In the context of the 1990s, there are three writers to whom the phrase “electronic literature, c’est moi” could conceivably apply: Michael Joyce, Stuart Moulthrop, and Shelley Jackson. In particular, afternoon, a story, Victory Garden, and Patchwork Girl were generative works that exerted outsize influence both within and beyond the genre.1 The scale of proliferation that accompanied and followed this period, however, in tandem with the rapid commercialization of the Internet, was something few predicted. Issues of monetization, open access, how to define electronic literature, whether hypertext is dead, and whether print is dead or dying, are only a sampling of debates continuing to play out in the pages of ebr and elsewhere. These numbers will be outdated by the time of publication: 1.6 billion Facebook users navigate a constellation of image and narrative at least once per month; around 40% of humanity has Internet access (in 1995 that number was less than 1%). The growth since has been remarkable, but perhaps more unanticipated is the poignancy involved in the act of looking backward. Not only has our online experience changed, much of the old content is now inaccessible. A quote by N. Katherine Hayles is worth noting in this context: “Books printed on good quality paper can endure for centuries, electronic literature routinely becomes unplayable (and hence unreadable) after a decade or even less.” Indeed, a cursory search of my university’s library, as well as interlibrary loan, turned up four versions of Patchwork Girl: two on 3.5 inch “floppy” disks (1995 and 2000 editions), one on CD (with software from 2000), and one on USB flash drive (2014, though not requestable).2
Not only do advances in hardware and software render certain works of electronic literature irretrievable, but our distance from their origin confers a powerful nostalgia, even to their critical reception. A digital world-weariness, too, has set in. Assertions in the late 1990s that online advertising would never catch on evoke later handwringing over blogging’s rise, which in turn sounds just as quaint as the claim (briefly popular in 2010) that the iPad would never sell with a name so polysemic.
The following essays from 1995 to 2003 inhabit a utopian moment that has since been eclipsed, and a series of moments that continue to be eclipsed with increasing frequency. Central to the moment was the potential, not merely of non-linearity, but of interlinked nodes or “lexias” and the ability to interact with text via new technology. These essays interrogate the larger effects of this technology on narrative in ways that remain relevant today, as well provide a window on a revolutionary time of much excitement and promise. This gathering offers the chance to pair the question “What was that promise?” either with “What have we done?” or “Where to next?” To quote Moulthrop elsewhere in ebr, “These brief notes are offered in place of something longer and more fully considered, for which there will probably never be time.”
1. For evidence of the arc of electronic literature’s penetration into public consciousness, see Robert Coover’s “The End of Books” and Laura Miller’s “www.claptrap.com” in The New York Times in 1993 and 1998, respectively. See also Michael Joyce’s meditation of less than a decade later: “Paris Again or Prague: Who Will Save Lit from Com?,” in Othermindedness: The Emergence of Network Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001, 193-212.
2.For an example of hypertext preservation, see Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop’s Pathfinders project, which documents four important early works: Judy Malloy’s Uncle Roger, John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse, Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, and Bill Bly’s We Descend.