Oversharing: Canadian E-Lit and the Lyric Subject

This paper has been written in contribution to the ACQL Roundtable: “TrashCan: An Anti-Canon Manifesto,” presented as a part of the ACCUTE Congress, Sunday, 28 May, 2017. 

My contribution to this anti-canon manifesto is a two-fold response to the general sidelining of new media poetics and digital literatures in CanLit. Canadian E-lit should, I wager, be a part of the TrashCan, first and foremost, because there is already a vast wealth of Canadian electronic literature; in fact, poet laureate of the canon we are working to dismantle, bpNichol, is frequently credited with producing some of the first e-lit ever—more on that later. Now, I argue in this paper that Canadian e-lit gets dismissed or sidelined for two primary reasons: first because there is a pervasive cult of print that dismisses new media works as illegitimate because networked media lacks, in some ways, the accredited gatekeepers that dominate print-publishing (though the recent Write editorial showed us exactly how exclusionary that practice can be); second, because much of the electronic literary work coming out of Canada right now is highly affective and emotional, these works are frequently disregarded by avant-garde circles as “popular,” “unliterary,” or “kitsch.” What’s more, these affective personal narratives are often written by women, trans* and queer writers, and writers of colour and are typically ABOUT those very identity politics that the predominantly whitecisheteromale avant-garde so fears.

Thing is, you’d kind of expect that experimental literary circles would be interested in the way new media writing probes issues of formalism, medium, authorial power, reader engagement, and other literary complexities touted as central by writers, readers, and scholars of experimentalism. But, the truth is that, by and large, the Canadian literary community continues to prioritize print-based work. This presentation points to some important contributions of Canadian writers who overshare, confess, and offer the most intimate aspects of their subjectivity through digital media. Because, there’s already a good, long history of affective and personal writing in digital media to point to why e-lit, with all its confessional bells and whistles, deserves study and recognition. Canada’s contributions to the e-literary canon start, as I’ve suggested, with Nichol, whose First Screening: Computer Poems sees intimate, personal details hidden in the codework and secondary functions, making a pretty early case for the centrality of oversharing in the Canadian digital literary. In the emulator of First Screening, housed on Jim Andrews’s website Vispo.com, entering the “LIST” command for line 110 provides the reader with the following prompt:

Screenshot from bpNichol’s First Screening: Computer Poems, emulator version.

Entering the “RUN” or “GOSUB” command at 1748 starts a “hidden” kinetic poem called “Off-Screen Romance,” dedicated to Nichol’s wife, Ellie. You can’t make a case for Nichol’s work being critically ignored, but it is true that First Screening is considered to be, compared to the martyrology or Nichol’s concrete print work, more of an initiatory foray or a kitschy play than a legitimate literary endeavour.

Quings Quest
Screenshot from Quing’s Quest VII

I want to use these next few minutes to highlight just a few of the Canadian digital literary projects that get sidelined as kitschy or unliterary. First, Dietrich Squinkifer’s Quing’s Quest VII: The Death of Videogames was inspired by tensions over the identity of gamers and responds to Gamergate and the still persistent accusations that feminists and advocates for diversity in games had set out to “ruin” the industry. Quing’s Quest is built in Twine and takes inspiration from old-school adventure games, including Sierra’s King’s Quest series and other text-based online games like Zork. The game takes place on a spacecraft named the “Social Justice Warrior,” and features a character exiled from Videogames after the invasion of the “misogynerds.” So, subtlety isn’t its strong suit, but it is only as explicit as the accusations to which it is responding. It’s a clearly queer response to exile, dismissive readings, and the feelings of displacement queer writers saw in print, and still see in the digital in literature and games.

Digital A Love Story
Screenshot from Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story

Second, Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story is a digital visual novel set “five-minutes into the future of 1988” and invites the player back into the early days of the Internet. The graphical interface of white text on a blue background accompanies the metaphor of the local BBS (bulletin board system) as a happening space for conspiracy and flirting. All the core interaction takes place through dialling into this system, which has multiple characters and threads that can be explored through sending out replies to advance the story. The work is strongly grounded in early hacker culture and William Gibson-esque models of AI and it articulates clear feminist concerns about the role of women in relationship and hacktivist culture, which the work argues are not actually that different.

High Muck a Muck
Screenshot from High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese.

Third, High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese troubles the cliché of historical tales of Chinese immigration to North America’s “Gold Mountain” by juxtaposing this classic narrative of struggle against one of mobility driven by contemporary global capitalism. The project expresses some of the internal community struggles that erupt between different generations and classes of immigrants and it challenges the racist paradigm of an all-white Canada into which Asian immigrants enter but are never fully allowed to arrive. High Muck a Muck is written by a collective that includes Fred Wah, so if you were going to argue that Squinky and Love’s dismissal is due to the relative obscurity of the authors, you can’t do that here. I’ve shown this work to Wah scholars, who universally respond with “uhhh ya that’s nice, I guess.”

Screenshot from Caitlin Fisher’s Everyone at this Party is Dead.

I want to end by talking about Caitlin Fisher’s Everyone at this Party is Dead, one of the first lyric literary works for Oculus Rift. It is a complete but expanding work containing about 30 small narrative worlds, explored in a sandbox. You enter the piece standing at the edge of an island and in the middle of a soundscape of a party taking place, with guests being named: these were the guests of a birthday party and they are now all dead. You are urged to explore the virtual world like a dreamscape. Fisher is a well-known figure in e-lit; she runs the Augmented Reality Lab at York University, where I did my graduate studies and where I currently work as contingent faculty—and she has basically no dealing with the “English” Department. Fisher’s detachment from York’s literature department signals the two primary theses of this paper: first, that this kind of work is not considered “literature”; and second, that Fisher’s estrangement from masculinist literary studies is based, in part, on the feminist and feminized use of digital technology in her work. This paper encourages the CanLit community to recognize these contributions to Canadian literature, at the very least in the way that other predominantly American organizations (like the ELO) have already done.


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