Technoscience / Ecomateriality / Literature

Tag: elit

E-Lit Critique: Firefly by Larsen

Deena Larsen’s Firefly is a fascinating electronic literature piece that enriches and adds valuable depth (quite literally) to a traditional structure of written poetry to augment the reader’s experience. Although Firefly may at first appear to be a normal poem, Larsen challenges typical linear narrative structure and utilizes Flash hypertext to add interactive layers to the piece. The digital poem consists of six stanzas, each “five lines ‘long’ and six lines ‘deep’” (Larsen). The “depth” derives from the hypertext – each line of the stanza is clickable and rotates between six possible strings of text for that line. Larsen uses this affordance to take Firefly beyond the bounds of linearity and provide self-described “multi-dimensional spaces for meaning, subtext, and context” (Larsen).

Creating a meaningful reader experience is critical for crafting a successful electronic literature project, and Firefly puts the reader experience first and foremost on its list of priorities. Larsen strikes an effective balance between authorial intent and open interpretation by providing a malleable, responsive work that still manages to fit within the atmosphere she desires. The content itself of Firefly exists within a certain haunting, mysterious aesthetic. Larsen uses a dark, murky color scheme of greens and browns for the background, with eerie brick structures reminiscent of a graveyard. The poem itself describes a narrator’s fleeting nighttime encounter with a firefly, and the narrator heavily romanticizes the firefly while giving vivid descriptions of its movements. There is a certain level of anthropomorphizing, and the narrator appears to view himself and the firefly as equals. On the surface it appears to be an insignificant encounter, yet the narrator’s heartfelt musings show that it is clearly a powerful moment for him. In one possible reading of the poem, the narrator recounts, “I pour a life’s memories out before him like spilled wine to break the silence” (Larsen, Stanza 5). Larsen evokes sympathy from the reader, as she describes the narrator’s struggle to communicate with the firefly. The final stanza is arguably the strongest of the poem, with one possible reading being “The moment breaks as if nothing had existed…leaving nothing inside to remember what lies afterwards” (Larsen, Stanza 6). A chance encounter that appears trivial ends up leaving a gaping emptiness for the narrator, and it is difficult not to empathize with his sadness. It is true that Larsen leaves it up to the reader to change the lines to create powerful emotional messages (the two quotations referenced above are manipulated stanzas rather than the default configurations). However, these possibilities are specifically designed to remain in line with the gloomy ambience that Larsen seeks to establish. In her book Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, N. Katherine Hayles describes the challenges that E-Lit writers face in trying to incorporate “conventional narrative devices such as rising tension, conflict, and denouement in interactive forms where the user determines sequence” (Hayles 16). Larsen takes these challenges head-on, and provides an interactive experience that is constructed to maintain its poignancy regardless of the user’s choices.

The power of Firefly is in its unique combination of surface simplicity and depth of meaning. The interchangeable lines are masterfully crafted and arranged such that any permutation provides a reasonably readable stanza. Larsen is successful in staying well-grounded and not trying to do too much with the project. That is not to say that her work lacks effort – at a UND Writer’s Conference in 2010, Larsen admitted to spending six months on Firefly, explaining that “getting everything to fit together takes a long time because you actually do have to sit there and think about these things” (Larsen 2010). By pouring so much effort into a small, focused work, Larsen creates a clean and rich final product. The depth of the project and the countless possible arrangements for the poem make it an E-Lit piece that is worth re-visiting many times, as each read will surely be a different experience.

Firefly certainly qualifies as electronic literature, and its literary merit is evident, though its technology and interface are not particularly ambitious or avant-garde within the realm of modern E-Lit pieces. Indeed, the project has an extra dimension that adds depth beyond the scope of traditional poetry, but at heart it is still simply a collection of words. The project could reasonably be re-created in a physical representation, but it would be more cumbersome to navigate. It is also important to bear in mind that Firefly was created in 2002, and making hypertext with flash is quite passé now while it might have been fairly innovative for a project at the time. It was likely for the better that Larsen was not overly ambitious in writing Firefly, and perhaps the project medium and structure itself can even be seen as a metaphor for the story it contains. The project’s presentation is simple on the exterior, yet it provides additional layers that add significant meaning and emotional depth. Similarly, the narrator’s encounter with the firefly could have easily been a bland moment in passing, but it turns out to be a beautifully melancholy interaction with unexpected vividness. While some E-Lit focuses heavily on interesting technology and exciting user experiences and perhaps lacks in literary merit, Firefly is towards the opposite end of the spectrum. Larsen’s technology is not flashy in any way, but she utilizes its affordances to their full extent in designing an enhanced poem.

Firefly serves as a valuable example that electronic literature can exist in an augmented digital medium without sacrificing contextual and sub-textual literary meaning. In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich appears to disparage the merit of electronic literature, claiming that “all new media objects, whether created from scratch on computer or converted from analog media sources, are composed of digital code; they are numerical representations” (Manovich 27). Gould examines Manovich’s position in A Bibliographic Overview of Electronic Literature, arguing that his statements seem to “sever the literary from the work by effectively mathematimacizing e-poetries and e-literatures” (Gould). Gould is correct that Manovich is “rather harsh” (Gould) in his opinions, and indeed his blanket statements are disrespectful to electronic literature writers. The fact that digital literature works are stored as numerical data at the lowest level has hardly any impact on the majority of reader experiences with said works. E-Lit writers design their projects using words just like any other writer, and they choose to take advantage of (and be influenced by) certain technological media. At heart, an e-lit project is still a literary work, and does not deserve to be discredited based on its mathematical representation at the lowest level. Electronic literature works like Firefly should be praised, despite imperfections, for their efforts to push boundaries of scholarly tradition and provide an augmented experience that enables readers to think and feel in new ways.


Works Cited:

Gould, Amanda. “A Bibliographic Overview of Electronic Literature.” Electronic Literature Directory. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.

Hayles, Katherine. Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 2008. Print.

Larsen, Deena. Firefly. 2002. Web.

Larsen, Deena. “Reading: Deena Larsen”. UND Writers Conference. 23 March 2010.

Manovich, L. (2001). The language of new media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.


Electronic Literature Connecting the Reader to the Writer DN

There is currently a movement that is shifting the medium in which we read literature, from printed text to computer enabled literature. Electronic literature is relatively new and is still in the process of defining itself. The broader definition of electronic literature is currently, “work with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer” (Electronic Literature Directory). In my opinion, this definition creates ambiguity as to what projects actually deserve or do not deserve literary merit for their work. The literary aspect is defined by Katerine Hayles in New Horizons for the Literary as “creative artworks that interrogate the histories, contexts, and productions of literature” (Hayles 4). The possible range in the scope of the literary within electronic literature is what makes this movement exciting. It gives writers and creators the flexibility to experiment and develop literary-focused projects that may fail to distinguish themselves as a electronic literature pieces, or may become projects that push perfectly far enough that they can essential redefine the classification boundaries of electronic literature. The extent to which the digital component can enhance the literary is limitless, and as there is further experimentation in this field, electronic literature will model itself under projects that are successful in intertwining the two aspects.

Not all projects are successful in aligning themselves under electronic literature, but one project that I enjoyed and molded under the electronic literature definition was Sydney’s Siberia. Jason Nelson produced this project while he was doing an arts residency in Newcastle. He took 121 different pictures throughout the city and created a poem. He used the use of infinite loops and zooming qualities that computers have, and created an infinite mosaic of the poem. Therefore, when you start the project on the internet, you have a small portion of the poem with a picture in the background and then you can zoom into the picture and find that the primary picture is actually comprised of tiny bits from a library of 121 pictures used in the poem and manipulated by variation of color to replicate just one of the pictures. You can zoom in forever, and you continue to discover all the 121 tiles within the poem.

Screenshot 2014-10-26 19.14.40Screenshot 2014-10-26 19.14.22

This certainly fits into the definition of electronic literature, because the focus of the project is the literary aspect and the meaning behind the poem. However, the poem is complemented by the interactive design generated by the infinitely coded mosaic as the reader is also in control of determining which picture (with part of the poem) to view next. I liked some of the verses within the poem, but what I found most enjoyable about the electronic literature piece was the power I had in controlling the direction I took in reading the poem. This piece reminded me of Daytripper by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon, and it was all due to the use of computer coding in presenting the poem. The Daytripper chapters were not presented in chronological order, and I feel that this made the graphical novel more powerful and thought provoking.

In the same light, Sydney’s Siberia poem is not presented in order, and this creates a user-defined order (with repetitions or not). This allows for a unique experience for each individual user and for each individual occasion. Since this project was one of my to study, I must have started Sydney’s Siberia at least 20 plus times. Each time, I took a unique route and by doing so, I had a different interpretation in attempting to make a connection between picture and picture. This sort of project not only had the typical challenge for a reader to try and decipher the literary meaning behind the poem, but it also had the dynamic challenge to try and link the fragmented stanzas. This makes each interaction with the project an engaging academic challenge. Another task for the reader that I noticed was simply trying to determine where the poem might start and where the poem might end. Without the use of the computer capabilities to simulate fragmented and basically randomized poem stanzas, the poem would not be as engaging or powerful. Projects like Sydney’s Siberia use this trans-medial approach with the goal of developing these “simulative, emergent, and participatory models” (Hayles 17).

Critics may argue that these computer-generated features within the project do not align with the literary aspect behind the poem, or that these simulating features might distract or disrupt the literary. In response, I say that these features can develop in sync with the literary meaning behind the poem and its production. In Sydney’s Siberia, my belief behind the digital mosaic was that the creator wanted to demonstrate the thought process that goes behind making poems based on ordinary objects. Making a poem is not necessarily a completely linear development and a big challenge in formulating a poem comes from being able to organize your thoughts in a sequential order. I think the infinite mosaic reaches a deeper level, connecting the reader to the poet’s writing and thought process in developing such a poem. I think the idea is that any poet can have great thoughts and lines but that the figuring out how to link and make a successful poem has its own merit to it. This is reinforced by Janet Murray’s comments about the advantages to process transparency, “calling attention to the process of creation can also enhance the narrative involvement by inviting readers/viewers to imagine themselves in the place of the creator” (Hayles 16). Murray is actually discussing the transparency in the creation of the digital aspect of the projects but this relates to my point that maybe Nelson created this digital support to allow for transparency behind in the production of literary aspect itself.

This does not mean that all the digital aspects in projects related to electronic literature align themselves with enhancing the literary, or even that my interpretation of the digital aspect in Sydney’s Siberia was the actual purpose, but it speaks about the potential embedded in the digital aspects of these new projects. It also reinforces that electronic literature can produce powerful material that may reach higher levels of connection between the reader and writer that no printed based literature will ever be able to reproduce. Electronic literature is headed in the right direction, and it will be through more years of experimentation in this field that great projects, such as Sydney’s Siberia, will emerge.


Gould, Amanda S. “A Bibliographic Overview of Electronic Literature.” Http:// N.p., 20 Apr. 2012. Web. 24 Oct. 2014. <>.

Hayles, Katherine. “Electronic Literature: What Is It?” Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 2008.

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