Electronic Literature

Stories of the Self on and off the Screen

Narratives of personal experience occupy an important place in the study of narrative literature. A rich resource for exploring identity construction, storytelling and socio-historical context, they appear in autobiography, life writing, diaries, conversational narratives and oral history. Their relevance for narrative theory is equally diverse, ranging from structural concerns to questions of authenticity and narratorial reliability. The world wide web provides an unprecedented opportunity for people to publish stories about themselves and connect with online communities of users. The emerging range of online personal narratives is highly varied: a dizzying array that includes but is not limited to stories that are told on discussion boards, personal blogs, as part of community projects, contributed to historical archives, created as digital stories (cf. the Digital Storytelling Center), not to mention literary forms of autobiography which may (or may not) present themselves as fictional. The case I present here indicates some of the vital contributions that electronic literature offers the study of personal narratives. In particular, I point to the role of defamiliarisation in evaluating prior knowledge, the influence of medium on textual interpretation, and increased sensitivity to the multimodal nature of storytelling.

Electronic literature proves itself worthy as an object of study in its own right and increasingly has a part to play alongside offline stories (print, filmic, conversational) in teaching narrative literature. As we attempt to place new media genres against and within a spectrum of existing story forms, the emerging points of difference and continuity allow a fresh appreciation of both digital and non-digital narrative conventions. In so doing we might avoid relegating electronic literature to an isolated (and subsequently dismissed) position. Instead, juxtaposed with offline forms, the less familiar nature of electronic literature provides the powerful means by which ‘invisible’ assumptions about textual form, value and function are exposed. The now common acceptance of e-learning facilitates easy integration of digital texts into the literature curriculum; yet there is much more to say about the advantageous outcomes of weaving electronic literature into more traditional teaching scenarios. This essay examines three narratives freely available in electronic form via the internet and describes their use in pedagogic contexts. The electronic texts are used as part of a final year undergraduate narrative theory module taught in a British university but typical of many other such courses found across Europe and the United States.

The three electronic narratives considered here represent themselves in part or whole as autobiography and deal with similar themes of memory, loss and the dislocation of identity. My Body, A Wunderkammer by Shelley Jackson is described in the Electronic Literature Organization archives as ‘a semi-autobiographical hypertext’, and is written as a memoir in which the reader navigates the anecdotal fragments of the narrator’s past (her evolving artistry, sexuality, physical development) by clicking on illustrations of the female body. In Search of Oldton, by Tim Wright, declares itself to be a ‘90% true story’ and was developed as part of the trAce project. Readers navigate through the world of Oldton via a deck of playing cards, which reveal memories of the narrator’s childhood and relationship with his father. While the ‘real life’ existence of Oldton is never resolved (the cards can be reconstructed as segments of a map), the narrative contains an ongoing collaborative element (Your Oldton), apparently created from authentic momentos and messages sent in by users who co-construct a community archive of Oldton memories. The last of the narratives considered here makes no claims to literary status. Instead, A Woman of Many Parts is a personal blog, written by a British blogger, Minerva, and charts her experiences of being diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. The blog has been maintained regularly since June 2005, but as with all personal blogs, the ongoing lifespan of the blog may not be reliable. Nonetheless, Minerva’s writing has won multiple blogging awards and deservedly attracts high level traffic for its eloquent portrayal of the emotional challenges of dealing with critical illness. While inevitably limited, this initial selection of texts provides multifaceted material as a starting point for exploring online stories of the self.

Narratives of personal experience might be regarded as forms of ‘self portrait’ (Schiffrin 1996). The autodiegetic narrators of such stories, deemed usually to have a high degree of ‘representedness’ (Lanser 1995:87), are of interest for a number of reasons, including both their inferred character qualities and reliability. Narratology has long debated the extent to which a reader’s interpretation of literary characters might plausibly draw upon theories of social cognition (summarised in Toolan 2001). The role of textual content in relation to readerly prior knowledge lies at the heart of such discussions, where the partiality of verbal representation is seen at odds with the assumed veracity of ‘real people’. The uneasy conclusion that readers construct similar mental models of both fictional and real characters is thrown open to further scrutiny by the medium-specific connotations of electronic texts. After all, the internet has been touted as the platform par excellence where individuals might manipulate constructed identity with hitherto untold plasticity (Roberts and Parks 2001). Evidence of online identity play abounds, ranging from use of pseudonyms and gender-switching in discussion forums (Waskul 2003), avatars created in virtual worlds (a fast-growing example being Second Life), and simulations that invite the reader to adopt an apparently ‘real’ identity belonging to someone else (DavidStill.org, reported in detail in Walker (2003)). Despite these well documented practices, flouting social conventions of authenticity still provoke allegations of duplicity and hoaxing, as in the recent cases of lonelygirl.15, a video blogger who posed as a 16-year-old girl on YouTube but was subsequently ‘outed’ as a young actress and, more disturbingly, Kaycee Nicole, another blogger who at 19 was supposedly suffering from leukaemia (to the point of death) but was later revealed to be a healthy 38-year-old. The tensions between role play and authenticity in relation to online identity thus draw fresh attention to the medium-specific reader expectations involved in constructing mental profiles of characters in personal narratives.

At first glance, My Body, Oldton and A Woman of Many Parts appear to invoke differing fictional statuses, with My Body (fiction) and Minerva’s blog (non-fiction) at opposite ends of the referential scale. Yet all three texts suggest that self representation and recounts of the past can only ever be selective and partial, whether they concern an individual within an actual or a fictional world (Ryan 1991), thereby calling into question the logical and philosophical criteria that distinguish between fiction and non-fiction. The medium-specific properties of electronic narratives aptly underscore the fragmentary nature of self representation, as the pixels on a flickering screen and the potential decay of hyperlinks give the lie to the illusion of textual permanence conferred by the printed page. Representation in digital media, be it of a fictional or actual world, has an inescapably transitory quality.

Moreover, the design principles of electronic narratives such as those considered here reinforce thematic concerns with fragmented subjectivity, whether that be visually through the hypertextual links that dissect the female body (My Body) or through the episodic installments of blog entries, appearing unpredictably, that piece together Minerva’s experiences (A Woman of Many Parts) and over time are lost from view when later housed in the blog archives. Juxtaposed with the conventions of offline stories, electronic narratives reveal the linear coherence of personal narratives, be they fictional plots or oral accounts,as ideologically loaded artifice rather than ‘natural’ storytelling. Readers might then question the role that sequential processing plays in making sense of narrative characters, for example, elucidating effects of surprise, suspense or coherence. By defamiliarising the linear reading process through hypertextual fragmentation, electronic literature reminds us that self representation is inevitably partial, and storytelling an illusory creation of coherence. In a parallel move, readers might then reconsider their own attempts to build mental profiles of narrative participants as similarly partial and open to reconfiguration.

Both the possibility of online identity play and the transitory nature of the electronic medium influence the fictional status that readers might attribute to characters in a storyworld. This is felt most acutely in relation to the multimodal resources employed in electronic literature. Whilst storytelling has always invoked more than one semiotic mode, the rapid development of technology has drawn critical attention to the influence of sound, image and movement alongside the written word, with the interplay between image and text provoking particular interest. The relationships between visual and verbal modes in narrative are many and various, occurring for example in comic strips, tapestry and illustrations in printed literature. Positing a simplistic opposition between the affordances of ‘image’ and ‘word’ is thus undesirable. Nonetheless, images are especially significant in building a reader’s picture of what a character ‘is like’, and provide an important challenge to the verbal hegemony of much narrative theorising.

The visual resources of electronic literature are critical, providing a framing context which governs the audience’s reading of the text. Indeed, for both literary hypertexts considered here, it is only possible to initiate navigation by clicking on the images which metaphorically embody the central conceit of each text. For My Body, this is a black and white line image of a female torso, for Oldton, deck of playing cards or fragmented section of a map. Whilst A Woman of Many Parts is a blog (now recognised as a primarily textual web genre), the homepage signals alignment with women’s writing through the banner that depicts a stylised cartoon image of a reclining woman, the choice of blog skin ironically entitled ‘Killing me softly’. All three texts also contain other images, which vary according to mimetic style and illustrative purpose. The segments of My Body are illustrated with woodcut images that depict parts of a female body but are never specifically tied to the autodiegetic narrator.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Illustration from My Body, A Wunderkammer
http://www.altx.com/thebody/hands.html (accessed 20 November 2007)

The sidebar of Womanly Parts contains information about the author, including an image. However, much like an online pseudonym, the photograph shows a figurehead bust of the Roman goddess, Minerva, not a photograph of the blogger herself.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Photograph from the blogger’s profile:A Woman of Many Parts
http://womanlyparts.blogspot.com/ (accessed 20 November 2007)

Finally, unlike the other two texts, Oldton contains many photographic images that give the illusion of mimetic veracity, including pictures which illustrate the world of Oldton and its narrator and author, Tim Wright.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Photograph of Tim Wright from In Search of Oldton
(http://www.oldton.com/timwright.htm accessed 20 November 2007)

As might be expected, students responded to these images in multiple ways. However, it was striking that their distrust of online identity complicated both visual and generic conventions. While there is nothing in A Woman of Many Parts that might lead the reader to infer that the personal blog is anything other than an authentic account of critical illness, students debated long and hard whether Minerva could be treated as fictional character, perhaps because of the relative absence of photographs of the actual blogger from the blog. However, the apparent transparency of the photographic images in Oldton was treated with scepticism. Given that the text posed as ‘90% true’ and was constructed metaphorically as a game, students in turn interpreted all semiotic resources as potentially ‘untrue’ and so ‘fictional’. This exercise led them to conclude that images do not simply ‘show’, but like verbal resources, are selective in their telling and perspective. Thus while the visual features of electronic literature may fulfil some medium-specific functions, they also force us to realise that stories, even those told in print, do not consist of words alone.

Visual resources of offline stories, including typography, layout, and illustration all require further account but are often overlooked, perhaps especially when these are conventional. Sensitivity to the multimodal landscape of electronic literature encourages us to look beyond the level of the word, for there is much more about the narrative potential of visual modes that we need to explore across the expanding territories of stories told in online and offline environments. Examples for further scrutiny might include transmedial comparisons of character representation (from computer game into fanfiction, from blog to book or film) which in turn prompt questions of reader empathy, engagement and epistemic systems and the ways these are influenced by medium and modal resources.

Stories of the self on and off the screen prove rich territory for those interested in narrative literature. While electronic literature may demand that we rework our existing narrative theory, the prior experience of offline stories cannot be ignored and works both to define emergent forms of digital narrative and in turn to be redefined in comparison. Significantly, the less familiar conventions of electronic literature not only shed further light on the processing and production of existing narrative concepts (here characterisation) but bring to the fore areas of study that are only just beginning to be recognised in narrative study: namely, transmediality and multimodality. As we embrace the potential of electronic literature in the classroom and beyond, we must do so in a manner that respects distinctive features of medium, mode and genre but avoids binary contrast between online and offline forms as if they were unified and monolithic categories. The examples given here are but a small taster of an increasingly large and rapidly developing repertoire of stories, as people keep telling stories in order to make sense of themselves both on and off the screen.


  • Jackson, S. 1997. My Body, A Wunderkammer. Available at http://www.altx.com/thebody/, accessed 20 November 2007.
  • Lanser, S. 1995. Sexing the narrative: propriety, desire and the engendering of narratology. Narrative 3 (1): 85-94.
  • Minerva. A Woman of Many Parts. Available at http://womanlyparts.blogspot.com/, accessed 20 November 2007.
  • Roberts, L. D. and Parks, M. R. 2001. The social geography of gender-switching in virtual reality environments on the Internet. In Virtual Gender: Technology, Consumption and Identity edited by E. Green and A. Adam, 265-285. London: Routledge.
  • Ryan, M. L. 2006. Avatars of Stories. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Ryan, M. L. 1991. Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence and Narrative Theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
  • Schiffrin, D. 1996. Narrative as self portrait: Sociolinguistic constructions of identity. Language in Society 25:167-203.
  • Toolan, M. 2001. Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction. London: Routledge.
  • Waskul, D. 2003. Self-Games and Body-Play: Personhood in Online Chat and Cybersex. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Walker, J. 2003. Fiction and interaction: How clicking a mouse can make you part of a fictional world. D. Art. Thesis, Department of Humanistic Informatics, University of Bergen, Norway.
  • Wright, T. 2004. In Search of Oldton. Available at http://www.oldton.com/my_oldton.html, accessed 20 November 2007.

    Teaching Resources:

  • These are materials prepared by myself and will undergo continual refinement, year on year. The wiki is created by the final year undergraduate students from the School of English, Birmingham City University.