Issue #47, Winter 2013

Binary Truths: Creative nonfiction in our electronic age

Required Reading

Eric LeMay

Binary Truths: Creative nonfiction in our electronic age

This list offers links to examples of electronic nonfiction, a genre I discuss at greater length in Issue 47 of Creative Nonfiction. Here, I’ve chosen examples that are specifically made with and meant to be experienced on computers. Some practitioners and scholars of electronic literature—aiming to distinguish this work from literature that could be printed on the page, whether or not it happens to appear in a digital format—refer to such work as being “born digital.” Work that’s born digital tries to take advantage of the literary possibilities that arise in a computerized medium.

I’ve chosen work I find compelling even if it’s no longer at the cutting edge of what’s technologically possible or even if it skirts the edge between creative nonfiction and other genres. Shelley Jackson’s my body—a Wunderkammer, for example, came online in 1997. Back then, who could have guessed that by 2012 approximately a quarter of a billion Americans—almost 80 percent of the total population—would be using the Internet or that they’d account for only about 11 percent of users worldwide, compared to the billion users who live in Asia and make up roughly 44 percent of the people across the globe who are now going online? And who would have guessed that by 2012 many of these users would be accessing the Internet on one of about a billion smart phones, which are transforming how we place ourselves in time and space, how we store and retrieve information, and how we communicate? Yet Jackson’s memoir, now a relic in techno-time, still gives us a powerful example of the way a computer can galvanize a genre like the memoir.

I’ve included ten examples because ten feels like a manageable number—especially given that some of these works take a substantial amount of time to experience fully. I’ve also included a few links to websites and organizations that offer a fuller portrait of electronic literature and a wider range of examples. I encourage anyone interested in exploring “e-lit” to visit them as starting points. Eric LeMay


WORKS

88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (to be played with the Left Hand)
by David Clark
A playful engagement with Wittgenstein’s life and work, Clark’s meditation—organized not as a linear text, but a “constellation” of multimedia pieces—amounts to a sustained work that readers can explore or “play” at will.

Archetypal Africa
by Alan Bigelow
A deadpan mash-up of documentary footage and descriptions of common household items treated as though they were unknown artifacts, this piece asks readers to participate in the creation of their own “archetypal” items.

Blood Sugar
by Sharon Daniel and Erik Loyer
A rich interactive collage on needles and drug use that manages to be highly theoretical, intensely moral, and surprisingly intimate, this piece is also a collaboration that includes the testimony of twenty different current and former injection drug users.

Blue Velvet: Re-dressing New Orleans in Katrina’s Wake
David Theo Goldberg, Stefka Hristova, Erik Loyer, and Liu Sola
An exploration of the city after the hurricane, this piece uses audio, text, photography, video, and maps to chart and question the official and unofficial narratives that envelop New Orleans and the city’s contested history.

Kafka’s Wound
by Will Self
A project conceived by the London Review of Books to test the boundaries of the literary essay in the digital age, this piece incorporates material from Self and more than seventy collaborators. It also includes an interview and accompanying blog, in which Self reflects on the composition process. 

Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge: A Google Maps Essay, in Which George Plimpton Delivers My Belated and Well-Deserved Comeuppance
by Dinty W. Moore
Moore takes the personal essay and galvanizes it through the technology of Google Maps. The essay pinpoints the places where Moore’s humorous encounters with George Plimpton occurred, and the maps and street views give readers a canvas on which to imagine these events happening.

my body — a Wunderkammer (& notes)
by Shelley Jackson, John Wesley Harding, and Ken Fricklas
Jackson uses the digital medium as a tool for dissecting her own body and the self that inhabits it. This piece offers a powerful example of what a writer can accomplish with something as seemingly simple as a link when it’s used for artistic ends.

Fitting the Pattern or being a dressmaker’s daughter: a memoir in pieces
by Christine Wilks
Wilks recounts her relationship with her mother, who was a dressmaker, by capturing the connection between texts and textiles. Readers are asked to “stitch” together the pieces of the memoir and create an impressionistic whole from its pattern.

Project for Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit}
by William Poundstone
A piece that not only explores the advent of subliminal advertising, but also reproduces its mechanisms, Poundstone’s work of flashing text and imagery also looks at the emergence of concrete poetry and the relationship between words and icons.

Welcome to Pine Point
by Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons
This interactive documentary aims to capture the collective memories of a small mining town located in Canada’s Northwest Territories that was closed down in 1988. The piece combines reflections from former residents through a mix of print, photography, audio, and video. 

OTHER LINKS

Electronic Literature Organization and Electronic Literature Collections
The ELO is a vibrant organization of scholars and artists whose work focuses on electronic literature. Its site provides a variety of resources, including two collections of some of the most exciting digital work out there.

Electronic Poetry Center
Founded by Loss Pequeño Glazier, one of the early champions of electronic literature, the EPC is centered on digital poetry, but given that electronic literature challenges so many traditional distinctions among genres, it’s also a good general resource.

Grand Text Auto
A lively, group-run blog that, in its own words, focuses on “computer mediated and computer generated works of many forms: interactive fiction, net.art, electronic poetry, interactive drama, hypertext fiction, computer games of all sorts, shared virtual environments, and more.”

Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular
One of the best scholarly venues for electronic work, Vectors includes pieces that blur the distinction between scholarship and creative nonfiction in exciting ways.

Author Bio

Eric LeMay

Eric LeMay lives in Athens, Ohio, and teaches at Ohio University. Some of his electronic literature is available at www.ericlemay.org. read more

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