Writers and new media authors appear to be well served by 2 organisations with ambitions to foster all aspects of electronic literature—the trAce writing community based in Nottingham and the more recent Electronic Literature Organization (ELO). Recently the ELO announced 2 new $US10,000 prizes for Electronic Fiction and Poetry in the first annual Electronic Literature Awards.

While notionally housed in Chicago, the ELO (yes, they’ve heard all the jokes) has an ambitious international mission to “promote and facilitate the writing, publishing, and reading of electronic literature.” Scott Rettberg is Executive Director of the ELO ( [opens new window]) and co–author of the hypertext fiction The Unknown (www.unknownhypertext. com/), which won the first trAce international hypertext writing prize.

trAce and ELO

trAce ( is already well known in Australia, with Sydney writer Bernard Cohen a former writer in residence, a visit to the Adelaide Festival by trAce director Sue Thomas, and Alan Sondheim (a former trAce writer–in–residence) currently at the Australian National University. In what ways does the ELO replicate the activities of an organisation like trAce, and how does it differ?

Both trAce and ELO are focused on the expansion of the literary use of electronic media and both have an international focus. Both have very valuable web resources which are hubs for our community and for showcasing electronic literature, and both organisations are attempting to sponsor international electronic literature prizes.

One obvious difference between the two is that trAce has both an international focus and a local base in Nottingham and ELO has an international focus and more of a national base in the US. We’re as active in New York, San Francisco and Seattle as we are in Chicago, and during these early stages of our activity, we’re intensely focused on raising awareness of electronic literature in major US population centres. We’re holding a variety of readings and other events, and we’re facilitating more ongoing discussion of both the economic and artistic issues involved in electronic literature. We’re acting both on the web and in person. As wired as we are, there’s still no better way to draw people into the field than live interaction. Many of our programs are focused on facilitating that person–to–person interaction. We’re focused on making this a bigger tent, and neophytes are welcome.

The other principle difference between trAce and ELO is that we’re as interested in helping to develop new distribution models and markets for electronic literature as we are in fostering its artistic growth. So though we’re most interested in forms of literature like hypertext fiction, kinetic poetry and interactive drama—forms designed specifically for the electronic media, that use the computer to do things which can’t be done in print—we’re also focusing attention on what’s going on in electronic publishing. It’s a tremendously exciting time in that arena. As a writer, I’d ultimately like to see publishing models that enable electronic writers to support themselves through their work.

Funding and independence

  Most cultural support in Australia is state funded in some manner. How is ELO funded and how you ensure your independence?

The state of public funding for the Arts in the US is quite dismal. Recently the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities have both been whittled to shadows of what they once were. I consider this a national disgrace, but regardless, to develop the kind of programs that we’re trying to pull off, we clearly couldn’t rely on public funding from the federal government here. Instead, we’re reaching out to corporations, foundations, and individuals. Many internet and technology companies in the US have done quite well in the internet boom (even after the NASDAQ crash), and we’re asking them to help fulfill the cultural responsibility that our government will not. It’s a tough pitch of course, but many of these companies were founded and are led by people who do have something of a visionary impulse, who do want to better the world through technology. Though pure greed is quite rampant in the dot com universe, individuals and companies within the internet sector have not entirely lost sight of the idea that the internet is a global village, one which should have art and culture as well as a marketplace. Even more important to our fundraising strategy is giving from individuals. More than half of our seed money came from individual gifts, and I’m hopeful that our operating budget will also reflect that kind of grass–roots support.

As the founder of the organisation, I decided early on that the ELO will remain independent of the prerogatives of any single corporate entity or government institution. Our funding comes from a variety of sources. Additionally, we have three clearly separated boards—a board of directors, of internet industry advisors and of literary advisors. When they are funded, our prizes will be judged by the international board of literary advisors, who are not beholden in their judgment to either the board of directors or to our corporate sponsors. All this has made funding the organisation more difficult than it may have otherwise been, but that integrity is worth the hassles it entails.

The prizes

  The ELO has announced a series of major electronic literature prizes for 2001. Could you describe what genres of electronic literature will be eligible?

At this stage the prizes are for Fiction and Poetry but we hope to eventually include Drama, Creative Non–Fiction and Children’s Literature. The main criteria for judging the competition will be the innovative use of electronic techniques and the literary quality of the work. The fiction competition will be judged by Larry McCaffery, author of Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction, and After Yesterday’s Crash: The Avant Pop Anthology. Heather McHugh, Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and author of Hinge & Sign and The Father of the Predicaments, will judge the poetry competition.

We’re trying to focus the prizes on extending and enhancing the literary tradition, endowing them with both the monetary weight and the prestige of something like a Booker Prize or a National Book Award. We hope to raise the bar for electronic literature. We want the best writers and artists in our culture(s) working in the realm of electronic literature, and one of the best ways to do that is to sponsor a series of prizes that will in effect give the winners more time to work on new projects.

By putting together an international board of literary advisors including not only renowned experts on electronic literature, such as Sue Thomas, Michael Joyce, and Takayuki Tatsumi, but also print writers such as TC Boyle and George Plimpton, and leading critics and publishers from both the print and electronic side of things, we’re seeking a different level of engagement from the culture as a whole. The prizes should do a great deal to validate the field, and bring more people into the tent of electronic literature.

What is electronic literature?

  An interesting issue being discussed in the electronic literature and hypertext communities is just what constitutes electronic literature. For example does the ELO want, or see any need, to distinguish between print based poetry, the same poetry presented electronically (for instance via a web page), or poetry that can only be presented electronically?

These distinctions are tough to make, but our focus is on aiding and publicising the development of literary works which utilise the electronic media to accomplish things that could not be done in print. I’m a big book reader, and treasure the print form, but there are already organisations working to support literature in print. Electronic literature is the babe in the woods—it’s what needs our help right now. Furthermore, it’s the way that literature is going to reach a generation of readers who are more accustomed to surfing the web than they are to picking up a book. So most of my hopes and fears for literature in general are tied up in the idea that without some particularly literary innovation in the electronic media, the internet will move ahead without a literature native to it. Such a failure would be an horrendous missed opportunity. We don’t want to see what happened to television happen to the web.

The meaning of Stephen King’s e-book

  Electronic literature seems to be entering the dot com universe with the success of things like Stephen King’s recent offering. Do you see this as something good for the future of electronic literature?

Yes, I do. Even though King’s e–book was essentially just a print novella made available for download, it served as proof–of–concept for the whole field of electronic publishing. The people, in effect, have spoken, and their overwhelming message to publishers was “we will and do read off our screens.” For years, we suffered the likes of Sven Birkerts (The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, London, Faber & Faber, 1996) jawing on about how the electronic media is the end of literature. Then King comes along, and suddenly the nature of the discourse changes—electronic publishing just may be the future of the book, rather than its end.

The other tremendously important aspect of the King e–book is that it is actually necessitating that publishers re–examine their own publishing models and royalty structures. If we’re able to remove the costs of printing, binding, shipping, warehousing and pulping the artifact, we’re able to produce literature at a lower cost to publishers. As in King’s case, a higher percentage of the profits should go to the writers, and a great deal of savings should be passed on to the readers. Even after constructing this more equitable model and passing on the savings, publishers will be able to reap higher profits as well. In my view, even pure print publishers will benefit. With the simultaneous evolution of print–on–demand technology, more books should be available in print and electronic format, as well as the literature that is created and designed for the electronic media.

The future

  In 5 years time what would you like the ELO to have achieved? What would be different?

Wow, that’s a tough one. Firstly, I hope that ELO is still around. Even accomplishing that is not going to be easy. Secondly, I hope that as many people spend as much time reading the web as they spend now playing DOOM. Thirdly, I hope that the international community of which you and I are a part will have expanded and will include many of the most talented writers and artists of our generation. Lastly, I hope that there is a sustainable market for the work that they produce.

Right now, when I mention electronic literature, people say, “Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?” Five years from now, I’d like people to be able to introduce themselves as electronic authors, and to have that mean that they keep bread on the table by making great art happen on the internet.

When can we expect to see the ELO and The Unknown in Australia?

We’re hoping to line up an International Day of Readings next year for ELO, and would love Australia to be represented in that. As far as The Unknown, we’re waiting by the phone. We’ve encountered many Australians on our travels, and you folks celebrate in the style to which we are accustomed. Line us up some readings, Adrian. We’d love to come out there next year to tour the continent.

This is an edited version of an email interview with Scott Rettberg, Executive Director of the Electronic Literature Organisation, Chicago, USA

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