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What Is Electronic Literature?

Electronic literature transcends traditional books, embracing the digital realm to craft stories that are interactive, multimedia-rich, and often nonlinear. It's a fusion of narrative and technology, offering readers a unique, immersive experience. As the boundaries of storytelling expand, how might electronic literature redefine your reading adventures? Explore this innovative art form with us and discover its potential to transform narrative.
G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

Electronic literature can, potentially, refer to two different things, depending on the particular meaning of the person who is referring to it. The most specific meaning is in reference to literature or written works of literary merit that are created in a digital medium that takes advantage of the format beyond the simple written word. These types of works are “born-digital” and not merely text that has been scanned or typed out in a digital format. Electronic literature can refer to works of literature that have been turned into a digital format, though this usage is increasingly moving out of favor to avoid confusion.

The primary identifier of electronic literature is that it is created in a digital format that takes advantage of electronic media. While someone may type up a text document in a word processing program, this does not necessarily constitute true electronic literature, it is merely a digital copy of text. Proponents of electronic literature as a separate form of literary work state that such literature should be created in a way that takes advantages of the differences between digital media and standard print media. This can be done in a number of different ways.

Electronic literature can be accessed via an electronic reader.
Electronic literature can be accessed via an electronic reader.

Someone might write out a poem, but rather than simply typing it out in a text document, he or she can create it as a digital animation. The poem might appear, word by word or line by line, utilizing the format of digital media to create the poem for the reader even as he or she is reading it. In this way, the poem exists as electronic literature beyond the scope of what is possible with a printed text. Other forms of media that can utilize such advantages include written works created on Internet websites, interactive media that includes a strong literary component, and stories told through email or short message service (SMS) or text messaging.

Some e-readers are designed to be easy to read in bright sunlight.
Some e-readers are designed to be easy to read in bright sunlight.

There are some people who may use the term “electronic literature” to refer to written works that have existed in print and are transferred into a digital medium. These works might be scanned or re-typed into an electronic format, usually to preserve the work or for use with electronic readers. Proponents of “born-digital” media, such as the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO), tend to argue against this usage as such works are merely transferred into a digital medium and not created for it. Other terms, such as “electronic books” or “ebooks,” are often used instead to refer to these works, which indicates they are simply digital versions of printed books.

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Discussion Comments


@pleonasm - I suspect the reason that electronic literature isn't more popular is that it mixes up what people want from a book. If they wanted a computer game, they could have that. There are studies that show that kids actually learn less if there are electronic "enhancements" in their literature.

And the reason for that is the same reason against any other cheap tactics. It takes away from the story. Anything that brings you out of the trance and reminds you that there is someone out there writing this literature, rather than allowing you to become absorbed in it, is not going to help your story.

They ran into the same problems with 3-D technology in movies. Having something jump out at you is too much of a distraction. Once they realized that it was better to push in and make it an enhancement of the film, and the story, rather than bells and whistles, it worked much better.


@browncoat - It will be interesting to see where electronic literature goes in the future. When the internet first became available to the average household there were several very innovative online comic strips that attempted to use things like hyper text and animation and so forth to enhance the story. Some of these methods were more useful than others. But most of the comics I follow now rarely do more than a very occasional spot of animation or roll over text.

And most forms of electronic literature seem to be very arty productions, rather than straightforward stories.

But, then, the Pottermore website might change this. It's very popular and I know it's selling a lot of electronic texts. It's not strictly electronic literature, since you use it alongside the books rather than directly with the books, but it might pave the way to something else.


One of the most simple examples of how writers can take advantage of the electronic form is in what's known as the endless page. This is particularly useful for poetry or for graphic illustrations.

Perhaps you've got a poem where the form of it is important and you need it to fit into a particular space. It won't fit on a traditional page, because it's not large enough. If you publish this poem electronically, it will fit, because the reader can simply scroll down or across, or possibly resize the image to fit so they can take in the whole thing.

One step further is those videos that use various fonts to follow a speaker, typing out what they are saying and making it easier to follow, and then when you draw back you see that the words were arranged in the shape of a picture or another word.

I think these kinds of uses of space are going to become more and more important as people grow up accustomed to electronic media.

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    • Electronic literature can be accessed via an electronic reader.
      By: Paolese
      Electronic literature can be accessed via an electronic reader.
    • Some e-readers are designed to be easy to read in bright sunlight.
      By: Aleksei Potov
      Some e-readers are designed to be easy to read in bright sunlight.