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Readers, Players and eLiterature Clive Fencott

(latest version, 20/07/2012, of a paper first presented at the 'eLit by/with Performance' symposium, Arnolfini Gallery, May, 2012:

Considering eLiterature (eLit) as a subset of ergodic literature, this paper takes as its starting point an extended notion of Aarseth's textual-machine in order to investigate eLit's performances by the reader, the playereader henceforth. eLit is first of all examined in terms of typical activity types which immediately highlight a difference to many other forms of interactive media. In eLit self-reflexive performance can balance out immersive performance: the playereader is regularly reminded of the mediated nature of their performance. Other aspects of eLit performance such as the generalised activities of stopping and starting are considered. To further consider the performance of eLit a more detailed comparison with that of video games is used to focus in on issues already raised. The potential problem of digital media removing and hiding performance from the playereader is then highlighted by comparing a paper-based and a digital version of Raymond Queneau's Cent Mille Milliard de Poems. This leads on to consider the play of eLit performance as a signifying process alongside the more usual one of semiosis through reading. And what is the relationship between reading and playing in this performance? The paper ends by bringing performativity into question: if the playereader's performance with the text is no longer a given but a conscious act of discovery then what is enacted?

eLit continues to attract attention although not always for the right reasons (Gallix, 2008). There are accusations that: the expected revolution has been found wanting: the traditional linear structures which the majority of literature has historically adopted have not been transcended; that much, if not most, eLiterature to be found is difficult to use; a few giant publishers still dominate proceedings; the eReader revolution has simply constrained what a book is to what it most commercially is/was; the only bookshop in town in now the eReader in your hand. Yet, I do have a Kindle and enjoy reading classic texts on it: the final two volumes of A La Recherché de Temps Perdu (Proust, 2003) read pretty well as did the very first, 1859, edition of On the Origin of Species (Darwin). But, as I've already suggested, you won't find much eLit on your Kindle. You can play some classic Infocom text adventures on the Kindle's experimental browser and a company called Choice of Games1 has some multiple-choice-type text


adventures but only for US users. There might be more and maybe more will follow as the Kindle's development kit becomes more widely used, for instance. However, this paper is not about eReaders. Aarseth (1997) contended, and I concur, that eLit is not something new, uniquely of the digital era, but an expansion of a literary project which he called ergodic literature that can trace its origins back to the birth of the novel and beyond. Aarseth used the term cybertext to refer to ergodic works which involved “significant calculation in their production of scriptons”. eLit and cybertext thus have much in common. Eric Mottram (1977) didn't use any of these terms but he certainly characterised important aspects of the ergodic project in Towards Design in Poetry when he and the the literary world in general was largely unaware of computers let alone digital revolution. This paper therefore takes ergodic literature in general as its field of study and thus includes as a subset the field of eLit as laid out by the Electronic Literature Organisation (What is Electronic Literature?): • • • Hypertext fiction and poetry, on and off the Web Kinetic poetry presented in Flash and using other platforms Computer art installations which ask viewers to read them or otherwise have literary aspects • • • • Conversational characters, also known as chatterbots Interactive fiction Novels that take the form of emails, SMS messages, or blogs Poems and stories that are generated by computers, either interactively or based on parameters given at the beginning • Collaborative writing projects that allow readers to contribute to the text of a work • Literary performances online that develop new ways of writing

We can list some of the authors and works in the general ergodic project - who are not always knowingly or even willingly part of it: • • • • • • • Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy Stéphane Mallarmé: Un Coup de Dés James Joyce: Ulysses Kenneth Patchen: Sleepers Awake Raymond Queneau: Cent Mille Milliards de Poéms Marc Saporta: Composition No. 1 B S Johnson: The Unfortunates


• • • • • • • • • •

Jaume Plensa: 29 Palms Michael Joyce: Afternoon Milorad Pavic: Landscape Painted with Tea Susan Treister: No Other Symptoms: Time Travelling With Rosalind Brodsky Tracy Emin: quilts at The Hayward2 Mark Z Danielewski: House of Leaves On Kawara: One Million Years M Anthony Penwill (Lindsay Seers): It Has To Be This Way2 Mark Amerika: Grammatron Raymond Federman: Double or Nothing

This list doesn't even scratch the surface. It is my contention that one of the main characterisers of this project is performance: either on the part of the author-performer or reader or both. This paper is very much concerned with the performances of readers: more on them below. It does seem time to take more cognisance of the degree of separation between the performance of the text and the text that enables it. Joanna Drucker (Drucker) names the former the phenomenal book and the latter the literal book. I will use these terms where appropriate. We could call the technological category that transcends the print-digital divide the interactive and maybe electronic book, the ieBook in other words. And the variable that characterises this category is performance: more specifically, as we shall see, it is performance that signifies. It is the performance the ergodic textual machine not only demands but, often unintentionally, additionally enables that this paper is concerned with. We obviously don't just read eLit we have to work with it in order to be in a position to read what there is to be read. A whole range of names have been given to the people that work the work of interactive media: users, interactor, immersants, players and so on. In terms of eLit we need to rethink the reader to reflect the additional participation required of him/her. I prefer the term playereader, the reader who is willing to play, because it, awkwardly perhaps, identifies the two basic activities of the performance of eLit. But awkward is a useful connotation in this respect because the relationship between reading and playing in ergodic literature is often not smooth and easy, it is often awkward.

Playing With The Textual Machine
So what is it that the playereader plays with? From the list of types of eLiterature above and the list of examples from the wider field of ergodic


literature that followed it we can see that we are dealing with a highly diverse range of technological settings and types of play. The following abstract model, using Aarseth again as a starting point, captures the main features common to all the types and examples alluded to: • The Textual Machine (TM) is the object, device, place or whatever that holds or brings together and offers up the literal book. It may include digital or other technology that automates and/or enables symbolic interaction. The TM may manipulate textons in various ways before displaying them as scriptons. This is content on tap, or click. The TM could, of course, be a person. The Texton Source (TS) is the way textons are stored or sourced prior to display and is often a component of the TM. This is of interest because it gives us clues as to the relationship between the literal and the phenomenal book, between texton and scripton. It also allows for the fact that textons might not be stored but obained in various ways from outside the TM. For instance, textons might be sourced/harvested from the Web or the playereader might themselves generate textons: turning out a page as well as well as turning one over ... Scripton Presentation and Removal (SPaRring) names the process of play, in all its possible forms of turning a page and associated causalities, of SpaRring with the Textual Machine to generate the phenomenal book expression. The page and turning the page become metaphors in the generalised cases of this activity for ieBooks. The (metaphorical) page(s), the scriptons, in view await reading - the play on the mind of the symbolic - invite semiosis and instigate further SPaRring ...

So the SPaRring process that is enacted between playereader and textual machine concerns the multiple acts of making groupings of scriptons available for semiosis. Performance consists of SPaRring in conjunction with reading to create the phenomenal from the literal. The many forms of SPaRring that technology - the pBook (paper book) as well as the seemingly unlimited forms of the eBook of eLit - can enable should now be an open field of study. Alternative SPaRring forms are often more shocking in printed books (pBooks) where the rigid alignment of ascending page numbers and narrative potential has often seemed to characterise all that a book could be. But alongside digital texts, pBook authors such as Mark Z. Denielewski, Kim Newman, Milorad Pavich and many more have offered such shocks to the playereader. But the textual-machine might also be an installation in a gallery, a performance of some kind: or both as is the case with On Kawara's One Million Years. Symbolic forms can, of course be audible as well as readable Most importantly, we have to remember that semiosis, symbolic interpretation through reading or listening, words seen or made audible, has to be undertaken, the scriptons in the field of perception have to be made meaningful as part of the performance. As not just an aside, there is no word 4

for semiosis through listening, no equivalent word to reading the symbolic in the visual field.

Categorising (by) Performance
Performance (Performance Studies) usually gets no mention when discussing or analysing literature. That is not to say such discussions are not available : Wallace Bacon's work (Bacon & Breen,1959) is a good example. Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text (1975) is a wonderful exception: although he doesn't use the term explicitly. Performance doesn't get much more mention in the context of eLit: but it certainly should. If we think of other forms of interactive culture, such as video games, then performance, gameplay, the nature of the activities undertaken by the player forms a major part of game reviews. Game genres can be characterised by their activity profiles in terms of such activities as: fighting, driving, searching, strategising, conversing and more, 49 in all (Fencott et al, 2012). Might we not learn something by characterising eLit in terms of SpaRing, playing in other words; just as a starting point? Some of choosing, (objects), more. It's clear. the generic activities that make up the play of eLit might be: searching, writing/inputting, puzzle solving, exploring, manipulating shuffling/ordering, page turning, following links, keeping track, and quite a different list to that of games for reasons which will be made

Searching, for instance, is a recurrent activity in many eLit works. In a text adventure I may be searching for: a way to get into a building; a person who has information I need; a potion that will remove the curse the undead have put on me. In a hypertext fiction I search for a word that might link me to a whole set of pages that I have not yet found but whose existence the text has hinted at. Both examples of searching. Making use of Umberto Eco's (1979) terminology, in the former I am searching the content field, the field of the signified. In the latter I am searching the expression field, the field of the signifier. In the former I am present in the signified world of the text. In the latter I am outside, I am present in the world the textual-machine exists in, that I exist in. eLit as a communication medium seems to allow both and this seems to be a characteristic, a categoriser, of ergodic literature: sometimes you intervene in the text and sometimes in the sememe, the signified content of the phenomenal text. This makes eLit quite different to most other communications media such as the traditional novel and the video game which, surprisingly enough, share a common interface characteristic. We interact with both haptically and perceive the expression plane in the audio and/or visual field. We are supposed to become immersed in the content field signified by the expression plane and it is considered a failure if we notice the expression plane as such. eLit is very different in this respect. It seems to break the rules of many communications media in that we are frequently reminded of its mediated slights of hand! There are thus three categories of activity in eLit:


1. activities in the content plane: searching, choosing, puzzle solving exploration, role playing (with its own set of possible activities: conversing, using objects, talking to people, etc.), movement of/around an object 2. activities in the expression plane: configuring/shuffling/ordering, page turning, following links, keeping track, exploration, choosing, searching, self-Reflexive semiosis, holding/keeping open, starting/stopping, writing/creating, inputting, switching media, starting and stopping 3. inter-planery activities that span the expression and content planes: reading-semiosis, Inside-Outing Formulating actions in text adventures is an interesting activity because it is not clear whether or not this type of activity is in the expression field or the content field. If it were in the content field then it would always be about our appropriate use of activities such as: talk to, pick up, use and so on. But as the playereader I have to try and formulate my intended activity in a way the textual-machine will be able to respond to. Very often I have to have several goes at this before I achieve a successful formulation. It seems I am writing my activity in the expression field and waiting for it to be interpreted, and then signified and responded to in the content field. Stopping and starting are interesting activities in eLit. Both can mean much the same thing as stopping and starting does in reading a traditional novel. I start reading the first page of the text and continue reading until I've read the last page: I enter, become immersed in, the content plane and later leave it. But in a work of eLit starting could mean shuffling or ordering textons or some other configuration process and this might be repeated many times in one playereading. Stopping might mean: deciding to start again, with all that reconfiguration may entail; deciding to do something else because I've had enough; deciding to do something else because there isn't a last page as such; finishing reading the last page. So starting and stopping are always in the expression plane but entail repeated enterings and leavings of the content field in a re-expressed form. Of course, I rarely read a traditional novel in a single session. I put the pBook down, stop, many times and re-start many times. But in this case what I restart, what I re-enter is the same set of ordered scriptions. Inside-Outing is interesting and concerned with what I call the Inside-Out code: essentially, any information the textual-machine withholds from the playereader but which the playereader can infer through performance with the text (Fencott et al, 2012). This could simply be the volume of scriptons yet to be presented. It could be information that is withheld to make the work more exiciting, the resolution of an enigma for instance. In fact we could see the Inside-Out code as an instance of Barthes' hermeneutic code (Barthes, 1990). But this is another of the activities that sits across the expression and content fields alongside reading. We are trying to infer from what we have learnt from the content field something that the textual-machine may have stored away but withheld from us. This might be information about characters or objects 6

but it might also be guesses at the way the textual-machine's algorithms work. We are required to consider the inner workings of the textual machine based on clues we can identify signified in the content plane. The content plane signifies, more specifically connotes, the textual machine. Self-Reflexive signs are signifiers in the expression plane that draw attention to themselves as signifiers. This tradition goes back at least as far as Laurence Sterne, mid eighteenth century, and probably even further (Sterne, 1967). Sterne famously included a blank, black, recto page to signify the death of pastor Yorik. In this case we are jumped out of the medium of words to a page that signifies the end of life by its lack of features of any kind, words included. Sterne also famously included a marbled page, normally used inside the front and back cover, as an emblem of his life: each marbled page being different, unique. Neither of these function as illustrations in the usual way: they don't visually represent a place or event in the verbal text. Louis Lüthi (2010) wrote a whole book On The Self-Reflexive Page. The book itself is an example of ergodic literature in that it is read from the notes at the back of the book, the self-Reflexive pages making up the main body of the book itself. The book could be seen to be back to front. But in egodic literature it is not just whole pages but expression of all forms that might draw attention to itself, reminding us that our playereading is mediated. For me, the whole of Lucy Church Amiably by Gertrude Stein (1972) stimulates both self-reflexive semiosis and content semiosis almost all the playereading time. The same is true of Kenneth Patchen's Sleepers Awake (1969), which to my mind is one of the great works of ergodic literature partly because the textual-machine contains no explicit instructions for play: they are all suggested by the nature of the scriptons and the way they are presented. I say partly because Sleepers Awake is, quite simply, a joy to read as well as play. Of course, this has been just a brief discussion of the nature of the activities that go to make up the play part of eLit performance but the examples outlined do go a long way to identifying eLit as a category with its own characteristics. SPaRring consciously with the literal book is an essential part of the perfomance that leads to the phenomenal book, semiosis, the sememe.

Performance Issues
In the previous section I discussed the nature of the activity sets that can constitute the play of playereading an ergodic work. In particular I noted the particularly unusual feature that many activities reside in the expression plane, and not all in the content plane as is usual for media forms. In fact, I noted that this seems to be a feature of much ergodic literature in that it makes the playereader aware of the nature of the technology: the illusion of nonmediation (Lombard & Ditton, 1997) is frequently broken. In the light of this it is interesting to compare the activity profiles of games and eLit and make the following observations: • Symbolic semiosis predominates in eLit but is largely absent from 7

computer games • Symbolic interaction in games only takes place in terms of: conversations between characters in the game, the player and/or NPCs in-game documents, treasure maps and so on, that are to be read in-character. There will be a preponderance of signs that contribute to and signify interaction in video games. Whereas in eLit there would be a more of a balance of signs relating to reading and playing but with a predominance of the former This means that most of what would be called reading matter in eLit would be classed as layout signs in computer games (Andersen, 1999). In other words signs the playereader cannot interact with them Game genres can be characterised in terms of activity: this would not appear to be the case with eLit for which traditional literary genres also come into play. Text adventure and hypertext fiction could be considered two eLit genres based on activity profiling. The list, above, from the Electronic Literature Organisation is characterised on technology. Maybe because it is still an incunabula medium in Janet Murray's terms (1998) the genres are not clear? For games the activities would be fighting, driving, puzzling, strategizing and so on. But for eLit the activities would far more general and much to do with revealing the text, the scriptons, with maybe some input to solve puzzles and so on. In other words, the playereader sometimes interacts directly with the textual machine and at other times via the world or environment it is signifying.

A few more words about genre and eLit. Both genre and non-genre fiction are referred to by critics and reviewers of traditional pBook literature: the former in a derogatory sense by advocates of the later: which makes non-genre fiction into a genre … But maybe we read, think too much into genre. When we talk about genre maybe what we are really talking about is the principle motivation people have for playereading a particular text? For eLit playereaders does the form of interaction take precedence over literary characteristics? In this case text adventure and hypertext fiction are genres of ergodic literature. That doesn't say there can't be sci-fi fictions or thrillers or romance or non-genre hypertext fictions because there obviously are. Its just that for eLit in particular and ergodic literature in general the genre of play seems to be at least as important as the literary genre. We need to be wary of the general trend to utopianise anything digital. Despite the obvious power of the eLit textual machine to enable diverse forms of performance the pBook cannot, it needs to be made explicit that eLit textual machines are also capable of hiding or even dumbing-down the performance required of the playereader. Taking Cent Mille Milliard de Poéms (Queneau) as an example we can identify at least three versions: the original printed book; the web version, the eBook: the paradigmatic book. In Queneau's original printed version of the piece each of the fourteen lines of each of the ten sonnets is printed on a separate piece of card bound into the book. To make a 8

selection, to configure a sonnet for reading you have to use a folded piece of card, also bound into the book to hold lines you don't want to read on the verso side with your left hand and thus leave a set of fourteen lines you do want to read visible on the recto side. You have to hold the latter down with your right hand. Getting the book into this state is not easy. And trying to methodically work through different versions of the sonnet is almost impossible. In stark contract the web version (Queneau) is literally as simple as simple could be. There is a web page containing a table with fourteen rows, one for each row of the sonnet. Each row has a little check box, 1-10, that allows you to specify the line of which sonnet you wish to use for each of the fourteen rows. It is very, very easy to use and it is very easy to methodically reconfigure the sonnet to be read. But almost all play is hidden from the playereader who has nothing skillful or difficult to do. The multiple acts of configuration, reconfiguration, stopping and re-starting has been made so easy that, for me at least, it is of almost no interest: the performance had been largely taken away from me: the textual-machine does it all. What is left for the playereader to perform is of almost no significance. The paradigmatic version of the piece would be in the form of a child's headsbodies-and-legs book – which was actually the inspiration for Queneau in the first place. This would be relatively easy to configure but would be much more special as an object to handle: it would be far more conducive to enjoyable playereading. But, of course, the book in this form doesn't exist, it is one of the choices that could have been made but wasn't. Comparing games and page turners: both conventionalise interaction, it is haptic, goes unnoticed and does not signify. But for ieBooks, playing and the structure of the phenomenal book that arises out of this performance is a signifying process in its own right. For eLit interaction, play, is very often conscious, is not conventionalised, is noticed, and can be a major signifier in its own right. Play as a signifying aspect of performance is very much a feature of ergodic literature and therefore eLit. The play the playereader enacts adds to the significations of the reading process itself. Playing and reading are central to the performance of ergodic literature and to semiosis and the construction of the pheneomenal book itself. In Cente Mille Milliards de Poéms the the play of the web version signifies to me that there is nothing particularly precious about any of the possible fourteen line sonnets it is possible to configure. It also signifies, subjectively again, the astonishing combinatorial nature of language, script formation and the transitory role an individual line can play in semiosis. However, in playereading the pBook, each sonnet configured from textons to scriptons is special and there is little sense of a rational process that could achieve all possible sonnets: the impossibility of configuring all possible sonnets is a major connotation. Therefore, the pBook and the eBook versions differ dramatically because of the differing typesof signifying play they enable.


Reading, Playing, Performing
Game Invaders (Fencott et al, 2012) suggested the existence of the myth of interaction: a semiotic myth in Barthes sense (1972), a myth that provides context for meaning-making. It is as if this myth evolved during the second half of the twentieth century and drove the development of all sorts of media that require far more participation than conventional mass media. I suspect that not everyone believes in, buys into or accepts the existence of the myth of interaction. Those that don't will probably not find most forms of ergodic literature, and therefore eLit, that appealing. Flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) is characterised as the conjunction of engagement and immersion: the skilful execution of a physical task and the mental focus on that task to the exclusion of everything but the task. There are arguments for and against the two being able to co-exist when playereading is considered. Is symbolic interaction a case where playing and reading don't mix or are there ways in which they can, as Douglas and Hargadon (2000) believe is the case for hypertext fiction. This is, almost certainly, less of a problem for the types of people who have been conventionalised by the myth of interaction. What this really means is that both playing and reading are part of the performance of eLit and that the relationship between the two in this context needs a lot more research. The performance of ergodic literature requires the playereader to adopt a variety of activities and focuses of attention: • • • reading to create the sememe, the content plane, of the ergodic work to hand; the latter metaphorically speaking of course. Reading to understand the nature of the SPaRring process, the nature of the play, the text, the literal book, required of the playereader playing, SPaRring in the expression plane or the content plane in order to cause the presentation of scriptons that require further reading …

Are these three activities mutually exclusive? Does the playereader have them all in mind but shift focus and his/her developing relationship with the scriptons currently on offer from the TM, the, maybe, metaphorical, page(s) in view? This brings performativity into question. If the SPaRring the playereader performs with the text is no longer a given but a conscious, a signifying act of discovery then what are we enacting? Are we different SPaRring with these novel forms? Are we less the consumer, more the explorer, playereading more into our selves? As we already noted, the performance of an ergodic work is a signifying process in its own right. Ergodic authors have to author play as well textons and the textutal machine; but they also have to author what that play signifies: does it complement, counterpoint, obfuscate or whatever else the content plane signified by the scriptons the SPaRring process brings into view to be read? What is mainly characterised in this paper is the SPaRring, the playful aspects of performance of eLit, much more than the reading aspects, although without 10

reading we wouldn't be able to interact effectively. But interaction, playing, unlike video games, doesn't give us the work, the piece, in question: reading and playing must balance out somehow: how that balance is achieved will be considered elsewhere in the extended work (see note below) this paper is a part of. As already suggested, it is mainly the nature of play, for the moment at least, by which we characterise and categorise ergodic literature. But it is also our cognisance of the expression plane that says much about the type of performance required of the playereader and, indeed, because of the myth of interaction this also tells us about the playereader him/herself. She/he has to not only buy into the myth of interaction but also enjoy literature as well. Maybe we ergodic authors need to give more thought to the nature of this enterprise?

I was struck recently by this sentence from one of George Eliot's (1878) characters: We learn words by rote, but not their meaning: that must be paid for with our life's blood, and printed in the subtle fibres of our nerves. That strikes me as being very much about performativity. Making meaning is about repetition in performance and in eLit and ergodic literature in general that performance makes us aware of the codes of semiosis and often actively encourages, indeed requires us to break those codes in order to fully participate. Ergodic literature as a category is an unusual example of a communications medium that is both minded and immersive and that is why one of its current and hopefully future and positive characteristics is its own problematics. And one of those problematics, a signifying problematic, is the playereader's own awareness of his/her performance: and play as an aspect of that performance must be part of the aesthetic allure for playereaders: alongside, of course, reading and symbolic semiosis. But this means that ergodic literature in general is, maybe always will be, an awkward medium and none the worse for that. Some would say, I have heard it said that, “There is no text, we don't need it.” But then all literature, not just ergodic, becomes a culturally conventionalised fantasy; and authors like myself get washed away with the ... or we become far more interested in the relationship between playereaders and texts, in the way our relationship with the text is evolving. By examining, by categorising the performance of ergodic texts we are actually re-examining the performance of all literary texts.

This paper and the continuing research that enables it are part of a wider project The ieBook in Other Words which covers the whole field of ergodic 11

literature from a theoretical and playereaderly perspective. The ieBook will gradually be made available in a diversity of interrelated forms.

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