MET:Digital Literature: Challenges and Possibilities

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This page originally authored by Tessa Wright (2009).


Digital literature changes the way we read and write

Digital literature poses new opportunities and challenges for readers and writers. On one hand, it creates new alternatives for many fundamental literary concepts, including the structure of narrative and the roles of the writer and the reader in the creation and interpretation of a narrative. On the other hand, it challenges the conventions that underpin literary analysis and literary theory. Traditional methods used to delineate texts based on their structure, point-of-view, form, style and genre do not necessarily apply to texts experienced in a digital medium. Because digital literature is still largely experimental, it is difficult to determine how to understand the diverse and expanding body of e-literatures. While the analytical methods used for print text do not necessarily apply, similar methodology for the interpretation of digital literature has yet to be developed.

While controversy persists about whether digital literature will ever gain acceptance by a main-stream audience, there is already ample evidence that some form of digital literatures - including group role playing games and interactive fiction – are already embraced by a large, school-aged audience students. Leu, Kinzer, Coiro, Cammack (2000) suggests that the inundation of electronic media is changing the way students read – their talent is electracy instead of literacy – which suggests that the activity of reading and writing are shifted when the medium is electronic rather than print. Whether these and other digital literatures will ever come within the domain of the school curriculum remains to be seen. However, if students’ interest and participation in digital texts continues to grow, and English classes continue to teach primarily print-based texts, then English literature classrooms run the risk of loosing a relevant place in the students’ lives (or, in the words of Miall (1993), the discipline “risks marginalization as obscurantist.”) If digital literature does not have a place in education, then educators loose out on an opportunity to ground learning in the real-life experiences of their students.

Some forms of digital literatures are already mainstream

How, then, does digital media change the way readers and writers understand and create narrative? The change requires a fundamental departure from traditional ways of thinking about reading and writing; even of the way we define the concepts of text and narrative. “Electronic media are not simply changing the way we tell stories: they are changing the very nature of story, of what we understand (or do not understand)to be narratives” (Unsworth, 2008). A starting place is to define what is meant by a digital narrative by looking at a few of the various forms. Hayles (2007) proposes the following classifications.

Digital Literatures

Hypertext fiction

• characterized by linking structures (afternoon, a story by Michael Joyce; Patchwork Girl by Virginia Shelley)

• earliest form of electronic literature

Network Fiction

• diversified forms of hypertext fiction, such as narratives that emerge from data repositories (Twelve Blue by Michael Joyce)

• combines other media forms, like audio and video, in a networked structure (These Waves of Girls by Caitlin Fisher)

• defined by David Ciccoricco as digital fiction that "makes use of hypertext technology in order to create emergent and recombinatory narratives."

Interactive Fiction

• Has more game elements; varies in the amount of narrative components

• Inspired Nick Monfort to coin the term “interactor” to describe the combined reading/authoring role of IF users

• Noted for innovative uses of convential literary devices (Savoir-Faire, by Emily Short, for example, plays on the concept of literary metaphor, while All Roads, by Jon Ingold, encourages a self-referential critique of the empowering nature of the hypertext environment.)

Locative Narratives

• The “next step” in the evolution of the hypertext narrative: from digitalized three-dimensional spaces to actual ones

• A trendy variety of electronic literature, similar to email novels (popular in the 90s) and serial fictions communicated though cell phones

• location-specific narratives that can be played as audio tapes or keyed to GPS technologies used by the reader or listener (for example, The Missing Voice by Janet Cardiff is a “part urban guide, part fiction, part film noir” audio tape that the user plays as he or she goes on a tour of London. Her Long Black Hair takes listeners on a narrative journey through New York’s Central Park.)


Perl Poetry

• A natural language is hybridized with programming expressions; in its purest form, executable code

• Two addresses: human readers and machines

• “Broken code” pieces are more common; they contain literary devices associated with the print form, such as puns, parallel structures, neologisms (check out to Perplexia by Talan Memmott)

Generative Art

• Uses an algorithm to create and re-create text and/or visual components

• Draws attention to the transformation of temporal and logical relationships between reader and writer in digital space (Regime Change by Noah Wardrip-Fruin; On Lionel Kearns by Jim Andrews)

Flash poem

Still from a flash poem

• Another creative approach to literature that incorporates programming languages and functions

• Sequential screens that generally progress without interactivity (although poems that GO offers a fun selection of interactive pieces. The Dreamlife of Letters by Brian Kim Stefans is a non-interactive Flash poem.)

The genres presented here are not exhaustive and this list does not represent a standard followed by all critics of electronic media. It does, however, suggest the vast range and complexity of electronic literature and give a glimpse at the evolution of the form since early experiments with hyperlinked narrative structures.

Literary analysis of electronic narratives

Traditional methods for interpreting print-based texts do not offer an effective means of analyzing digital texts. Some attempts have been made to recalibrate the analytical process by introducing classifications that are unique to e-literature, such as patterns of hyperlink structures. However, the complexity and diversity of electronic literatures so far defies a universally applicable method of interpretation. This unmanageability is a turn-off for would-be readers and writers: “Indeed, this unsureness and ambiguity have resulted in many students generally begin turned off by their initial attempts to enjoy digital literatures – dismissing them as too difficult to understand or seeming to lack any discernable meaning” (Jewitt, 2005).

Teachers who are interested in introducing e-literature into the classroom must contend with the disorientating sensation of being unable to ground the material in a corpus of academic research. Some of the aspects of digital media that have so far thwarted attempts at literary analysis are briefly explained here.


In a book, the same information is presented to the reader in the same order every time the book is read. This linearity allows readers to have a similar reading experience when they read the same book. But a hypertext narrative is not necessarily linear; it may “flow” differently each time it is experienced. Hypertext media doesn’t have to have a beginning, middle and end like a traditional codex; instead, it may offer multiple entry points and contain many different pathways to the reader (Snyder, 1996).


A reader of print media is finished reading a text once he or she has read all the pages. But the connectedness afforded to digital literatures makes it possible to get entangled in a labyrinthine web of hyperlinks that never have a definitive end. The relative amorphousness of digital text has lead to the questioning of the finiteness of the reading experience, which Sheilds refers to as the “myth of totality” (2000).

Connectivity challenges linearity of traditional narrative

The connectivity of the web also transforms the concept of narrative structure. In a traditional narrative, one might consider the structure of a narrative in terms of the arrangement of details in a paragraph or the progression of ideas in an entire work. Hyperlinks afford new ways of thinking about structure; for example, Mark Bernstein (1998) offers a classification of hyperlinked structures that could be useful in the criticism of e-literature.

The connectivity of the web also makes it possible to offer a viewer or a reader an unprecedented amount of sensory stimulation. Learning how to “hear” audio or “watch” video is paramount to learning how to “read” text in the digital environment (Miall, 1993).


Particularly with some genres of electronic literature, like interactive fiction, the interactivity of the user in the creation of the narrative itself blurs the traditional distinctions between reader and writer. Hypertexts vary in the amount of interaction required from the user, complicating attempts to classify e-literature based on user participation. Whereas “a print bound text is the result of many individual choices made by its author from among several available alternatives… a hypertext consists of many virtual texts with may be the work of different writers. Each reader makes one or more of these virtual texts an actual text when choosing which links to follow and which to ignore” (Snyder, 1996).


Electronic text offers instant links to or embedding of images, videos, audio, and other media. While print texts may refer or allude to extemporaneous texts or events, obtaining the information is not instantaneous as it is in an electronic medium. The task of reading online, then, includes experiencing and understanding the media that is alongside or within the text itself. Because of the diverse range of media that are available on the Internet, developing an understanding of the cultural, social or historical context all types of media is crucial to developing a critical perspective of electronic texts. Literary analysts (and teachers and students) must delve into the domain of culture and media analysis to more fully understand the texts they encounter on the web.

Experiencing print media electronically

Given the complexity of digital narratives and the daunting task of teaching students to develop a critical eye when engaged in these narratives, perhaps a middle ground is appropriate. The links below all use digital space to further engage readers in print texts.

These alternatives to purely digital literature offer a way to introduce some aspects of the form without entirely surrendering the familiarity of print-based text.

Writers in Electronic Residence:connects students with Canadian writers to answer questions and discuss books

Persues Digital Library: a comprehensive networked collection of sources about Greek and Roman literature

Ivanhoe Game: a multiplayer game that “facilitates the imaginative use of electronic archives and online resources in combination with traditional text-based and visual research materials” (Ivanhoe, n.d.)

TextArc of Alice in Wonderland

TextArc: an innovative way to experience selected print texts; a series of digital arcs that provide “an index, concordance, and summary” (TextArc, n.d.)

Journal Zone: “…an online 'journal' that supports reflective learning within a social context. [It] integrates three common practices of exemplary teaching: journal writing, collaboration, and cognitive scaffolding” (Skillen, 2002).

Stop Motion Video

Digital Literature: Challenges and Possibilities by Lindsay Spencer-


Bernstein, M. (1998). Systems of Hypertext. In EastGate Systems Inc. Retrieved February 28, 2009 from

Cardullo, V., Zygouris-Coe, V., Wilson, N. S., Craanen, P. M., Stafford, T. R. (2012). Howstudents comprehend using e-readers and traditional text: suggestions from the classroom. American Reading Forum Annual Yearbook . [Online], Vol. 32.

Dooley, R (2015, Sept.16). Paper Beats Digital in Many Ways, According to Neuroscience. Forbes. Retrieved November 29th 2016, from

Guertin, C. (2013) Handholding, Remixing, and the Instant Replay: New Narratives in a Postnarrative World, in A Companion to Digital Literary Studies (eds R. Siemens and S. Schreibman), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Oxford, UK. doi: 10.1002/9781405177504.ch12

Hayles, K. (2007). Electronic Literature: What Is It? In Electronic Literature Organization (publications). Retrieved February 28, 2009 from

Ivanhoe. (n.d.). Retrieved February 28, 2009 from

Jabr, F. (2013, April 11). The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens. Scientific American. Retrieved November/December, 2016, from

Jewitt, C. (2005). 'Multimodality, “reading”, and “writing” for the 21st century' Discourse. Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education (26, 3 )315–31.

Leu, D.J., Jr., Kinzer, C.K., Coiro, J., & Cammack, D.W. (2004). Toward a theory of new literacies emerging from the Internet and other information and communication technologies. In R.B. Ruddell, & N. Unrau (Eds.), Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading (5th ed., pp. 1570-1613). Retrieved February 28, 2009 from

Miall, David D. (1993). Representing and Interpreting Literature by Computer. Yearbook of English Studies 25, 199-212.

Niccoli, A. (2015, Sept. 28). Paper or Tablet? Reading Recall and Comprehension. Retrieved December 01, 2016, from

Shields, Rob. (2000). “Hypertext Links: The Ethics of the Index and its Space-Time Effects.” In A. Herman and T. Swiss (Eds.), The World Wide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory, 145-160.

Skillen, P. (2002). Write to Learn with Journal Zone. In C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education International Conference 2002`1947-1948.

Snyder, Ilana. (1996). “Electronic Writing” and “Explaing Hypertext.” Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth, 1-38.

TextArc. (n.d.) Retrieved February 28, 2009 from

Unsworth, L. (2008). Multiliteracies, E-Literature and English Teaching. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. (ERIC No. EJ789245)