ELO Electronic Literature Organization

The Winners!

Fiction short list:
Paul Chan
Caitlin Fisher
Shelley Jackson
Talan Memmott
Noah Wardrip-Fruin

Poetry short list


Judging criteria

2001 Awards Ceremony


Comments by Larry McCaffery, Fiction Judge


Larry McCaffery
Larry McCaffery

Before announcing my selection of the winner of the Electronic Literature Organization's first fiction contest, I would first like to express my thanks to Scott Rettberg and the other members of the Electronic Literature Organization for allowing me to participate in their first major literary contest as fiction judge. I would also like to offer some remarks about what this experience has meant to me. I entered into the process of navigating through (surely "reading" is no longer the appropriate term?) the six remarkable fiction finalists not as an expert in the field, but as an interested novice, whose main qualifications for being able to judge the merit of these works can best be summarized as a good news/bad news kind of thing -- the good news being a fairly extensive background as a scholar, editor, teacher, and long-time admirer of innovative fiction generally and postmodern fiction in particular; the bad news being a home word-processor whose dial-up modem would have been woefully inadequate for the task of connecting me to the data-dense works on the Fiction Short List, even if it had been delivering at its optimum 56K delivery-rate (which it wasn't) and even if California wasn't experiencing regular rolling blackouts (which it was).

At any rate, I went into the process of evaluating these works anticipating there would be problems facing me in understanding the similarities and differences between hypertext (or cybertext, or digital texts, or electronic) fictions and codex (or print-bound) forms of fiction. I was also acutely aware of the need to lighten my book-derived load of assumptions, expectations, and value judgments, and to be willing to fine-tune my literary expectations on the fly. Frankly, the prospect of all this load-lightening and fictive paradigm-shifting was pretty exciting, and certainly the whole process proved to be just as much of mind-and-genre-expanding experience as I had hoped, although it only took a few moments after logging into the first of fiction selections -- which happened to be Mez's sanguinary tale of terminal identity, _the data][h!][bleeding texts_ -- for me to realize that the adjustments I required were going to be less a matter of fine-tuning than of getting a major literary engine overhaul.

As is probably predictable, what struck me most about the forms and other creative concepts these works were grounded in was their rich unpredictability. It quickly became apparent, for example, that these works had been developed by authors possessing radically divergent assumptions concerning what fiction is, what it might be, might do, and might involve once it is removed from the mouth of the teller or the page of the print-bound and becomes situated within a digitized electronic environment. Equally diverse were their decisions concerning what features of print-bound fiction were worth keeping (narration, for example) and which seemed unsuitable or inappropriate for expression within this new medium (such as plotted narratives). Likewise, while these authors all obviously shared the recognition that the medium of electronic writing now offered a whole host of stimulating new options, there was very little agreement here concerning which options should be explored.

In short, on both the micro and macro levels, these works displayed a fascinating (and occasionally baffling, at least to this user) variety in terms of their treatment of overall formal strutures and graphic interface designs, form/content issues, the use of hyperlinks and hypermedia and their relationship to written texts, interactivity, and the reconfigured relationship among author, reader and writer. These were all clearly works by writers who have been grappling with the core issues of the medium: the role (if any) of narration (and narrative) and story within the electronic medium; the need to invent the necessary formal conventions (including those producing more radical forms of reader interactvity than merely selecting which links to follow) which electronic fiction will need if it is to continue evolving into the major literary form it will surely become, and so forth.

Having to respond to works which seemed to be operating on such fundamentally different terms occasionally made it seem like I was being asked to judge the merits of the literary equivalent of apples and oranges, but diversity here also seems like a healthy sign at this early stage in a form where basic conventions and formal options are still largely undeveloped. And when all else failed, I always had my equivalent of magnetic north to guide me -- all that nebulous but weighty stuff that the phrase "high literary quality" once used to refer to. For me, that meant I was consciously seeking out fiction that somehow managed to grab my attention and kept it, that amazed or amused or bewildered or disturbed me, and above all that moved me in some way. And while I was always trying to seek out examples where innovative uses of hypermedia seemed appropriate, I was also on the lookout for negative cases, where hypermedia seemed to be imposed where it doesn't belong.

I would now like to announce the winner this first fiction contest sponsored by the Electronic Literature Organization -- Caitlin Fisher's haunting, visually stunning recreation of girlhood(s), These Waves of Girls.

I found myself hooked on Waves from the moment I first logged on and watched Caitlin's gorgeous graphic interface assemble itself out of images of moving clouds drifting across the screen, mingling with the sounds of girls laughing, Once inside the work itself, users encounter a series of writings -- anecdotes, incidents, bits of story, and meditations -- drawn from the memories and creative imagination of its playfully unreliable (and textually seductive) female protagonist at various key junctures of her youth (at age 4, age 10, 20, etc. ).

Rather than attempting to create a formal arrangement that might have drawn all of these disparate elements of narration into the sort of cohesive narrative one expects in print-bound fiction, Fisher instead develops a structure that takes advantage of what web-based medium does best -- i.e., Fisher creates an interconnected web of branching, narrative possibilities that evoke not just the girlhood of a single protagonist but a broader perspective of girlhood(s).

These language-based narrations are embedded within a series of arresting hypermedia features (admirably accessed via a Flash plug-in): different sorts of aural features (sound effects and voice-over options) and visual materials, including 3-D images, photographs and illustrations (many of which have been reprocessed with stunning results), and multi-layered images, whose sensuous textures invite further exploration. There is a raw energy and garish intensity to these visual features that perfectly captures the feel of childhood and adolescence. As is befitting of a work about girlhood(s), the writing in these narrative shards (many of which are sharply etched enough to draw blood) is by turns, tender, terrifying, erotic, lyrical, witty, surprising -- and always emotionally engaging. Linked in often surprising ways that establish hidden connections that often seem to be operating on the basis of emotional, associational logic, Fisher produces a memorable and moving work of electronic fiction in the elements of words manner hypermedia functions.

Because of the high quality of all six works, I would also like to cite two additional pieces for honorable mention: Talan Memmott's absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, mystifying, cryptifictional hyper-assemblage, Lexia to Perplexia, which I found notable not only for the eloquence and innovations of its design but for its success in creating new forms of user-interactivity; and Shelley Jackson's wondrously written and perfectly conceived match of form and content, Patchwork Girl, which despite its ripe old age (of 7 years) and somewhat cumbersome reliance on Storyspace software, was still more than able to hold its own among more technologically advanced works in terms of the freshness of the writing and the conceptual brilliance of its design.



ELO acknowledges the support of our global sponsor, the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation for their generous support of the Electronic Literature Directory project. We also thank our hosts at UCLA: the Center for Digital Humanities, the English Department, the Design| Media Arts Department, the School of the Arts and Architecture, and SINAPSE. We thank also the Illinois Humanities Council and the Illinois Arts Council, who supported the 2001-2002 Interactions program, 2001 Awards and founding sponsor ZDNet and founding sponsor NBCi.