- Charting the Digital Literary Sphere
What is the relationship between digital communication technologies and contemporary literary culture? In some ways, it is a question rarely posed at present, largely because it has been posed so often before and the often grandiose predictions formulated in response have so lamentably failed to materialize. Since the late 1980s, proponents of literary hypertext and later network-inspired variants such as interactive fiction and Twitterature have challenged literature’s traditionally linear-narrative and single-author characteristics.1 Roughly simultaneously, from the early 1990s, constant academic speculation over the imminent “death of the book” cast doubt upon literature’s traditional print-culture format.2 That e-books have demonstrably failed to date to eliminate codex book sales, and that even the most critically acclaimed hypertext fictions remain curiosities in the literary canon, their dissemination beset by problems of software and hardware obsolescence, has rendered the question of digital technologies’ impact on contemporary literary culture [End Page 311] a passé, almost embarrassingly naive, inquiry.3 There is a weary sense that, as a discipline, we have been around this block before.
Yet the manifest failure of futurists’ more eschatological predictions to come to pass is not reason to abandon the question of the digital’s significance for literary culture. Rather, it should serve as a spur to provide better answers—newer, alert to the risks of rhetorical overreaching, and attentive to the varied and sometimes contradictory permutations of contemporary culture. For the Internet offers an abundance of what in earlier print- and broadcast-dominated eras was collectively termed “book talk”: book review websites, self-cataloguing library networks, author home pages, publishers’ portals, online book retailers, archived writers’ festival sessions, and recorded celebrity author readings. Indeed, the challenge for contemporary bibliophiles is not to locate literary content of interest online but, rather, to sift the perspicacious and illuminating wheat from the chaff of vapid adulation and naked self-promotion.4 For literary studies to ignore this rich seam of online biblio-enthusiasm simply because the question of the digital-literary interface has been posed before and the answers found wanting risks looking like smug self-satisfaction on the part of print-culture’s erstwhile defenders in the face of earlier waves of digital boosterism. More pervasively, for a discipline fearful of the impact of neoliberal political agendas on research funding allocations, student enrollments, and graduate employment prospects, it is needlessly self-limiting to dismiss such ample evidence of continued public enthusiasm for matters literary.5
I do not mean to suggest that academe has, since the turn of the millennium, remained silent on the relationship of digital media to literary culture. Insightful and productive work on the significance of electronic and self-publishing, the game-changing role of online [End Page 312] book retailers, and the impact of digital media on reading practices exists.6 But most striking is how often it is found, piecemeal, at the fringes of better-established disciplines, such as book history (whose very choice of name signals its unease with contemporary developments), nationalist literary studies (despite the Internet’s structural undermining of national boundaries), cultural sociology (though traditionally restive with specifically literary judgments), and cultural studies (long more attuned to screen media than to the codex). Lacking is a unifying term that could give focus and coherence to a currently scattered body of work. I propose the umbrella term the digital literary sphere. This wording denotes not detailed close readings of specific digital literary experiments, nor the unfolding rivalries between specific e-book reader technologies, both of which are amply chronicled elsewhere. Rather, it encompasses the broad array of book-themed websites and other digital content whose focus is contemporary literature and its production, circulation, and consumption, however blurry that tripartite distinction has been rendered in an era of Web 2.0 and social media. For it is clear that while e-book formats are undeniably encroaching upon the codex as literature’s dominant platform, and that pockets of specialist interest in niche digital-literary experiments remain, the vast majority of online literary discussion concerns traditionally linear, single-author narratives published either in print form or in e-book versions...