Wesley Stace last night at the Spitfire.
  • Wesley Stace last night at the Spitfire.

The thing you take for granted as a reader is that you control the speed at which you consume the words. That's often one of the very first assumptions that electronic literature explodes. Last night at Ada's Technical Books, a handful of authors who write electronic literature demonstrated some of their recent works in an AWP after party. Some of the texts on display on the large screen in Ada's reading room were experimental: One work featured letters exploding, jittery around the screen in a jumble of motion and speed. Was that the word "airstrike" there? Those letters, did they spell "traffic" or "Petraeus" or "powers" for a second before they turned into a streak of abstract lines? The act of reading and the act of comprehension, the experiment seemed to prove, were two completely different things. (In the Q&A after the presentation, it was revealed that the words came from a news story about America's involvement in Afghanistan.) One app displayed a sky full of stars. Each of the stars was assigned a word; every time you'd draw a constellation in the sky with your finger, you'd be composing a new poem. You could also read the stars like a horoscope, unveiling the patterns an author hid inside them.

The most interesting demonstration, from Samantha Gordon, was of a few chapters of a novella/app called "Pry." Text was interspersed with video clips, photography, and sound to tell a story from the perspective of an unreliable, obsessed main character. The most fascinating chapter of "Pry" featured a single paragraph of text that stretched into an entire monologue. But this wasn't your traditional scroll of text: Instead, the paragraph expanded from the inside; new lines unfolded from the center of the text, adding a middle to the paragraph that wasn't there before. This is the promise of electronic literature: If you want to, you can conceal an entire damn novel inside a five-line paragraph, and use the unfolding of the text to heighten and elaborate the story. Other demonstrations showed text unfolding on the screen like handwriting, bringing an intimacy to the writing that mere print could never get across. The problem with electronic literature is that you have to be good at two very different fields—programming and writing—to succeed at it. But the promise of electronic literature is too great to ignore.

In more traditional events, The Rumpus packed a crowd into the reading room in the back of Spitfire last night, too. It was everything you want out of a great reading. Monica Drake read from her excellent novel The Stud Book, Gina Frangello read from her novel A Life in Men, and Katie Crouch read a piece responding to thoughtless book reviews on Amazon and GoodReads, and to commenting culture in general. Crouch toyed with the idea that comments might be all the afterlife we get: "They will outlive you, these words."

The evening then went multidisciplinary in a big way with local comedian Derek Sheen, who ranted about antidepressants and impotence in a set that started out unfocused but ended with huge, thunderous laughs from the audience as he piled on the rancor. Headliner Wesley Stace (the novelist formerly known as the musician John Wesley Harding) read from his brand-new novel Wonderkid, about a rock band that tries to tap into the lucrative kids' rock market. Or, as Stace explained, "It's about what happens to people when they make a very bad compromise." (When older musicians suddenly start making albums for children, Stace said, that's "a move known among cynics as 'last chance for a Grammy.'") He performed two songs from the novel to close out the night—a meditation on getting older with a poppy chorus and a sweet sad song titled "The Bird and the Old Man" (because, as Stace explained, if you want to make music for kids, you just throw an animal in there somewhere.)

The AWP readings I attended last night were on two entirely opposite sides of a spectrum. And they were both absolutely wonderful. I'm excited to see the way people are pushing words forward into forms that never existed before and telling stories that couldn't have been told until now, but we as a species will never outgrow the simple pleasure of spending time in a room with people who really know how to put one word after the other, either.