The end-point of any form of literary communication is the reader, as acknowledged by the shift towards studying reception in fields such as book history and cultural studies. Electronic literary studies has, to date, remained principally concerned with issues of textuality and medium. Certainly it has, from its inception, extensively explored theoretical issues around the nature of authorship and the extent reader agency. However, this “reader” has tended to remain broadly a theoretical construct rather than a documented empirical reality. Indeed, the first wave of electronic literature has been criticised for imbuing this idealised “reader” with an appetite for digital literary experimentation, common amongst electronic literature scholars and practitioners but scarcely evident amongst the broader reading public.
This paper examines reader behaviour in digital environments through focussing on one of the major configurations of contemporary reading – the writers’ festival. These are also known as “festivals of ideas” or take the form of cultural festivals with a significant bookish slant. Intriguingly, digital-only writers’ festivals are beginning to emerge, such as the US-based #TwitterFiction Festival (http://twitterfictionfestival.com/, 2012- ) and the Melbourne-co-ordinated Digital Writers’ Festival (http://digitalwritersfestival.com/2014/, February 2014- ). These innovative events are characterised by web-streamed panel presentations by geographically dispersed writers, live webchats between writers and organisers, Twitter interaction with and between “readers”, online book clubs and collaborative, real-time literary composition. They hence showcase reader modes of interaction with digital literature and document actual readers’ responses to digital literary texts.
More broadly, even major site-specific writers’ festivals (Edinburgh, Hay-on-Wye, Sydney, Toronto) now commonly incorporate significant digital elements, such as live tweeting during sessions, guest bloggers, online fora, live inter-festival link-ups and extensive online archiving. There is a question of whether, by the second decade of the 21st century, any writers’ festival can be considered purely site-specific.
The mainstreaming of the digital writers festival offers a rich new field of research for scholars of electronic literature, permitting as it does examination of actual reader encounters and responses to electronic (and print) literary forms in digital environments. However it simultaneously provokes some unsettling questions. While digital literary festival components greatly expand audiences for writers’ festival events, overcoming limitations of geography, time and disposable income, do they dilute the performative specificity of the event: the special aura of being physically present at a one-off reading by a particular author? If writers’ festivals move increasingly online, can they continue to expect significant cultural policy support from state and local governments on the basis of their contribution to local tourism and civic branding? Does social media’s increasingly audio-visual orientation undermine the literary festival’s traditional (even aggressive) assertion of the primacy of print?
Scholars of electronic literature have been at the forefront of exploring such inter-medial issues since the genre’s emergence in the late 1980s. But the rise of the digital literary festival casts disciplinary consensus into a new light and prompts urgent questions about who the readers of electronic literature – the end-point of this cultural form -- actually are.
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