How Do We Read Digital Literature?

By Séamus O’Kane

Digital literature is not found on the printed page. We encounter these texts through VR headsets, iPads, laptops, mobile phones, tv screens, or a combination of multiple media. Clearly, we cannot “read” digital literature in the same way we read books. In this blog entry, I will explore some approaches towards reading digital literature.

To begin, it is necessary to ask: what do we mean by “digital literature”? The Digital Fiction International Network defines this type of literature as work “written for and read on a computer screen” which “would lose something of its aesthetic and semiotic function if it were removed from that medium.” This type of literature is also known as “born digital” which Ensslin defines as “digital artifacts that require the specific interactive, multimodal, and executable qualities of digital media and their underlying source code in order to be produced and consumed.” In other words, digital literature takes advantage of the properties of the reading device (computer screen, phone, tablet, etc.) and does not simply aim to replicate the experience of reading books.

So how do we read digital literature? Not limited to the written word, digital literature employs a range of media and sign systems, including illustrations, film, animation, and interactive elements. Nikolajeva and Al-Yagout propose that, when we are reading digital literature, we expand our idea of reading to include viewing, listening, and playing. The reader of digital literature engages their senses as the experience can be visual, auditory, tactile, and kinaesthetic.

When dealing with multiple sign systems and media, the widespread definition of literacy as “the ability to read and write words” is not sufficient. Digital literature and twenty-first century culture in general demand multiple literacies to navigate reality and consume content. Increasingly, it is necessary to develop visual literacy, as we often hear that we now live in a visual culture, and people must now have the ability to read and interpret images. Multimodal texts are those which employ more than one mode (see, for example, how picture books and graphic novels tell a story through both text and images) and a multimodal literacy is needed to understand the written word, visual images and design features and, crucially, how these elements interact with each other and combine to produce meaning. Media literacy means that the reader has familiarity with media conventions, such as camera angles in film or the placement of text in a magazine.

As digital literature requires a digital device in order to be consumed, readers must also have digital literacy so they can operate these devices. A reader should know how to pinch, swipe, tap, click, press buttons, or perform another action. It is also important for the reader to recognise when they are expected to interact with a text and how to interpret the meaning of the interaction. The literacies which have been outlined are often complementary as both old and new media are in constant dialogue with one another, reshaping and remaking each other, in a phenomenon known as remediation. Expertise in one form of literacy can therefore prove useful in learning another. Similarly, the literacies developed to read and interpret digital literature can, in turn, benefit analogue literacy.

Florence by Annapurna Interactive. As the protagonist gets to know her date, the reader’s interactions become progressively easier as fewer jigsaw pieces are needed to complete the puzzle. The reader’s interactions therefore possess meaning within the context of the story.

The types of literacies that I have outlined are not exclusive to digital literature and they can all be found in other media. Transplanting reading strategies from other media is often necessary because, although we often say we live in a digital age, digital literature has not broken through into the mainstream, and we do not see digital literature being readily incorporated into school curriculums, book shops, and libraries. It is now easier than ever before to access digital literature as more people have phones, laptops and tablets. But do they see digital literature as literature? And do they know how to “read” it?

Jonathan Culler’s idea of literary competence is valuable here as he states that we do not arrive at a text without preconceptions. A reader brings their knowledge and experience of other readings, and these prior reading experiences shape how a person approaches and understands a text. This process does not simply involve knowing the meanings of words, but rather internalising the conventions of literature (for example, character development, plot, and setting). Repeated encounters with texts allow a reader’s literary competence to grow. In the case of digital literature, readers can bring their knowledge and experience of other media to digital texts.

There is a need to challenge our limited definitions of what constitutes “reading” as our increasingly visual and digital culture has moved beyond the written word as the dominant form of representation. As N. Katherine Hayles notes, print continues to shape how we perceive literature, but digital literature offers new possibilities, new forms of storytelling, and new ways of reading. By developing multiple literacies, readers will be more comfortable with a wide range of texts and media, and those experiences can also bring new perspectives on reading printed books.

Séamus O’Kane is a postgraduate student on the Erasmus Mundus International Master in Children’s Literature, Media and Culture (CLMC). He recently completed an internship at the LocHal, Bibliotheek Midden-Brabant, in conjunction with Tilburg University.

Image credits: Virtual Reality Demonstrations by UTKnightCenter