When thinking of the book as the end-all be-all of communication in a literate society, the equations used to describe the exchange of ideas and information are quite plain, simple, and clear: The writer is the creator, the book is the medium, and the reader is the audience. Critical analysis of this scenario is blessedly limited by its simplicity. Academics, theorists, critics, and everyone in between could understand and appreciate the relations among the elements involved. Typesetters worried about legible and aesthetic print; bookbinders worried about beautiful, sturdy, and functional physical materials; authors worried about predictable linear story arcs; and the reader was along for the ride. It’s a scenario that is rather glorious in its simplicity, and it’s easy to find a starting point for theory or criticism.

With electronic literature, the interactions among participants become exponentially more complex. The author is now both a writer of words and story arcs but also a typesetter, programmer, game designer, flash author, webmaster, etc. The reader is now a reader, a contributor, a player, a participant, and often a storyteller, as well. The medium, previously just “words on paper”, now includes the physical system used to view the material, the software used to decode and/or run the material, the interface used to access the material, etc. Academics in the field of literature often talk of the essential need to know the context in which a text was written. I think that need is far less severe, though equally relevant, compared to the need to recreate or have on-hand the proper context to experience a new-media work in the first place.

What Hayles drew my attention to is something we briefly discussed toward the end of last night’s class: There are as yet no accepted standards for assessing the quality of a piece of electronic literature. I’m now beginning to question whether there ever will be. With so many variables that are completely in flux with every work in consideration, I’m not sure that any very direct or specific critical approach can be presented.

While reading Hayles’ views of the merits of elit, I found myself thinking that we should use standards of analysis that are appropriate to poetry, since the end goal seems the same—to influence the reader and to create a specific emotional reaction by presenting the material in a specific way. But I think as elit has matured beyond the initial experimental phase, we may find that it’s mostly reverting back to familiar structures of narrative and expression. Video games are becoming increasingly narrative-driven. Movies rely more and more on their surrounding backstories to enrich the experience. Websites are even becoming more immersive, helping the user’s visit follow a certain rather predictable pattern.

This is why I suggested using rhetoric and aesthetic as the standards by which elit should be judged and the perspectives through which it should be evaluated. No matter the platform, language, console, resolution, device, duration, or method of distribution, we should always consider how effectively a work of elit achieved its rhetorical goals and how effectively it adhered to aesthetic standards. Hayles argues for this need, I think, very early on in her book, when discussing the development of elit systems: “Like the boundary between computer games and electronic literature, the demarcation between digital art and electronic literature is shifty at best” (12).

My main concern is related to the warning Hayles gives on 119, that “the criterion already dictates the outcome.” If we limit our views of elit to a rhetorical lens, we risk “leading to the predetermined conclusion that electronic literature is inferior to print literature” (118-19).  While Hayles leaves me longing for a concrete answer, she poses a very compelling question of how we can analyze these works.

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