“Let my readers go”: Freedom, the ‘post-’, electronic ‘literature’

Abstract (in English): 

What do Jeremy Hight’s Glacial, A Novel (whose content he has pledged to Tweet one word at a time every day between the November 2020 and June 2042), Anna Anthropy’s Queers in Love At the End of the World (a Twine romance unfolding at the eleventh minute before the apocalypse which readers are allowed to devour in just ten seconds), and Claire Dinsmore’s The Dazzle as Question (a hypermedia prose-poem about old-school artistry versus the onset of the digital with a penchant for blind(sid)ing its reader) all share in common? For one, they are narratives mediated by computer-hosted platforms and invested in wresting lection from their readers. For another, this paper will argue, they are examples of the post-literary according to a very specific and not strictly conventional definition.

A by-product of what Brian McHale styles the “name-that-period sweepstakes for what comes after postmodernism” has been the proliferation of commentaries on the meaning of the ‘post-literary’. Reference has been made to some kind of after-literature which, as the product of a succession of literatures, is expected to retain a vestige of what anteceded it while making for a fresh direction. The general narrative concerning the ‘post-’ has been about unlearning the past, innovation and progress, but also one of a limbic sense of living on after the end times. To a different reader, Hight, Anthropy, and Dinsmore’s work might exemplify one or all of these definitions of the condition of being ‘post-’. However, this reader prefers to think of their work in the broad terms established by the journal, CounterText – that is, as manifestations which are implausibly represented by the term ‘literature’ yet register belonging in the “domain” of the post-literary, where “any artefact that might have some claim on the literary appears”.

Hight, Anthropy, and Dinsmore thumb their noses at conventional reading practices, employing digital affordances to force narrative to move at a glacial pace, accelerate it impossibly, and place a variety of obstacles in the way of reading. Yet, it is clear from the way they goad the reader that the works still expect to be read. They seem thus to be at the bleeding edge of the ontological challenge identified by John Cayley when he hypothesizes, “if literature is a practice that is determined, chiefly, by material cultural formations that orbit practices and conventions of reading, then it is literature that faces its ontological challenge with respect to digitization.” Given the way digitization has skewed conventional reading practices, Cayley concludes: “Electronic literature is, precisely, no longer literature”. Besides, if Jean-Paul Sartre is right that “the writer, a free man addressing free men, has only one subject – freedom”, so that “any attempt to enslave his readers threatens him in his very art”, then Hight, Anthropy, and Dinsmore cannot be writing literature when they employ programmed platforms to regulate and curtail their readers’ freedom quite simply to read; theirs must be a kind of ‘electronic post-literary’.


ELO 2021: Reading, temporality and genres, May 26, 2021

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Milosz Waskiewicz