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N. Katherine Hayles. Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 2008. x + 223 pp.

N. Katherine Hayles opens this survey of emerging literary forms with a playful fictional scenario of a "Scriptorium in turmoil" at the introduction of print technology, in order to remind us that "the place of writing is again in turmoil, roiled now not by the invention of print books but the emergence of electronic literature." Her aim is to address the turmoil by offering "a wide-ranging exploration of what electronic literature is, how it overlaps and diverges from print, what signifying strategies characterize it, and how these strategies are interpreted by users as they go in search of meaning" (2).

Her definition of the field reflects the view of the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO), under whose banner she co-edited the [End Page 407] CD-ROM of 60 creative pieces that is distributed with this book. (It is also freely available on the web at According to Hayles and the ELO, "electronic literature" is "work with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer" (3). This very general definition is helpful to Hayles in providing lee-way for including some print novels, as well as hypertexts and other computer-based work in her analysis of the field.

Hayles begins with "Electronic Literature: What is it?" a chapter that she heralds as "to my knowledge the first attempt to survey systematically the entire field of electronic literature" (ix). She provides a readable account of a highly diverse set of expressive practices. Hayles displays an admirable openness to experimentation of many kinds, but the reader may find it hard to identify the basis of her selection since she does not make clear what her criteria are for identifying these particular works as literature.

Though the tradition she focuses on is barely twenty years old, Hayles divides it into two distinct periods. She identifies works like Michael Joyce's inventive and much analyzed afternoon as belonging to the classic period, which she sees as ending around 1995. Electronic Literature since 1995 she places in the contemporary or postmodern period (7). Hayles understandably does not attempt a systematic genre analysis of the kind one might expect from a survey of a more mature medium like novels or film. She does provide a useful overview of some of the salient features of the works that most interest her. She gives appropriate mention to areas that are already well served by other theorists, such as the text parsing Interactive Fiction stories that are the subject of Nick Montfort's comprehensive critical volume, Twisty Little Passages. She provides a brief but informative paragraph on the single most ambitious interactive narrative produced so far, Façade, mentioning its theoretical claims as a new form of Interactive Drama. She identifies other affinity groups, such as the use of Z axis for navigation or the presentation of text in the immersive CAVE (CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment) installation space by a group invited to Brown University by Robert Coover. She does not mention other expressive uses of CAVE technology, such as Josephine Anstey's work; more strikingly, she does not mention landmark works from outside academia, such as Myst, the Sims, or the writings and online narrative experiments of Scott McCloud, though all have been impactful on the work of the practitioners in her collection. Hayles's omissions are worth noting since she is offering her framework as a catalyst for new courses, attempting to define a field of literary study called "Electronic Literature" of which the works she chooses are representative. In fact, one of the advantages of this book is its marginality. Hayles's selection is idiosyncratic but interesting; [End Page 408] she gives us helpful descriptions and compelling interpretations of works that are otherwise little known and not particularly easy to engage.

The next three chapters are the heart of her analysis, where Hayles turns to thematic questions, touching on many of the same issues she engaged so successfully in How We Became Posthuman. Hayles...


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pp. 407-411
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