I consider this mutability of language a wise precaution of Providence for the benefit of the world at large, and of authors in particular. To reason from analogy, we daily behold the varied and beautiful tribes of vegetables springing up, flourishing, adorning the fields for a short time, and then fading into dust, to make way for their successors. Were not this the case, the fecundity of nature would be a grievance instead of a blessing. The earth would groan with rank and excessive vegetation, and its surface become a tangled wilderness.
— Washington Irving, The Oxford Book of American Essays, 1914
With the onset of New Media, the art of writing seems to have reached full circle; from writing on the walls, to parchments, to text (word), to hypertext, and to cyber text (writing on the “wall”). In the present Information Age, creative writing seems to be, most aptly, environmentally contextualized. The horizons of the usually explicitly static, linear and unalterable mode of traditional writing have been expanded and newer, transformative technologies accommodated. The hitherto well-demarcated literary and communication genres encounter blurred boundaries and intersect with other modes of creative art composition such as textual, pictorial, sonic, visual, graphic, animation, etc. Consequently, “literature” finds itself defined in different ways in different contexts. Traditional paper-based print literature is markedly different from the screen-based “digital / electronic literature” created by digital natives. It employs integrative and interactive tools and variables of the hypermedia domain to produce a multi-modelled literary work, which is “a first generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer” (Hayles, 2007). Like any other product of digital technology, “e-lit can be understood as a mediator between humans and computers” (Wend, 2016), wherein professionals from various technological fields contribute towards integrating the New Media features in literary communication; and that has given rise to many new, multifaceted offshoots from the traditional literary genres.
Clearly, ICT driven tools, applications and platforms are designed to facilitate a digital environment for writing / scripting / designing the product (text), which allows for taking liberties in deciding the way one’s product can be used, thereby being playful with the concept of trans- / interdisciplinarity. Various online platforms offer writing tools / software such as Storyspace, HyperCard, Guide, Tinderbox and Twine, which incorporate all the trans-media tools into a unique media artefact.
Cyber text germinated in the form of interactive video games in the 1980s such as Adventure, in which the user / player could participate in the game and could actively engage himself / herself in the unfolding story. The imaginary world has thus populated cyberspace in various modes—fictitious, poetic, etc. Although still facing scepticism and resistance in terms of its inclusion in mainstream literary communication, cyber text now occupies a strong niche in the field. According to Espen J. Aarseth (1997), “The concept of cybertext focuses on the mechanical organization of the text by positing the intricacies of the medium as an integral part of the literary exchange” (p.1).
Genre theorists are quite vocal about the malleability and interrelationship of genres: “Genre study itself has undergone changes from Plato’s and Aristotle’s view of poetry and tragedy to genre as essential classifications to speech genres of everyday life” (Cohen, 2003). The genre of fiction, quite a late entry on the literary scene, necessitated by the changing environment, has been subjected to various experiments. It has gone from being a linear narrative story with all the features properly in place, to being a flashback, to using a stream of consciousness technique; and from being a purely fictitious story, to the reproduction of real experiences and events, and still further, from being purely textual to being graphical.
However, that was all in print. We are currently witnessing a hybrid genre of fiction with blurred boundary lines. These are: Hypertext, Fan / Collaborative / Serial, Generative, Locative, Interactive, Cell phone / SMS, Kinetic, Flash fiction and Twiction, fiction. To take a few, Hyperfiction is a narrative story that uses hyperlinks to create links within the text, thereby enabling readers / users to traverse through the text using their preferences. An example of Hyperfiction is Inanimate Alice (2005), which is archived on eliterature.org. Serial fiction is a narrative fiction delivered in serial format; for example Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White published by The Guardian (2002) on websites such as Fictionpress.com or fictionhub.com. Fan fiction is an expansion and development of a particular situation or character from a significant work of fiction, by the fans of that work, e.g., 50 Shades of Grey, a fan fiction based on the Twilight series of books. Cell / Mobile / Text Fiction is written in text / messaging or email format and disseminated through the cell phone, e.g., A Sky of Love: A Sad Love Story by Mika, a Japanese author (2005). Twitter novel (Twiction / Twovel) are written as tweets, e.g., Jennifer Egan’s Blackbox (2012). Collaborative fiction is authored by multiple writers contributing in the development of a plot / sub-plot on an online platform. Kinetic fiction comprises non-interactive visual novels which do not give any traversing liberty to the player. Flash fiction / Nano / Micro fiction are very brief narrative stories on digital platforms.
As an outcome of this, the word-based narrative finesse required to render characters, situations, landscapes and structures appealing, has transformed and evoked both conceptual and theoretical questions. The analysts range from pure radicals who opine that the digital medium serves “to democratise literature” (Bell, 2007) and merely converts the “inherent but implicit” traits of print literature into ”virtually explicit” ones, to the core critics who question the literariness, authorship, readership and the technical glitches of e-lit and declare an apocalypse for literature.
However, a comprehensive analysis projects the present literary scene as being naturally in line with the digital age. Lee Clark Mitchell clarifies:
Any popular text engages immediately pressing issues—issues that become less pressing in time. With each generation, a genre’s plots, narrative emphasis, stylistic pressures, even scenic values have less in common with earlier versions of that genre than with competing genres, all serving to resolve the same contemporary anxieties (as cited in Cohen, 2003).
E-creative writing engages with the current digital winds of change. Wend rightly asserts in quarterlyconversation.com:
For literature to continue and grow and expand in a fluid world, it must be seen through both print and electronic literature … texts that are “digital born” and those that are primarily intended for print do behave differently, today they are part of a larger “complex and dynamic media ecology.”
This transition is the result of a series of evolutionary alterations in literary writing and strongly echoes the basic principles of evolutionary biology. Biological evolution may be defined as:
… the process through which the characteristics of organisms change over successive generations, by means of genetic variation and natural selection … The result … may be minimal or substantial; it embraces everything from slight changes within a species, to the successive alterations that lead to the diversification of an organism into countless unique species (Northwest Creation Network, n.d.).
Bridging this landscape with the literary landscape is not a new phenomenon. Social sciences and humanities theorists such as Donald Campbell, Daniel Dennett, Franco Moretti, Joseph Carroll and Michael Ruse have mined Darwinian evolutionary theory and its subsequent versions. According to Carroll (1995, p. 122), literary Darwinism, i.e. seeing literary writing through the lens of evolutionary study, implies that “literature is produced and consumed to satisfy the evolved and adapted needs of human nature” (lecture, 2008) and “can help us to understand both the situations depicted in literature and the personal and social conditions in which literature is produced” (Carroll, 1995, p. 122). The proper term for this “change” is “mutation”. Studying literature in relation to mutation, the basic principle of this theory, explains the new phenomenon of e-literature. Mutation is the directed or undirected (random) permanent alteration in the genetic material of an organism, which results in the reproduction of a genetically different, modified progeny. The so-far transformed and transformable body of literary organisms (genres) explains itself when traced over this genetic concept. If “a mutant is an organism or a new genetic character arising or resulting from an instance of mutation”, so also the digital literature, and if “The natural occurrence of genetic mutations is integral to the process of evolution”, it becomes imperative for creative writing to adapt to the changed social, economic and cultural environment (“Mutant”, n.d.). The production of digitalized literature and the combination of various media components in digital literature may be likened to the production of new genes by duplication and mutation of the inherited gene, or the insertion of different genes to form new combinations with new tendencies. Electronic literature is therefore the natural outgrowth of the developmental process of literary communication and provides a new dimension to literary writing.
This variability is paramount for the survival of present literature or it may well meet the fate of Sanskrit, Latin, Greek or Anglo-Saxon literature, because “failure to evolve in response to environmental changes can, and often does, lead to extinction” (O’Neil, n.d.). The snowballing digital fluency and Artificial Intelligence applications of this age are bound to affect such evolved creative artefacts. In fact what geneticist Sewall Wright says about living species applies to literary species (genres) too:
... evolution depends on a certain balance among its factors. There must be gene mutation, but an excessive rate gives an array of freaks, not evolution. There must be selection, but too severe a process destroys the field of variability, and thus the basis for further advance; prevalence of local inbreeding within a species has extremely important evolutionary consequences, but too close inbreeding merely leads to extinction. A certain amount of crossbreeding is favourable but not too much (Wright, 1932).
Although we have yet to see if this new variation of literature is an event of micro or macro evolution and is desirable or not in the process of natural selection, advancing technologies integral to humanity and vital for encoding and decoding of personal, social, universal and cosmological realities, are sure to constantly feature in human discourses and thereby, in the Humanities. Therefore, the purists have to accommodate the experimental new age writers. However, this necessitates finding a middle path so that the integrity and essence of “literature” as a representation of human experiences, with all its in-built, implicit linguistic, structural, technical and aesthetic / perceptual beauty that naturally engrosses human senses is retained, instead of making them purely, mechanically attuned to a multi-modelled programmed production of reality with completely changed properties. Otherwise, continuous information overload / lap will render quality diluted and lead to loss in the race of survival. Or, like “induced mutation”, the imbalance and miscalculation may prove carcinogenic for the health of a genre.
As for the medium, the verbal language has always been “rather a mere confluence of various tongues, perpetually subject to changes and intermixtures. It is this which has made English literature so extremely mutable” (Irving, 1914). This confluence is now laced with new media languages, and mutated by the new computational gene as an adaptation mechanism. As for the corresponding critical theories, they will also have to evolve in line with the literary evolution and can incorporate theories corresponding with Internet studies, Media studies, Game studies, etc., combined through the cross fertilization or hybridization of various media arts.
Aarseth, Espen J. (1997). Cybertex: Perspectives on ergodic literature. Retrieved from http://www.hf.uib.no/cybertext/Ergodic.html/
Bell, David. (2007). Cyberculture theorists: Manuel Castells and Donna Haraway, New York, NY: Routledge.
Northwest Creation Network. (n.d.). Biological evolution. In Creation Wiki: Encyclopedia of Creation Science. Retrieved March 29, 2016 from http://creationwiki.org/Biological_evolution
Carroll, Joseph. (1995). Evolution and literary theory. Human Nature, 6(2), 119-134.
Carroll, Joseph. (2008). Joseph Carroll seminar advert pdf. Retrieved March 29, 2016 from http:// homepages.ucalgary.ca/ ~jefox/Joseph/
Cohen, Ralph. (2003). Introduction. New Literary History, 34(2), iv-xiv. Retrieved March 5, 2016 from https://muse.jhu.edu/article/44089/pdf.
Hayles, N. Catherine. (2007). “Electronic literature: What is it?” Retrieved December 16, 2015 from https://eliterature.org/pad/elp.html
Irving, Washington. (1914). The mutability of literature. In Brander Matthews (Ed.), The Oxford Book of American Essays, New York: Oxford University Press. Retrieved March 13, 2016 from http://www.bartleby.com/109/6.html.
Mutant. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved April 20, 2016 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutant
O’Neil, Dennis. (n.d.). Evidence of evolution. Retrieved March 9, 2016 from http://anthro.palomar.edu/evolve/evolve_3.htm/
Wend, William Patrick. (n.d.). Intro to E-Lit: How electronic literature makes printed literature richer. The Quarterly Conversation. Retrieved March 13, 2016 from http://quarterlyconversation.com/electronic-literature-n-katherine-hayles
Wright, Sewall. (1932). The roles of mutation, inbreeding, crossbreeding and selection in evolution. Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress of Genetics. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Botanic Garden.