- Close Reading New Media: Analyzing Electronic Media
It is no little irony that hypertext literature, which places so much responsibility on the reader to plot each unique reading path and participate in a work's unfolding, requires careful attention to a work of literature at a time when information overload demands an increase in the speed at which we take in that information and when literary scholars have rejected epistemologies built upon the close study of texts. Anyone who has ever tried to breeze through Talan Memmot's Lexia to Perplexia or Stephanie Strickland's Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot, therefore, should get the gist of Jan Van Looy and Jan Baetens's argument for a close reading of new media in their collection, Close Reading New Media: Analyzing Electronic Literature.
This kind of approach to "texts," however, runs counter to postmodern approaches where theorizing about literature takes precedent over the works themselves and debates over meaning and truth have rendered any meaning and any truth nonexistent. But Van Looy and Baetens' view of close reading holds that it "does not aim to produce the meaning of the text, but rather to unearth all possible types of ambiguities and irony" (p. 8, authors' emphasis). In this approach they share much in common with literary translators and textual studies scholars who have long argued that the process of careful reading is necessary for the production of a translation or a concordance, for example. But it is, instead, to the semiotics of Jacques Fontanille and the media philosophy of Stanley Cavell, as well as theories suggested by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Marie-Laure Ryan and Lev Manovich, that the authors turn to for support, rather than to New Critics who also argue for close readings of texts. And as such, Van Looy and Baetens place electronic literature squarely into new media rather than literature—a view of electronic literature, of course, suggested in the book's title.
The book is actually a collection of nine essays divided into three sections—Hypertext, Internet Text and Cybertext—with each section containing three essays. And so, in the first section, one finds analyses of Strickland's True North, Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl and M.D. Coverley's Califia. Section Two offers essays on Geoff Ryman's 253 and Rick Pryll's Lies, Raymond Federman and Anne Burdick's Eating Books, and another on Ryman's 253. The final section focuses on Darren Aronofsky's web site for his film Requiem for a Dream; the interface for ebr (electronic book review); and the theoretical views underlying Grammatron, by its author Mark Amerika.
It is not clear why Van Looy and Baetens have organized the book in this way. Certainly this reviewer cannot see a discernible rationale for breaking up the essays in sections one and two, since [End Page 68] they both address hypertext works of fiction and poetry thematically, structurally and the like; the reasoning for the third section makes sense since the first two essays look at hypertextual works that are not themselves literary but function as electronic environments in support of new media, and the third offers what could be described as a print-based hypertext. As such, they do follow Espen Aarseth's notion of cybertext and ergodic reading (pp. 19-21).
So few books have emerged specifically about electronic literature that Van Looy and Baetens' book is a most welcome addition to scholarship in this area. Notable among the essays for clarity and quality of writing are Elisabeth Joyce's essay on Patchwork Girl, Raine Koskimaa's on Califia, Baetens's essay on Eating Books and Van Looy's on 253. The hypertext essay by Amerika, who remains one of the most interesting thinkers in electronic literature, stands out for its ideas and approach.
It would be remiss not to mention that the authors collapse hypertext with electronic literature and both of these with new media, for neither the introduction to the book nor...