Is “Proposal for a book to be adapted into a movie starring Dwayne The Rock Johnson” electronic literature?

In describing electronic literature I’ve sometimes used the definition “stories that you can’t print out.” Robin Sloan’s “Proposal for a book to be adapted into a movie starring Dwayne The Rock Johnson” has me reconsidering that.

The story takes the form of an email. More specifically, a printed email: Rather than the scroll bar and cacophonous collection of buttons that would signify an email program, we get a series of 8.5×11″ sheets. But despite mimicking paper, the story is very much of the digital world. It would not work nearly as well as a finely printed book. The date in the header of each page and the URL in the footer function as mise en scène, whereas in a book they would be so out of place as to be confusing and distracting. And the typographic details, like having two hyphens for an em dash, would seem like inattention to detail instead of part of the tone. In a carefully crafted book object, sloppiness is sloppiness; in a simulacrum of an email, sloppiness is verisimilitude.

The story could work in print if it were actually printed out on 8.5 x 11″ office printer paper, to make its virtual formatting conceit concrete. But then you would miss out on the subtle dynamic quality: If you view the source on the webpage, you see that some JavaScript sets the date in the each page header three days before the current day.

And speaking of viewing the source, by doing so you get a whole level of information you that you couldn’t get from paper: a couple lines of script that were commented out memorialize a failed experiment—or a work still in progress? Either way, a sort of insight you couldn’t get from paper aside from visiting a library’s special collection to view an author’s handwritten marginalia. And there are hidden messages well: a few lines of the poet Kobayashi Issa, a wry “must I?” from Sloan right before the lines of code that aid self-promotion. Robin Sloan the author peeking out from behind the curtain while Robin Sloan the narrator is on stage. Or since the code is part of the text, is this better thought of as “inner narrator” and “outer narrator”?

There’s even some intertextual play going on. That URL in the footer of each page? It’s a live website. Not much to it, just the text “Z42 Films.” But folks who know how to view source will be rewarded there, too.

Fiction presented digitally is always a palimpsest—words deep in code conjuring words on the surface. Sloan embraces the opportunity to write in both registers. “Deep reading” takes on additional meaning. The story could be printed—there is no branching, no parser waiting for input, no click-to-advance affordances that would prevent it—and it would still be rewarding. But it would be lesser. Isn’t that a good definition of electronic literature?


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