Rebooting Electronic Literature Volume 3: Documenting Pre-Web Born Digital Media

A Reading of Michael Joyce's "afternoon, a story" by James O'Sullivan

On Friday, January 15, 2016 Irish Digital Humanities scholar James O'Sullivan gave a Reader Traversal of Michael Joyce's afternoon, a story in the Electronic Literature Lab (ELL) at Washington State University Vancouver. The event was videotaped by Shane Staub, who was at the time an undergraduate in the Creative Media & Digital Culture program specializing in video production. Following his performance, O'Sullivan joined ELL's Director, Dene Grigar, in a Q&A. Both the Traversal and follow-up discussion were intended to document the work, specifically the reader's experience with it.

For the Traversal, O'Sullivan performed the 5th Edition on one of the Macintosh Classics in the lab.

Traversal of Michael Joyce's afternoon, a story, by James O'Sullivan

O'Sullivan begins his Traversal through Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story by making several notes about the title screen, including the inclusion of the marketing phrase, "a postmodernist classic!", and viewing the directions. He begins to read by hitting the return key and arriving at the first lexia. From there, he clicks on the word, "yesterday", and lands on the lexia "yesterday2". He goes back to make a note about the use of angle brackets and finds that he cannot click again on the word "yesterday". He clicks on the word "darkness" instead, landing on the lexia “I want to say”. He goes back again, clicking on various words on the page. From "yesterday2", all links he clicks go to the lexia “I want to say”. Hitting return also brings him to this same lexia. He progresses by continuing to use the return key as he notes Joyce appears to use this as a way to navigate linearly through the story. When he arrives at the lexia, "Werther3", he decides to deviate from the default path, discovering that every word is hyperlinked and clicks on the word "mind". Before he moves on, O'Sullivan takes some time to talk about the toolbar’s four icons and their functions. He returns to "Werther3" so he can use the available paths icon to advance to "Werther4". He returns again to "Werther3" and continues along the default path using the return key as he makes commentary on the writing and other content.

Reader Interview with James O'Sullivan about Michael Joyce's afternoon, a story

Following the Traversal, the cameras turn and Dene Grigar interviews James O’Sullivan. Grigar begins by asking about the reading experience, how it differs from books, but also how it relates to other familiar electronic media. O’Sullivan answers that the element of choice is the most obvious difference and that Joyce makes choice intuitive enough that the reader can navigate without feeling lost. He also notes that the context of this work––how early and experimental it was––as well as being distributed by a publisher, likely affected the author's choice to use familiar breadcrumbs that call back to print. Grigar and O'Sullivan look at the material items, such as the folios, that are also familiar to the book environment. Grigar asks how often he followed a predetermined path or particular sequence. O’Sullivan responds by discussing the tension between knowing there is a core story and knowing there is more beyond it. O’Sullivan also discusses how he enjoys the multiple ways Joyce allows readers to traverse through the work. Grigar asks what percentage of the work he thinks he was able to read. O’Sullivan notes the stats Storyspace provides when you open the work and realizes of over 500 possible lexia, he saw a very small percentage of the content. They also discuss the significance of the work not just as a digital piece, but also a piece of literature, speculating what could be in the spaces he did not get to. Grigar asks if he had to use a metaphor or analogy to describe the work, what would it be? O’Sullivan responds, “a Rubik’s cube,” and compares the multifaceted nature of how one progresses through both. They also discuss the idea of distant reading and how it applies (or doesn't apply) to afternoon, a story. Finally, Grigar asks how the experience was shaped by reading the work on the original, vintage hardware. O’Sullivan answers by talking about being aware of the context and materiality of a work, both technologically and culturally.

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