Digital Literature Pioneers

Alice McKeever

In 1986 Judy Malloy published her novella Uncle Roger online as a narrative database or ‘narrabase’. In the second part of a two-part interview she speaks about artists networks in the 1980’s, collaboration, her current work and the next big thing in digital literature.

We’ve linked to simple English definitions of some of the more esoteric references.

 Read part one of our interview with Judy Malloy here.

When Uncle Roger was released in the 1980’s, it was read ‘live’ on the bbs (Bulletin Board System) of The ACEN (Art Con Electronic Network) network and you have said that ACEN’s diverse community helped to shape the text itself. Did you intend for Uncle Roger to be a collaborative work or was this something that came later on?

The WELL was a sophisticated BBS that succeeded in part because of the vision of its founders: Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant; in part because of the incredible people who ran and who joined this online community, and in part because of PicoSpan, the elegant conferencing software created by Marcus Watts.

ACEN – which also included menus for the publication of art and electronic literature – was a subset of The WELL. There was movement between conferences on The WELL and ACEN, so any WELL member could visit and participate on ACEN.  Thus, there was a wider audience, who contributed to the energy of ACEN, and they could write to ACEN topics if they so desired.

However, Uncle Roger was not collaborative in that members of the audience did any of the writing. What I meant by “shaped” was equivalent to the way TV and live theater are somewhat shaped by the different audiences for which they are written. To put this another way, it is likely that oral poets, such as Homer, to a certain extent shaped their stories to appeal to the known audience.

I began releasing one or two lexias of Uncle Roger every day on ACEN, starting on December 1, 1986. Nowadays people tell stories on Twitter, and we are accustomed to this, but to my knowledge no one else had done this before I began posting Uncle Roger on ACEN on The WELL.  So I didn’t really know what would happen. The audience did have the power to write on the ACEN ‘topic’ I created to tell Uncle Roger, and I thought they might interrupt or even contribute to the story.

Instead, on his own initiative, Howard Rheingold set up a separate topic to discuss Uncle Roger, “Feedback re: Uncle Roger”, and the audience comments and questions were all posted to that topic. Because Howard’s topic ran simultaneously with my posting of the lexias, I was conscious of the audience, and – like any oral storyteller or performer – to a certain extent I played to that audience. I think this is one reason why Uncle Roger acquired the patina of Renaissance comedy and is different from early works of e-lit. written in academia.

I should emphasize that that many members of The WELL audience would have been aware of the wars for the fastest chip in the Valley. Probably some had even been to parties in Woodside. They were an iconoclastic, outspoken, interesting group of writers, musicians, computer scientists, journalists, artists, futurists, etc. The energy, camaraderie, and techno-knowledge of this audience were important in the writing/telling of the story.

The ACEN network seems to be one of the first global artists networks. What happened to this? Has anything replaced it?

Currently, for a book I’m doing on Social Media Archeology and Poetics, I’m interviewing Fred Truck, ACEN sysop (system operator) about ACEN. “what happened to this” will be my last question. Running parallel to your interesting and insightful questions about Uncle Roger, the ACEN interview has been a fascinating trip to our past. Anna Couey has joined us. So I’ll be interested in their take on how ACEN faded away.

As regards my own ACEN activity, after Uncle Roger was finished, I became deeply involved in writing electronic literature. I did continue to participate in software and art discussions on ACEN, and in 1990, using three conference topics, (one for each character) I created a three column collaborative narrative on ACEN.

But eventually, in my recollection, Carl became deeply involved with virtual reality, and beginning in 1988, I was immersed in creating its name was Penelope.  In a sense, ACEN was an incubator, honing our skills, setting one of the stages for electronic literature and changing our career tracks. Indeed, in 1988, I began working for Leonardo as a Coordinating Editor for their fledgling electronic publications.  Some years later, I went to Telluride and worked on collaborative Internet-based literature with MFA students. In Telluride, I also worked on the exciting Telluride InfoZone. Then I went to work for Arts Wire. And, as the energy at ACEN subsided, Eastgate began publishing my work.

In all these things,  the role of ACEN – in not only in providing a “place” to fulfil my vision of non-sequential literature but also as an incubator for digital humanities skills –  was invaluable.

Surprisingly, some of the energy of ACEN has returned on Twitter. There is not the same in depth discussion, but there is a sense of a vibrant creative community! 

Do you know if Uncle Roger was read beyond the ACEN platform and community?

The standalone version was made in small runs and distributed by Art Com’s video art catalog. So it was possible to buy a copy and read it. “A Party in Woodside” was included in the Canadian Literary Festival Ultimatum II at Images du Futur ’87, in Montreal in September 1987, and the entire Uncle Roger was included in the travelling exhibition Art Com Software which began at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, in 1988 and also travelled to San Jose State University; the University of Colorado; Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria; and Carnegie Melon University. Uncle Roger was also exhibited in Toronto in the 1999 exhibition ARTWARE.

You could log onto ACEN, as a guest, so I imagine quite a few people read Uncle Roger after it was covered in the Centennial issue of The Wall Street Journal (Michael Miller, “A Brave New World: Streams of 1s and 0s” Wall Street Journal Centennial Issue, June 23, 1989).

In 1991 you wrote about the possible drawbacks to online fiction, mentioning two financial aspects: “no financial compensation for the artist” and “the users are paying as they read”. The second no longer stands with the advent of broadband; however the first does – the internet has torn its way through artists’ livelihood since the 1980’s – do you have any thoughts as to possible solutions?

I am deeply concerned about the future of writers, artists, and musicians whose livelihood depends on the sale of their work.  At the same time, it is difficult to counter the public opinion that the Internet should be free, and indeed there is something wonderful about the free flow of information on the Internet.

Eastgate’s hypertext literature titles were published in a small press model with royalties to writers. They came with print introductions and covers with review quotes. Many of us signed the original disk labels.  People bought them; they were reviewed in major publications. Eastgate is reissuing some of their original titles to deal with changes in the MAC OS, and there is an elegant iPad edition of its name is Penelope that will hopefully be released soon.  I would like to see a return to this publishing model, but I don’t know how to make this happen. 

What are you working on at present? How have things evolved since you worked on Uncle Roger?

It is now time to quote from my own writer’s notebook January 9, 2014 entry [in which Judy discusses her work And Speak of Long Ago Times, and its text-based musical composition structure]:

“Electronic Literature has come of age in many ways. For me it is a continued focus on the distinction of screen-based story set in motion; the hunting, gathering and remixing of ancient and contemporary narrative; the thrill of creating a way to score words like music; honing the craft of telling a story in the public square of the Internet; and the interactivity of allowing the reader the choice to click rather than wait for the word music to progress.

In a polyphonic 19th century remix, And Speak of Long Ago Times, replays the words of  a 19th century Florentine sculptor Giovanni Dupre; replays Giuseppe Verdi’s words that concern his antislavery opera Nabucco; and crosses continents to Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper from American Slavery which was published in London in 1837 and went through at least 11 editions. It is 1842. Hiram Powers is in his studio in Florence, creating The Greek Slave. The Irish woman poet Frances Browne has just published “Songs of Our Land” in the Irish Penny Journal. Her words echo in a 21st century art historian’s untutored translation of the chorus of Hebrew slaves from Nabucco: “Va Pensiero”. It is 2013. Liam O’Brien is in a coffee house in New Hampshire, reviewing his notes. 

fiddlers_passage, the authoring system for And Speak of Long Ago Times, uses the innovative text-based musical composition system that I began in 1991 with Wasting Time (After the Book, Perforations 3, Summer, 1992) and resumed in Berkeley in 2009 under the influence of early music performance. The fiddlers_passage authoring system was begun in 2012 when Willi Apel’s, The Notation of Polyphonic Music 900-1600, fell open a page in the chapter on Franconian Notation, where a facsimile from the circa 13th century Montpellier Manuscript was displayed: “huic ut” in which the magi bring mystical gifts…”

I have for many years been working with the oral literature aspects of telling a story in the Homeric tradition, in an electronic community or “town square” of people seen and unseen. And Speak of Long Ago Times is part VI of my continuing epic work of public literature: From Ireland with Letters.

And Speak of Long Ago Times can be read either by watching the words play like a piece of music or by clicking on the words to advance the narrative in a way that the reader chooses. In the latter case, there will be times when the music is silent. Wait, and it will return.

Is there anything out there that has caught your eye as a great piece of digital fiction? As an early pioneer what do you think the next big thing for digital fiction will be?

Looking at the large picture, we are now in a period of flux. To a certain extent, communities of practice in electronic literature have formed around authoring systems. There is a resurgence of interest in Interactive Fiction with the solid position of Inform7; JavaScript continues to be an essential tool in the creation of generative poetry. But the difficulties in kinetic poetry that have arisen with the perceived decline of Flash in tandem with a resurgence of interest in the classics of hypertext literature and the writing of hypertext literature using new tools have brought to the forefront the importance of individual authoring systems.

This fall several of my students at Princeton used combinations of HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript to create their own authoring system. I think this is important, and I’m looking forward to the electronic literature class that Cliff Wulfman and I will be teaching this fall at Princeton. To me, younger writers with both a knowledge of the classics in the field and a desire to create their own authoring systems are the next big thing. Rather than predict what they will create, I look forward to surprises!

A note about “translations

party_dataThe many ways in which Uncle Roger was published are as follows:

Uncle Roger File 1: “A Party in Woodside” was begun in August 1986 and first told on the BBS on Art Com Electronic Network on the WELL, beginning on December 1, 1986. In this version, each lexia was set forth along with the links associated with it, so that readers could implement it in their own database applications.

The Applesoft BASIC version of Uncle Roger was created in the fall of 1986, when I was writing the text. However, in late 1986 or early 1987, Carl Loeffler and Fred Truck invited me to create an interactive version for publication on Art Com Electronic Network Datanet. Datanet ran on UNIX Shell Scripts, so I set aside the BASIC version and created the Datanet version of “A Party in Woodside” using UNIX Shell Scripts.

After “A Party in Woodside” was published on ACEN Datanet, I returned to the BASIC version of Uncle Roger, and “A Party in Woodside”, was distributed as a packaged stand-alone work of artists software via the Art Com Catalog.

A complete Apple II version of all three files of Uncle Roger was self-published as artists software in 1988 (and also distributed by Art Com).

The IBM PC BASIC version of Uncle Roger (I think also 1988) was almost exactly the same as the Apple II version, but I converted the files to run on a PC, and a few tweaks had to be made to the program.

I created the first WWW version in 1995. And then in 2012, I recreated the original BASIC version to run on DOSBOX.

Judy Malloy is an artist and expert in electronic literature, currently Visiting Lecturer, Program in American Studies; Council of Humanities, at Princeton University. You can find out more about  about Judy’s work here and follow her on Twitter: @Judymalloy

Read part one of our interview with Judy Malloy here.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Keep up to date with the latest news, trends, job opportunities and events in the digital publishing industry.
We do not sell or share your information with anyone else