Is There Such a Thing as Purely Virtual Literature?


by Patrick Călinescu

It is now quite a few years since I first thought of the changes, if any, that the Internet brings to literature. When this idea, that the Internet might indeed alter the body of literature being published virtually, occurred to me, I was just a student in the third year zealously studying the effects that the new medium was likely to have on the literature that appeared online. At that time, my thoughts’ investigation got sadly stuck with the impossibility of finding a real, fundamental content-oriented difference of any piece of literature being published on a webpage from their traditional paper-bound counterparts. All I could come up with then, in the few lines I sketched into a tentative article that never came of intellectual age, was a fairly short list of formal differences, such as the replacement of the celluloid imprinting medium with the electronic medium of storing literary information, which were so formally obvious that I had little hope of ever finding the true virtual qualities of a literary text in stark opposition to their book-format equivalents.

Basically, what I was trying to look for in those early years of investigation, and what I’m still searching in the present (with the notable difference that now I think I have finally come up with such an answer) is the je n’est sais quois of a literary text that, once being published online, becomes intrinsically, and not only coincidentally, virtual. In other words, what makes a literary text singularly virtual, and not manuscript-like, even if it were published on paper, in the confining and changeless pages of a book?

The answer to this question is rather self-evident: nothing. If you write a poem, a novel, or even a play, their immanent literary qualities will not vary in any way depending on the medium they are published in. In other words, that piece of literature, if first published online, and then on paper, will not first qualify as a virtual piece of literature, and then as a Gutenberg-epoch literary text. Nothing in that poem, novel or play stands out as either virtual or paper-oriented according to the medium it is being published in. The same holds true for the possibility that, once first published in either medium, a literary text cannot afterwards be published in the other medium because it has allegedly become, by means of its very publication in one medium, intrinsically imbued with qualities that are characteristically only that of the medium the piece of literature was initially published in. In fewer words, if you publish one of your literary creations online you can at a later time publish it on paper, too. This editorial mutability brings with it no content-based mutations that would in any way impede you to publish your creation in the other medium it wasn’t originally published in. This kind of editorial immutability is thus impossible to pass as a general rule of establishing virtual against paper-based literature distribution and of prohibiting access of whatever literary text to either medium it can be published in.

However, that doesn’t mean that there is absolutely nothing to differentiate a literary text published on paper from one that is published online. Actually, there is something that makes them evidently distinct but its distinctness lies in a place that didn’t even exist when I had my first youthful attempts at pinning this problem down (either on paper or online) once and for all. This is both my excuse and proof as to why I wasn’t able to come up with something more substantive than a few forgotten lines on the subject in my initial investigation. The place I’m talking about is called (and has been called so only in recent years) the blog – and the vast electronic community that it comprises into a fantastically plural multi-media display. It is my strong belief that, if any at all, whatever content-oriented difference may be between the paper and the virtual literary media, blogs are the very place for me to find it.

Let me be quite explicit here: I’m not referring to differences that are fundamentally still formal such as the medium of publication or the less formal blog feature, which is not entirely content-based either, that allows you to publish whenever you feel like it, without the censorship-like mediation of any exterior magazine or publishing house authority, everything you like either as a unitary text (all at once) or in electronic installments (fragmented in several text pieces). This immediate and unmediated access to a medium of publication, huge progress towards an essentially virtual text quality as it may indeed be, still isn’t the fundamental content-oriented difference that I’ve been searching for so many years now. Despite all this, my difference is with the blogs, this fairly recent virtual innovation, but, as I’ve expected myself, not in the blogs themselves. In other words, what I’m looking for isn’t to be found in this specialized medium of virtual publication (or in all, for that matter) but rather in the way blogs can be used during the whole career of a professional writer. The distinction, and my difference, is thus modal, and not instrumental, as initially expected. It’s what you can do with a blog, and not what or how you post onto it, which makes the real difference between a fundamentally virtual text and an essentially paper-bound one.

Let me be more explicit here for such clarity is evidently important. Any professional writer who chooses to have a blog of his own undergoes a deep transformation in the potential quality and literary status of all his subsequent works. By having a blog at hand every time he has just finished writing something, the reality of having to wait until his latest creation gets published is no longer valid. The impossibility of immediate publication is thus changed into the possibility of instant posting. This temporal distortion, or, perhaps, abridgement, influences directly, mostly in a potential fashion, the literary status of all his literary texts. This is so because blogs, in the hands of professional writers, have the deeply impacting possibility of annulling an age-old distinction between works that are published during authors’ lives and those which are posthumous. The Gutenberg-age literature, and even that which had existed before it, in the manuscripts of Antiquity and the Middle Ages, has always had this classic distinction between an author’s works that were either published during his lifetime or after his death. I do believe that it’s only the possibility of having posthumous works that makes certain literary texts ultimately virtual or paper-bound. In the absence of blogs, the posthumous dimension to literature, which was so fundamentally mysterious and somewhat appealingly prohibitive, makes sure that literature never crosses the border between the two opposing media well into the virtual one. In their absence, literature is quite certain it will never go fundamentally virtual. But with the boom of blogs, even among professional writers, the possibility of still having posthumous works becomes highly improbable, and the possibility of having purely virtual works of literature is getting higher and higher.

What is, then, an essentially virtual piece of literature? To this simple question, I finally have this answer: that which has no practical reason (and only probably moral ones) of ever becoming posthumous.

# other texts by Patrick Călinescu the on the same subject can be read on EgoPHobia’s blog

Is There Such a Thing as Purely Virtual Literature?
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