Theorizing Digital Narrative: Beginnings, Endings, and Authorship

Critical Writing
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2012
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Abstract (in English): 

[Published under author's previous name, Jennifer Smith]

Since its development, critics of electronic literature have touted all that is "new" about the field, commenting on how these works make revolutionary use of non-linear structure, hyperlinks, and user interaction. Scholars of digital narrative have most often focused their critiques within the paradigms of either the text-centric structuralist model of narrativity or post-structuralist models that implicate the text as fundamentally fluid and dependent upon its reader for meaning. But neither of these approaches can account completely for the unique modes in which digital narratives prompt readerly progression, yet still exist as independent creative artifacts marked by purposive design. I argue that, in both practice and theory, we must approach digital-born narratives as belonging to a third, hybrid paradigm. In contrast to standard critical approaches, I interrogate the presumed "newness" of digital narratives to reveal many aspects of these works that hearken to print predecessors and thus confirm classical narratological theories of structure and authorship. Simultaneously, though, I demonstrate that narrative theory must be revised and expanded to account for some of the innovative techniques inherent to digital-born narrative.

Across media formats, theories of narrative beginnings, endings, and authorship contribute to understanding of readerly progress and comprehension. My analysis of Leishman's electronically animated work Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw shows how digital narratives extend theories of narrative beginnings, confirming theoretical suitability of existing rules of notice, expectations for mouseover actions, and the role of institutional and authorial antetexts. My close study of Jackson's hypertext my body: a Wunderkammer likewise informs scholarship on narrative endings, as my body does not provide a neatly linear plot, and thus does not cleanly correspond to theories of endings that revolve around conceptions of instabilities or tensions. Yet I argue that there is still compelling reason to read for narrative closure, and thus narrative coherence, within this and other digital works. Finally, my inquiry into Pullinger and Joseph's collaboratively written Flight Paths: A Networked Novel firmly justifies the theory of implied authorship in both print and digital environments and confirms the suitability of this construct to a range of texts.

Pull Quotes: 

It is essential that narrative and digital scholars account seriously for the range of narrative products emerging out of increasing technological capacities, and attempt to qualify the properties of those that are successful in comparison to those that are not. In doing so, we will come to conclusions that usefully apply to the bulk of our narrative experiences. … Until there is substantial further study of these types of texts, there will be continued academic ignorance of the many possible rules that they might illustrate, and, even by their exception, prove to be useful markers of readerly conventions and expectations.
Digital narratives are not likely to be a “fad,” any more than email or cellular telephones have proven themselves to be. To continue to disregard these technologically-enhanced texts as inconsequential, or uniformly “bad,” is to illustrate yet another case of unfounded discrimination against those texts not yet firmly entrenched in the canon. Aristotle once famously suggested that “the female is female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities.” It seems that, for far too long, scholars and critics have held similarly reductive opinions about digital narratives, remarking far more often on all that these pieces lack, when compared to their print-based counterparts, rather than investigating that which they confirm to exist across narrative formats and their unique additions to the field.

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Jennifer Roudabush