Marjorie Luesebrink

1 hour

While the problems of Beginnings in electronic literature narratives pose significant problems, the issue of Endings is equally fraught but much less frequently examined.

Early e-lit criticism tended to start with theories about traditional print novels – arguments in which the critics tended to back away from even the French existentialists as too “extreme.” Jane Yellowlees Douglas summed up that effort and moved the ball forward in her iconic essay, “How Do I Stop This Thing?” After reviewing selected critics, she concludes: “But neither Kermode, nor Benjamin, nor Brooks can explain how readers make their way through Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter,” Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, or John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman—all of which contain multiple and therefore highly indeterminate endings—or even Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, where the novel concludes abruptly immediately before the solution of the central “mystery” around which the narrative revolves.” As she sets about investigating her experience with Afternoon: A Story by Michael Joyce, she demonstrates the first of many reasons (Aristotle notwithstanding) why traditional critical analysis of print literature is not suited to looking at e-lit endings.

Historical trivia alert! Douglas is recognized for having discovered a node in Afternoon: A Story that had no inbound links. In discussions about the novel, the node became known as "Jane's space" because she was the first to remark on its orphan status. She also became implicated in revisions to this node, which originally (1987 edition) featured only a single phrase from Jung, "Man... never perceives anything", but later (1990 edition) included a second line: "and only Jane Yellowlees Douglas has read this line".

In her 2000 book The End of Books or Books Without End, Douglas examines how interactive fiction works and discusses the current state of hypertext criticism, arguing that hypertext authors are the natural heirs of early 20th century experimental modernists like James Joyce in "What Hypertexts Can Do That Print Narratives Cannot", Douglas goes into more detail about how hypertext fiction works as a literary form.

In the years between that Afternoon and 2000, e-lit scholars moved further away from book and film criticism for definitive answers and advanced toward media-specific analysis. Led by Katherine Hayles, e-lit scholars have repurposed and reinvented literary analytical approaches and language to understand the relationship between form, platform, content, and function. Through these efforts, some very useful theoretical approaches have been suggested for evaluating Endings.

Before we can examine the poetics of endings, though, we must acknowledge another challenge. In a sense, electronic literature practice has encouraged us to see the issue of endings from two points of view. [Conversely, print literature assumes that the last printed page confirms that the reader can see the author’s full text and intended ending.] With electronic narratives, on the one hand, we have the “authorial plan” – the inherent design structure created by the writer (or not). And, on the other hand, we have the experience of the reader navigating a perhaps difficult imaginary landscape without a specific page announcing “the end.” In some cases, these two instances of “ending” can be remarkably different.


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