October 1, 2009 | Narrative
electric literature creates interspaces for experimentation
article by Sarah Magnusson Link
The debut issue of the online journal Electric Literature is essentially composed of a series of black web pages filled with bright, neon slogans floating around the margins. One such slogan, “reading that is bad for you,” is pasted to the side of the “About” page like an advertisement.
Electric Literature is proudly not high art. But its message is not particularly striking, considering it is already hip to enjoy street art, blogs and digital words that are just barely attached to the surface of the black hole that is the Internet. Still, it is the forgiving format of Electric Literature—the infinite spaces of the webpage, the invitations of an open space—that has many writers excited to publish new material in its forum.
T Cooper, a novelist who has had short stories featured in print magazines like The New Yorker, is one of a growing group of notable “experimental” writers to have work published in Electric Literature. His short story “The Time Machine” was published in June, 2009. Cooper’s writing has been called “transgressive,” “postmodern,” “post-gender” and everything beyond the seams of what is socialized and normalized: trans-fags, lesbian men and the entire alphabet soup of labels. Cooper’s writing is also aggressively informal, grounding his characters’ statements in a very frank tone of voice so as to override the disbelief a reader might bring to unusual circumstances.
In fact, most of the stories in Electric Literature are full of similarly unexplainable characters, but their lives are always backed by a tone that is unapologetic, quick-paced and insistent. In Diana Wagman’s closing story “Three Legged Dog,” Wagman does not hesitate in writing bold sentences: “My girlfriend is missing her left breast. She has a horizontal scar across half her chest, like the seam of a pocket that holds her heart.” Wagman’s novels are always edgy, entertaining any subject from spontaneous human combustion, to over-sexed villainous dwarfs, to post-feminist debates about body image; apparently very few subjects make Wagman shy.
This confident approach to writing “alternative” realities is well suited to the online journal. Along the virtual scroll bars and linked web pages, we are reminded of infinity and that the worlds these writers are creating are simply another example, or simply another narrative, to which we can be attached if we like.
In an April 2006 interview with Believer Magazine, T Cooper responded to a reviewer’s confused interpretation of the main (F-M trans) character in his novel Lipshitz Six and Two Angry Blondes. “The character doesn’t have ‘ambiguous sexuality…’ if that’s what the reviewer meant—he presents as a man in the world, and has a girlfriend.” Again, there is a frankness, if not an obviousness, to that way Cooper sees his postmodern world. We are recommended to take his stories at face value, avoid the wide-eyed questions, and to move on with it.
Though the stories in Electric Literature share similar styles, the short story as a form is not simply interchangeable and recyclable; it is more than a low-grade blog post about the sexual pursuits of yet another college student. As Cooper mentions in the same interview, after publishing a novel it can feel like you have “just puked it all out for the book.” And with the proliferation of “hyper realism” we are reminded that most novels these days, however seemingly far-fetched, have been substantiated by years of research. Hyper-realistic novelists like Daniel Alarcon spend years researching the possibilities surrounding their novels: the array of characters, the way one city looks at many different times of day. In the case of Alarcon’s novel Lost City Radio, the intention was to create a nameless, malleable setting to which all readers could transpose their own city. This is all part of the postmodern impulse to exceed boundaries and to create new spaces. Instead of targeting the specific place and setting, the writer targets an atmosphere and the feeling of a place that is easily adopted by any reader. Both the writer and the reader own this space apart from the rest of the world, and, at least on the writer’s part, it is truly up to you what will happen.
The writers of Electric Literature are seeking a new kind of space, which they might be finding in the format of the webpage. Like the more traditional short story, the writing in Electric Literature might suggest themes that are aggressively postmodern, hyper realistic or not. But, the online journal also has a unique material insistence that there is a place where unusual characters, nameless places and all the colors of the rainbow can exist at one time.