E-Lit Up Close
In Spring 2003 I gave the fourteen students in my graduate-level Introduction to Digital Studies class in the English Department at the University of Maryland the assignment to write a short paper performing a close reading of a work chosen from the Electronic Literature Organization’s Electronic Literature Directory. “The most successful papers,” I told them, “will be those that eschew general musings on the nature of electronic literature and instead dive right into a detailed close reading, filled with examples and quotations, perhaps even screen shots, of the text at hand.”
Close reading, in which students move word-by-word and line-by-line through a literary text, putting language, diction, and meter under a critical microscope, has long been a staple of university classrooms. Though the notion that a text enjoys an immaculate existence as an object on the page divorced from its social and material surroundings has been overturned, here I wanted the students to attempt a kind of "strategic close reading": acknowledging the technique’s limitations and the risks of myopia, but also--importantly--asserting that works of electronic literature were capable of bearing up to the same degree of critical scrutiny as conventional works of literature. Too often skeptics will say: “but is this stuff really worth reading?” Here I wanted students to encounter electronic literature at the level on which it will ultimately live or die: as literary language.
Of course they all soon found out that language alone is not sufficient in the new media environment, and so these essays also contain brave and accomplished “readings” of interface, image, and sound.
I was so impressed with the results that I offered the students the opportunity to revise the essays for possible publication on the Web, believing others could and should benefit from their acute critical attention. Seven of them took me up on it, and Rob Kendall generously offered us a home on Word Circuits. Three students, Alenda Chang, Karen Keen, and Tanya Clement, volunteered to serve as co-editors for the project. I hope other readers find these essays worthwhile as documents of the close and rich critical engagement electronic literature both deserves and repays.
—Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
As editors for the project, we have tried to offer each paper in as clear and helpful a manner as possible, providing appropriate links not only to the creative work being analyzed but also to other papers in the collection. Common themes include the influence of the digital medium, specifically Web-based, on the construction and delivery of the work in question; the differences, if any, between print and electronic literature; the blurred roles of author, reader/viewer, and critic; and, not unexpectedly, the need for further study and interpretation.
We realize that this collection represents only a small contribution to the nascent field of digital criticism, but we hope others will find some inspiration within and continue along the way. Enjoy!
—Alenda Chang, Tanya Clement, and Karen Keen
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