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  • CrossConnections: Literary Cultures in Cyberspace
  • Rena Potok

On-line literary and university reviews

Search the Web for on-line creative writing, and you will find a burgeoning number of electronic literary reviews, or literary zines, ranging from the downright tacky and macabre to high quality poetry and fiction. Whatever their level of literary merit, one thing is clear: the Web is rapidly becoming a new medium for the production of literary culture. Indeed, we are witnessing the emergence of a new literary era, in which narrative and poetics interconnect with the world of artificial intelligence and computer-generated graphics to redefine our notions of how and where literature is produced.

Yet, this literary-electronic interconnection produces a curious irony: the best of the literary zines are the most traditional, and the least experimental. While they offer high quality fiction, poetry, art and criticism, they do not explore the possibilities of the Web—hypertext is the first example that comes to mind—in the manner that might be expected. And those zines that do attempt to make use of the world of the Web tend to do so poorly, boasting experimental writing and hypertext links, but in fact presenting amateurish poetry and prose, and links that lead nowhere.

One might think that an electronic narrative experiment like on-line zines would be an excellent way to explore the idea of crossing boundaries between literature and cyber culture, and of breaking down barriers between author and reader. Hypertext can afford a reader a large element of narrative authority, and can produce a collaborative experiment between reader and author—a collaboration that seems in keeping with the notion of synthesizing digital technology and established literature. The editors of these literary zines might expand their horizons and take advantage of the imaginative possibilities presented by the electronic medium they use. Furthermore, it would be interesting to see how they might respond to the challenges that would be presented by trying to translate hypertext from the zine forum to print media.

Literary zines may be divided into two broad categories: high-caliber, traditional literary reviews that happen to be produced electronically, and low-caliber experimental zines that often try but more often fail to explore the potentially exciting possibilities of electronic literary writing. Put otherwise, these zines may be classified as the good, the bad, the ugly, and the university reviews.

Among the better literary zines is Oyster Boy Review, published in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which offers a combination of fiction, poetry and essays. The writing is strong, traditional and complex. Oyster Boy presents good quality writing, with the feel of a seasoned literary review. Other top-tier zines are The Abraxus Reader, The Richmond Review, The Mississippi Review, and The Paris Review (the latter two are electronic versions of the long-standing print reviews).

In a category almost unto itself is The Jolly Roger, originating at Princeton University, and calling itself the “Flagship of the WWW literary revolution,” and “The World’s Largest, Most-Feared Literary Journal Ferrying over 12,000 to Greatness, While the Rest of the World Waits.” One could pause here, and say no more, but this unusual zine is worth characterizing, if only for its quirky qualities. The Jolly Roger has been described as prose and poetry for Generation X, and indeed has sections devoted to X-ers and their (presumed) interests and desires. The home page of the latest issue boasts many offerings, among them the warning: “Anyone trying to deconstruct anything aboard the Good Ship will be keelhauled.” Among other offerings are ghost stories, pirate tales, pseudo-literary criticism, “conservative environmentalism” (articles on “conserving Great Books and the Great Outdoors”), and an essay titled, “What I Learned in Toni Morrison’s Long Fiction Writing Class.” The visual presentation and text bullets are designed on a pirate-ship theme. While this zine cannot boast the best literary writing on the Web, it deserves points for originality and personality. It is a smart-alecky, skillfully written and provocative on-line magazine lampooning literary, academic, generational and traditional politics.

Along other lines entirely is 256 Shades of Grey, which calls itself a “progressive” literary magazine, and features new writers’ works...

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