Writing in 3-D

By Mark Baard / July / August 2003
June 22nd, 2007
Dorothy Parker and her New Yorker cronies had the bar at the Algonquin Hotel. Robert Coover has Ocean Coffee Roasters on Waterman Street in Providence. One day early this year, you could find him sitting at a small table there with his newest protégé. Amid pierced pagans and soul-patched hipsters, Coover, a University Professor and longtime teacher of creative writing, looked like a discount-store academic, more Costco than cutting edge. Known thirty years ago as one of the pioneers of “metafiction,” Coover is the author of thirteen novels and one of the most ardent champions of the new-media genre known as electronic literature. At seventy-one he looks healthy and relaxed enough to pass for sixty. As he speaks of his love for literature, it’s hard to imagine him as the same man who predicted the demise of linear storytelling in a 1992 New York Times Book Review essay titled “The End of Books.”

Sitting across from Coover is Talan Memmott, a thirty-nine-year-old graduate student whose darting eyes give him the look of somebody’s ne’er-do-well son, perhaps begging his dad to bail him out of another financial pinch. A former San Francisco skateboarder, Memmott has no undergraduate degree. He has been hopping from one punk band to another since he was fourteen. He drinks espresso by the bucketful and lights up a cigarette every time he encounters fresh air.

He is also a rising literary star and award winner, though don’t be shocked if you’ve never heard of him. Memmott is an electronic writer, a former student of novelist Kathy Acker and conceptual artist Charles Gaines, and publisher of the online journal BeeHive. He is also Brown’s first graduate fellow in electronic writing, and Coover considers it something of a coup that the University brought him to Providence. “Getting Talan here wasn’t easy,” said Coover. “We basically created the fellowship to make that happen.”

Separated as they have been by generations and geography, it’s a little surprising to see how well these artists fit together. Memmott is a high-octane urbanite. Coover grew up in Iowa and is still every bit the big-hearted Midwesterner. “Our backgrounds are rather different,” Memmott says, “but we’re both committed to the craft of writing, and invested in electronic literature and what it can become.”

Electronic literature represents an application of computer technology to the narrative experiments that have long absorbed writers like Coover, whose influential 1969 story collection, Pricksongs & Descants, challenged most of the devices fiction had relied on since the heyday of nineteenth-century English fiction. Coover’s characters are often deliberately mythic and “unrealistic,” and he subverts authorial omniscience by refusing to make narrative choices for the reader. “The Babysitter,” for example, which is the best-known story from Pricksongs, presents a range of narrative choices from which a reader can pick and choose, thus collaborating in the creative process. “Bob works best when he’s working against the constraints of the medium he’s working in,” says Larry McCaffery, a professor of English at San Diego State University and a chronicler of literary movements.

The computer, and in particular the hyperlink, a technology that allows the user to switch to other layers of text, images, or music with a simple mouse-click, freed these narrative experiments from the linear sequences of pages in a printed book. Suddenly, the only limitation to the choices a reader could make was the imagination of both writer and reader. Stories could go in any number of directions at any point, depending on the taste and biases of the reader.

Memmott takes hypertext fiction even further, sometimes leaving behind a literary context altogether. Although he describes his work as “literary hypermedia,” it “doesn’t necessarily have to do with writing.” Thanks to HTML, the code that designers use to build Web sites, he is able to mix original poetry, word play, and squibs from his supercaffeinated mind with graphics, animation, and sound. Still, Memmott says, “my work is generally narrative, or poetical, and does include text.” Even fellow electronic authors are amazed by Memmott’s experiments. “Talan is high-energy, a head trip,” says Diane Greco ’93, a New York City–based electronic writer. “And his work reflects that.”

MEMMOTT’S WORK CAN GIVE even seasoned readers of hypertext indigestion. His four-part Web opus Lexia to Perplexia examines the relationships between humans and machines, and suggests that its readers are a part of the piece. But Lexia to Perplexia’s text is a mishmash of English and computer code, which is often made illegible by the reader’s mouse-clicks. “Lexia to Perplexia is a very ‘nervous’ document,” writes UCLA English professor N. Katherine Hayles in her book Writing Machines. “It constantly acts/reacts in ways that remind the user she is not in control.”

Memmott’s background as a Web designer “helps make him one of the most intriguing and complicated young artists in a group that recognizes there is something fundamentally different about their medium,” says McCaffery. But Memmott’s technical expertise also makes him an ideal candidate to help Coover take hypertext literature from two dimensions to three.

Memmott and Coover have been working in Brown’s “Cave,” a slate-colored, eight-foot-square cube surrounded by computer servers, video projectors, and stereo speakers. Originally created as part of the Center for Scientific Computing and Visualization to help scientists literally enter their data, the Cave is a virtual-reality display. Computers feed images to an array of projectors that beam them to the walls and floor of the room while an operator wearing computerized dark glasses and black electronic gloves moves about the room interacting with the images, an experience not unlike being on a Star Trek “holodeck.” Memmott is adapting one of his multidirectional Web-based works, “E_cephalopedia // novellex,” to the Cave this year.

Coover hopes to bring more artists like Memmott to Brown. “Post-modernist writers in the 1960s and 1970s typically worked in isolation,” McCaffery says. “There were many of them, but they were all pretty much unaware of one another.” Coover, he says, is trying to create a friendly environment for young artists who may feel isolated as they take language away from the conventional, printed page, and create literature for the Web and other new media. Because Coover has impressive credentials within the conventional literary world, he is able to use the weight of his authority to get institutional backing for such initiatives as the new creative-writing fellowship for electronic writers.

For his part, Memmott first saw Coover speak at a 1999 digital-arts conference in Atlanta, where Coover delivered one of the keynote addresses: “Literary Hypertext: The Passing of the Golden Age.” Memmott had already read many of Coover’s short stories, and was excited by his search for the next frontier in electronic writing. Coover, on the other hand, learned about Memmott only last year, as Coover emerged from writing his novel The Adventures of Lucky Pierre. Slated to give a keynote address at the annual Electronic Literature Organization’s State of the Arts Symposium at UCLA, he caught up on his electronic reading by trolling the Web and CD-ROMs for recently released works. “That’s when I kept coming across Talan’s stuff, which was not like anyone else’s,” Coover says. “What impressed me was that not only was his work intelligent and funny, he was also programming the pieces as he wrote them.”

Coover found he was not Memmott’s only suitor at the UCLA meeting, however. UCLA English professor Hayles tried to bring him to her own department. “I’m sure Talan would have preferred to stay in California,” Coover says. “I think UCLA had trouble getting around his lack of a B.A. But we think an artist as accomplished and as talented as Talan should have the opportunity to fulfill himself.”

Memmott will be getting more than moral support at Brown. He can also look forward to some rigorous reviews of his work from his instructors and from other students. He is already working closely with Bill Seaman, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, whom Memmott describes as a mentor.

Coover himself considers Memmott as something of a peer. “Talan’s the nearest thing you can have to a colleague in the fellowship position,” Coover said. “How-to classes aren’t necessary, and you don’t have to worry about what he’s doing—he’s always working on something.”

Mark Baard (www.baard.com) writes about science, technology, and society. He lives in Milton, Massachusetts.
What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
July / August 2003