Creative nonfiction in electronic media: new wine in new bottles?


Moving text into e-space has thus far taken as many steps backward as it has forward, largely because the paradigm of the printed book has served as a blinder that keeps us from seeing possible new ways of writing—something nowhere more obvious than in nonfiction. After looking at a few examples of such failures of imagination, including an internet-only scholarly publication that fails to take advantage of virtual textuality, this essay first notes some nonfictional genres and modes after which it looks the relations between fiction and nonfiction as literary forms. Next, it suggests new methods of argumentation made possible by computer-based textuality. The largest part of this essay then explores three new forms: the blog as the electronic translation of the journal, the hypertext essay, and the Ulmerian mystory.

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    There are of course two ages of print, that of the age of Gutenberg and the far different one involving high-speed printing, which made the nineteenth century the second great Renaissance as reading and writing spread virally through an enormously larger number of people than it had been possible to infect in the preceding ages of hand-writing and hand-set printing.

  2. 2.

    I would like to thank Péter Hajdu for pointing out the derivation of the word fiction from the Latin fingere.

  3. 3.

    We tend to think of the weblog or blog, like the wiki, as requiring particular kinds of software that strongly differentiate them from standard html websites. In fact, large websites can either include blogs or wikis or function as moderated versions of them. For instance, the Victorian Web (, an academic site containing at the time of writing 41,000 documents and images, which functions in part as a testbed for theories of new media, includes a heavily linked “What’s New” page that works as a blog: I as the webmaster list new contributions, including photographs of architecture and sculpture, essays about them, and book reviews by our contributing editors in the UK and Canada plus similar work by other scholars. “What’s New” also includes announcements of student contributions, conferences, museum exhibitions, and corrections sent in by readers.

    The Victorian Web also functions very like a wiki, something the computer science community recognized when I was invited to deliver the opening keynote address at WikiSym2008 in Porto, Portugal (September 2008): “When a Wiki is not a Wiki: Twenty Years of the Victorian Web.” Although contributors cannot directly modify lexias by others, thy can qualify, contradict, or supplement them by linking new documents to pre-existing ones. On admittedly much rarer occasions, readers, usually through the intermediary of the webmaster, can convince first authors to accept changes as additions, something exemplified by an essay on “Arminianism” ( in the religion section that David Cody, now Associate Professor of English, Hartwick College, wrote in 1988 when a graduate research assistant in the Brown IRIS Intermedia Project (Hypertext). A decade after the brief essay’s inclusion in the materials that later became the Victorian Web, Kevin Williams, a member of the Department of Religion and Theology at Rhodes University (South Africa) added a considerably longer section and with the permission of Professor Cody became the lead author.

  4. 4.

    This kind of double-consciousness or self-referentiality that emphasizes opposing one’s ideas at two different times also exists on occasion in print. John Ruskin, for example, often added notes to later editions of some of his works, such as Modern Painters, pointing out that he had changed his mind on several issues, or even that he had been ignorant or even insane, this last after he had recovered from a metal breakdown, which he willingly discussed in his works. Ruskin, England’s most important and most influential critic of art, architecture, and society, is, however, quite unusual.

  5. 5.

    The term hypertext, particularly when used lauditorily, is applied rather loosely to writings in the analogue print environment, since upon closer inspection, we discover that the work praised as hypertextual may appear to have one of the qualities of hypertext—particularly a structure of discrete sections more or less equivalent to hypertext lexias—but which nonetheless only permits reading in a straightforward linear fashions. Critics, for example, have described Robert Coover’s famous short story “The Babysitter” as hypertextual, but Coover himself insists that it certainly is not because he gives readers have no choice of the path they make their way through events. In fact although one can observe the presence a fair number of what we may term proto-hypertextal works in literary history, the only analogue print hypertext of which I am aware is Cortazar’s Hopscotch; and I describe it as fully hypertextual because it suggests specific multiple paths of reading.

    Having urged caution in applying the term hypertext to texts that took form in the print regime, I nonetheless can still urge that certain printed works, such as Montaigne’s seminal essays and Ulmer’s “Derrida at Little Bighorn,” suggest how we might create the electronic essay.

  6. 6.

    Green’s (1993) mystory exists only in Eastgate Systems Storyspace, and it was created so early in the history of commercial computer displays—before gray scale black-and-white, much less color was available—that its nine images of the bottle appear in only stark monochrome. Green explains in the preface to his hyperdocument that

    This piece (therefore) links elements of history, literature, anthropology, popular culture, and theory not only to, but through, a 40 ounce bottle of Crazy Horse Malt Liquor. The bottle functions as the center of the text the unifying object of analysis. However, the structure allows for a great deal of cross-linking among the various ‘off-shoots’ from the bottle.

    A single lexia, which I here quote in full, gives an idea of his method:

    Bearing in mind the message written so prominently on the front of the bottle reminding us that it is a ‘PRODUCT OF AMERICA’ we should consider the ‘spirit that is America’ as the pivitol pun in our reading of this text, a pun so obvious that even those sticklers for authorial intention would likely indulge some analysis.

    Above all, we must realize that the ‘spirit that is America’ is precisely a ‘product,’ which, like the spirit contained within this bottle, is designed to be consumed. ‘Product’ and ‘Spirit’ are, therefore, two sides of the same coin, or of the same bottle in this case. But if the transparency of the glass opens up a space for this subversion, we should remind ourselves that it is a permission granted only ex post facto, only after the bottle has been emptied of its contents: consumed.

    But if the ‘product’ that is for sale here undergoes a sort of split at the word ‘spirit,’ (a latent ‘two for the price of one’ advertising campaign) then we must likewise decipher the double meaning of the word ‘consume.’


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Correspondence to George P. Landow.

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Landow, G.P. Creative nonfiction in electronic media: new wine in new bottles?. Neohelicon 36, 439 (2009).

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  • Hypertext
  • Hypermedia
  • Paradigm
  • Nonfiction
  • Autobiography
  • Newspapers
  • Horseless carriage