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The unavoidable obscurity which an ordinary non-used to cybertextuality reader tangles into when he or she meets a graphic novel such as "Inanimate Alice" is an unquestionable proof that e-literature and its sub-genres are extremely difficult to outline and specify in accordance with stereotypical "frames" established by literary theory. But still, no reader in the 21st century can afford the aristocratic luxury to be "ordinary"; therefore we all want to see more from what is called e-lit, even if we do not comprehend it at first. As Espen Aarseth points out, one cannot understand cybertextualty unless they get familiar with it; otherwise trying to explain its basis leads nowhere. (Aarseth) The truth is that nowadays reading means much more than simply turning the pages of an old thick dusty book. When there is the chance to enrich our reading by adding multiple effects such as music, pictures and interactive activities the best thing we could do is try to take advantage of the opportunity. If we dare. But let me go back to the question of genre. It has been widely discussed by many literary theorists for decades so that now we are supposed to label each piece of literary work with its proper genre easily, as far as our literacy allows us. Nevertheless, electronic literature is something quite different and therefore difficult to place in the already existing patterns. In my paper I am going to briefly outline some of the theories of electronic literature and its development, aims, creators and recipients. To illustrate it all practically, I am going to write about my encounter with the graphic novel "Inanimate Alice" and the possibilities to use it teaching children to enjoy reading.
Electronic literature has been gaining popularity for more than 20 years, so there are plenty of definitions trying to explain what exactly it is. In her essay "Electronic Literature: What is it?" N. Katherine Hayles quotes the definition given by The Electronic Literature Organization: "work with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer." (Hayles). However, new technology is being developed very quickly, which on the other hand makes its advantages various and unlimited. This whole process leads to very interesting hybridization or syncretism between literary works and contemporary electronic media such as blogs, social networks and of course computer games. Combining reading, which most children nowadays find rather boring, with a computer game - a field where even young learners are quite experienced; can lead to the creation of a very impressive and appealing product of e-lit. As a matter of fact not only the requirement to be available only in electronic media but also the ability readers to become not mere users but active participants in this literature make it so attractive to young generation. Having in mind its sensational applicability to our contemporary "electronic" lifestyle, N. Katherine Hayles sees e-lit as "the hybrid progeny of an interspecies mating between computer games and literary traditions" (Hayles). It is quite obvious that benefits outweigh any possible disadvantages in the comparison between electronic literature and literature in print, as far as receptions from children and adolescents is concerned. However, we cannot oppose these forms of literature because they overlap to some extend and the latter continues the traditions of the former.
Actually the whole process of creating, distributing and perceiving electronic literature is quite remarkable. Let me start with the role of the author which here is maybe closer to Roland Barthes' terms than anywhere else. The author of electronic literature is almost never one person. In the case of 'Inanimate Alice" there are three people closely involved in creating the final product: the novelist Kate Pullinger who wrote the text, the graphic designer Chris Joseph who is practically in charge of making the text e-lit, and Ian Harper who got the idea brought to life by Pullinger and Joseph. Up to here it seems quite logical that creating something as interactive and flexible as a piece of electronic literature is more often than not a result of team work.
After being created collectively, the literary "message" should be delivered to the reader. However, the channel, the carrier, is different - it is no longer a book or a printed source but an electronic device - a computer, a kindle reader or even a mobile phone. The advantages of multi media are accessible only through such devices, moreover they are quite widespread in the era of new technologies. So if in the past it was almost impossible for example to write a research paper without spending days in the library, nowadays you can do it without even going out of your bedroom as long as you have access to the Internet. Generally speaking, the conditions you need to read e-lit are more or less the same as to play a video or computer game - a suitable device and a set of headphones in order to hear the sounds. Therefore one can read electronic literature everywhere: in the bus, in the park, at work - wherever they are pleased to. As Michael Benedikt writes in "Cyberspace" referring to virtual reality: "one place limitless; entered equally from a basement in Vancouver, a boat in Port-au-Prince, a cab in New York, a garage in Texas City, an apartment in Rome, an office in Hong Kong, a bar in Kyoto, a café in Kinshasa, a laboratory on the Moon"(Benedikt).
As the author and the form of literature have changed the same can be said about the reader who is no longer a mere recipient but - speaking with the terms of the Internet - a user. The reader/user issue is discussed by N. Katherine Hayles in her book "Writing Machines" where she outlines differences and similarities between them and the way these two terms overlap. Moreover, what matters is that this reader/user has a key role not only in decoding and interpreting the piece of interactive fiction (IF), but also in participating in its completion or development. This accessibility to constant changes makes Lev Manovich notice that in the cyberspace there is no way to claim and hold authorship or copyright, especially if you aim at popularity. He points out that new media gives us a diversity of opportunities to create new forms and genres of art (including literary art): "The greatest interactive work is the interactive human-computer interface itself."(Manovich) According to him the future holds many more improvements in our life and culture due to the development of new technology and electronic media.
One of the advantages electronic media give us is the opportunity to engage the recipient's attention almost entirely, which automatically makes it pretty desirable in the classroom. It is not necessary to be a teacher to notice that in most of the cases educational systems just try to make children memorize as much useless information as possible without providing them with opportunities to use it. What electronic literature offers is something innovative: a way to participate in the story you are reading while you are fully engaged with the protagonist's experience. I chose to discuss "Inanimate Alice" because as a teacher to young learners (4th and 5th grade) I find it quite applicable to the language level of my pupils, but most importantly - it is interactive and fun. Moreover, following the adventures of the protagonist all over the world makes them study different subjects besides English: geography, art, science, etc.
The project grabbed my attention firstly by its title - "Inanimate Alice" - which reminded me somehow of Lewis Carroll's famous character with the same name whose adventures I used to plunge myself into as a child. But if there can be any intertextuality at all between those two heroines it lies only in their names and their adventurous spirits suppressed by their lonesome life in reality. While Carroll's Alice makes up her own wonderland, Inanimate Alice draws hers with the help of a multifunctional player - a gadget which she carries everywhere and even creates her imaginary friend Brad with its help. After reconsidering those similarities, I notice that literary tradition has after all been used as background of this new multi-media e-lit product but it has also been improved and developed further in accordance with contemporary children's lifestyle. So in my opinion it is much closer to them than the text in print.
"Inanimate Alice" is a digital novel which consists of several chapters (episodes), four of which are available on its homepage - inanimatealice.com. It is about the life of a young girl - Alice, whose parents frequently move to different countries because of her father's job. The novel starts when she is just 8 years old and continues to her mid-twenties. Moreover, each episode lasts twice as long as the previous and the special extras such as games, sounds and activities become more various and complicated. Speaking with the terms of an e-lit gamer - the level gets higher in accordance with the protagonist's maturity. The older Alice becomes, the more complicated her adventures are and the more deeply the reader is engaged in them. Therefore, the different episodes and all the activities around them are suitable for children at different age, corresponding to their knowledge and life-experience. Let us take a quick look at each of the four available episodes and see what makes them a good example of electronic literature as well as the winner of the 2012 award for best website for teaching and learning.
The first episode starts with very brief instructions how to operate with the digital novel. Even though it is a multi-media product, from the very beginning the reader can say that it is neither a film, nor a videogame but a completely different product containing elements of both films and games but also literature, photography and web-design. Alice introduces herself on the black screen with white letters: "My name is Alice. I am 8 years old." The letters appear on the screen as if she is writing on her player, adding music and pictures to her story. In the beginning when she says her father has been missing for two days, so she and her mother are going to leave the base camp where they live in order to look for him, the music is fast and makes the atmosphere anxious. It continues this way during most of their long journey in their jeep in a non-defined unpopulated place in China. Alice uses her player to show us a map of the country while she goes on with her story about her family. She talks about her rather solitary life with her mother who tutors her while her father is absent working. However, she has found a way to amuse herself - she uses her player for nearly everything: drawing, playing ba-xi, taking photos of their home and showing them to us (the readers). We can try to play the game of ba-xi on her player as an extra to her story so that we are able to experience something from her world. She also shows us her imaginary friend Brad whom she has drawn again with the help of her favorite player. When her mother orders her to turn the player off, we see how lonely Alice is, because she starts dreaming about seeing Brad again and even thinks she hears his voice. Alice lists the things she would like to do if she were home, which include playing with a dog and riding a bike - obviously these once very common children activities are not that common anymore, especially for a girl like her. When they finally find her dad whose jeep has broken down, she asks her parents to get a dog although she knows it is not likely to happen. The duration of the whole episode is about five minutes. There are many pictures and drawings included but the main characters are present only through words - we never see their images so that we do not perceive them as characters from a cartoon. The drawing of Brad is the only character that we can see because Alice shows him to us. The episode is quite an interesting piece of electronic literature both because of its syncretism and its target group - children. Its educational value is in presenting geographic and cultural facts as parts of a game so children can learn while they are having fun with Alice's player.
Cultural identity and the ability to accept otherness are also significant factors in all the episodes. The second part lasts ten minutes and takes place in Italy where Alice's family is on holiday. We see her conversation with her sitter from Saudi Arabia who Alice describes as "very cool". There is no religious or ethnic prejudice - Alice communicates quite freely and openly with people from different nations. Except her Arabian sitter, we see her talking to a Russian military man in episode 3 (when her family tries to escape from Russia) and making friends with children from different races and countries in episode 4 (when her family lives in London). Therefore Alice is a very adaptable and tolerant character who teaches children to accept the others the way they are. Her adventures can be used as a tool of teaching and learning in every classroom - that is why the project has become so popular with teachers from all over the world. According to Alan Mill's article (Mills) teachers from at least 27 countries have downloaded episodes of "Inanimate Alice" and successfully use them for the needs of their teaching. The applicability of the digital novel to teaching children at different age groups is due not only to its rather linear narrative structure ( telling the story of Alice) but also to the additional elements such as games in which children can participate, and of course the fact that we "talk to children using their own medium"(Mills).
Electronic literature is becoming quite popular with different age groups, but I chose to focus on one particular item targeting mostly children, because according to me they are the generation which is going to make digital literature more popular than literature in print. Even though I am rather fond of 'real' books myself, I cannot deny the advantages of electronic literature. So, for the purposes of my teaching practice and for my pupils' sake I would recommend that children should read more digital novels such as "Inanimate Alice". They are a wonderful, engaging and inspiring way of teaching children to read with pleasure from a young age, which I consider very important for their further reading experience.