For a graduate student in an English Ph.D. program, one of the big milestones on the road to the dissertation is the Oral Exam. In my case this involves five professors, a list of 60–80 books, and two hours in a (rhetorically) smoke-filled room. Since I’m working on contemporary literature and new media, one of the challenges I have to deal with is how to address novels, films, television shows, video games and more as part of the same “list.” How does one put these things together? How can a video game be read as a text alongside Gravity’s Rainbow or Brave New World?
One way to approach this question is to include the work of literary and cultural critics who are already looking at new and traditional media side by side. Following that line, I try to keep up with the academic blog Grand Text Auto, which covers “computer narrative, games, poetry and art.” One of its contributors, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, is working on a book about digital fictions and computer games that looks perfect for my Orals list—and he’s publishing it, chapter by chapter, on Grand Text Auto for blog-based peer review. It will come out next year with MIT Press, but for now, it’s a work in progress.
All fine so far—I could list it as “forthcoming” and direct my professors to the link. But what happens when I start commenting on this book as I read it? What are we to do with the knowledge that this “text” will most likely change between now and next year? Does this item on my Orals list signify a draft of the book, the blog and its comments, or the experience of reading and writing into the MS myself (including, perhaps, responses from the author)?
I find the dilemma particularly interesting because it touches on a central conflict in humanities scholarship. Are we passive observers of the literary scene or active participants in it? It’s a rare academic critic who thinks of calling up a poet to ask her what she meant in a particular line, but that’s exactly the kind of connection that our hyper-conscious, digitally mediated world offers up.
P.S. After all of this hand-wringing, it’s obvious I’m not going to have time to read Noah’s book before I take my exam, so it’s off the list. But I can’t wait to dig in next month!