Bridging The Unknown: An Interdisciplinary Case Study of Paratext in Electronic Literature

Bridging The Unknown: An Interdisciplinary Case Study of Paratext in Electronic Literature

Nadine Desrochers, Patricia Tomaszek
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6002-1.ch009
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This chapter presents a dual perspective on the paratextual apparatus of a work of electronic literature, The Unknown: The Original Great American Hypertext Novel by William Gillespie, Scott Rettberg, Dirk Stratton, and Frank Marquardt. Approaches from literature studies and information science are combined to offer qualitative content analyses and close readings of the table of contents, titular apparatus, comments hidden in the source code, and other paratextual elements, in relation to the narrative. Findings indicate that the work's paratextual content presents inconsistencies and contradictions, both in terms of the use of the paratextual structure and of the information conveyed. The paratextual elements are analyzed through the lens of Gérard Genette's theory, as outlined in Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, in order to gauge their role and efficiency as identifiers, organizational components, and information providers, as well as their literary effect. The value of the theory as an interdisciplinary tool is also discussed.
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In contrast to the e-book format, which emulates the codex, electronic literature tends to be designed by authors for the specific context of networked media and often integrates sound, graphics, and opportunities for interaction. The labels used to designate works of this nature include “digital literature” (Bouchardon, 2011; Rustad, 2011; Simanowski, 2010), “cybertext” (Aarseth, 1997; Eskelinen, 2012), “net literature” (Gendolla & Schäfer, 2007, 2010), “writing in networked and programmable media” (Cayley, 2007; Schäfer & Gendolla, 2010), “literature in programmable media” (Howe & Soderman, 2009), and, of course, “electronic literature” (Hayles, 2007, 2008; Rettberg, 2012), a term popularized by the Electronic Literature Organization. Hayles (2007) has called electronic literature a “‘hopeful monster’ (as geneticists call adaptive mutations) composed of parts taken from diverse traditions that may not always fit neatly together,” noting that it is “informed by the powerhouses of contemporary culture such as computer games, films, animations, digital arts, graphic design, and electronic visual culture.”

Although there are a few commercial publishers in the field, works of electronic literature are generally freely accessible on the Web as self-publications and may be viewed online through a multiplicity of access points, including links provided by search engines or other sites. These new forms of presentation are part of how “electronic literature tests the boundaries of the literary and challenges us to re-think our assumptions of what literature can do and be” (Hayles, 2007). They also create new and original “thresholds,” to borrow the term from French theorist Gérard Genette.

Genette theorized the concept of paratext, a series of elements ranging from cover pages to prefaces and notes that envelop the narrative in order to form the book and present the text to the reader (Genette, 1997b, p. 1). Genette’s theory was deeply rooted in traditional book culture, and while some paratextual elements were perceived as being dictated by the constraints of the publishing realm, others were presented as more personal to the author and publisher. In electronic literature, seemingly, there are no firm paratextual policies or editorial practices; one can therefore speak of author-specific and work-specific paratext, designed by individuals or collectives for a given context. That being said, Web-specific paratextual elements are a vital part of hypertextual works, particularly if we posit that the Web’s paratextuality manifests itself, specifically, in the source code of pages written in HyperText Markup Language (HTML). While some Web-specific paratextual features are freely assigned, other features are default requirements, at times generated automatically.

Co-winner of the 1998 trAce/Alt-X International Hypertext Competition, The Unknown: The Great American Hypertext Novel was written collaboratively by William Gillespie, Scott Rettberg, Dirk Stratton, and Frank Marquardt, along with a few guest collaborators, and published online, on a procedural basis, between 1998 and 2002. The paratext provided in the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 2, where The Unknown was published in a second edition (2011), informs the reader that the work was technically modified and edited until 2008. These modifications assumingly also affected the work’s paratext. Through numerous hyperlinks in the pages of the narrative, The Unknown offers a non-linear reading experience based on the adventures of characters bearing the authors’ names. Its paratextual apparatus narrates and documents its own history and features many types of complementary content (e.g., photographs, transcripts, audio-recordings, comments in the HTML source code).

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