Call Me E-Mail: The Novel Unfolds Digitally

By ADAM BAER [NYTimes, April 15, 2004]

A CORPORATE e-mail message goes astray. Two young strangers flirt in cyberspace. They agree to meet. An assault ensues. And a mystery built on digital clues is born.

It's not a plot that breaks new ground. But then, the earnest new "novel" that it fuels, "Intimacies," by Eric Brown, is drawing notice more for its style than for its content.

A former English professor who teaches executives how to write, Mr. Brown, 59, calls "Intimacies" a digital epistolary novel, or DEN, terms that he has trademarked. The plot of "Intimacies" is based on "Pamela," the 18th-century work by Samuel Richardson that is one of Western literature's first epistolary novels. It is the format of Mr. Brown's work rather than its story that makes it postmodern: it is meant to be read with the aid of a software interface designed by Billy McQuown, an employee at Mr. Brown's consulting firm, Communication Associates.

The story unfolds through e-mail messages, instant-message conversations and Web sites, all within a window generated by the DEN software; the program can be downloaded free from Mr. Brown's Web site,

But more intriguing than "Intimacies" itself is Mr. Brown's plan to begin selling a version of the software that he used to write it, one that will help fans of the form execute their own digital epistolary novels.

Of course, writers have long experimented with e-mail narratives; some say that by now it is almost impossible to avoid, given the prevalence of e-mail communication.

"E-mail fictions have been going for at least a decade - it's a pretty primal urge," said Rob Wittig, 48, a writer who began posting fictional messages on electronic bulletin boards in the early 1980's. In 1999 Mr. Wittig created "Friday's Big Meeting" (, a story set in a virtual chatroom, as well as "Blue Company 2002" (, arguably the first epistolary e-mail narrative to be written and published for paying e-mail subscribers in real time.

Other examples of what Mr. Wittig called message fictions have ranged in style from "Online Caroline" (, a multimedia story that lets users interact with a fictional character by means of timed e-mail messages, her Webcam and her Web site, and SMS cellphone text-messaging and pager-message shorts. Then there is "The Case of the Molndal Murder," a September 2003 project at the Molndal Museum in Sweden, where people using Bluetooth-equipped hand-helds followed a map while their devices received short movies and chunks of text that told a mystery story.

Mr. Wittig, whose current project is a fictional blog,, said he believed that Mr. Brown's interface for "Intimacies'' and the composition software he plans to market were the first of their kind. The interface, for PC's only, mimics e-mail and instant-messaging programs; the reader opens and reads each character's messages in sequence. A second version due this month will deliver the messages at timed intervals, Mr. Brown said, so that reading them will more closely resemble the experience of receiving e-mail and instant messages.

With the current version of the program, DEN 1.2, the screen is divided into four windows: one for e-mail, one for instant messages, an imitation Web browser and an imitation pager screen. At the top of the main window are tabs that read: "Week One," "Week Two" and so on. Below that menu, in the program's e-mail window, is a list of messages that the reader clicks through in chronological order (though it is possible to backtrack or jump ahead). Sometimes there are other links that summon transcripts of instant-message exchanges, Web pages, or pager messages in the program's other windows.

The composition software that Mr. Brown plans to market, DEN WriterWare, which is expected to cost about $150, resembles the reading application and works much as popular screenwriting programs do. The user creates a cast of characters, then writes the story in e-mail or instant-message installments that can be saved individually. To create ancillary story aids, writers can incorporate virtual snapshots of screen images that are created with a small toolbar or taken from real Web sites. The saved messages can be sorted by sender, time or subject, allowing writers to change the sequence of a story or to write one character's side of the correspondence at a time, a feature that would allow children to write stories together.

Mr. Brown said he was inspired to create "Intimacies" after watching young people use e-mail and instant messaging.

"My younger employees say they don't have time to read books and instead focus on e-mail and Web writing," he said. "There's this huge group of readers in our office - a communications company! - and they're reading snips and pieces. It got me thinking: Why not write stories in this form and in the process give readers a way to write their own?"

The response from young readers who visit Web sites like, a satirical online newspaper where Mr. Brown advertises, suggests that the form has struck a chord. "I'm not much into staring at a computer screen for any longer than is strictly necessary, since I work in front of one all day, everyday, like most people," said Roberta Gray, a 26-year-old editor at The Sunday Tribune in Dublin. "But I really found 'Intimacies' quite addictive, and ended up reading the whole thing more or less in one sitting."

Alex Michas, the 25-year-old director of business development at Spring Street Networks, a New York Internet personals company, said he found Mr. Brown's concept to be in tune with the times.

"There's a very different rhythm to e-mail and chat - it lets our users reveal a lot about themselves very quickly - and this form of storytelling is similar in that regard," he said. "There aren't too many books that have successfully captured how these interchanges really work."

Although they have attracted a lot of attention, digital epistolary and message fiction like "Intimacies" are not the only electronic forms of literature vying for attention on the Web. A small community of so-called hypertext writers, many of them affiliated with academia, have been publishing more experimental work in online journals like The Iowa Review Web ( and BeeHive ( for more than a decade. Such writing includes texts with animation and works created by using rules and random processes to generate something different for each reader.

Thom Swiss, editor of The Iowa Review Web and a professor of English at the University of Iowa who focuses on those forms of hypertext, said that to him Mr. Brown's creation seemed mechanical. "While inventive if buggy, I'm not sure how useful it is," he said. "At this stage of its development, it's more of a game and less literature - and not because of the pulp story but because the formal elements of composing the piece are given to you: you just fill in the content."

Still, Mr. Brown's digital novel has drawn praise from some scholars interested in new media, especially those who hope to take e-literature mainstream.

Noah Wardrip-Fruin, a 31-year-old traveling scholar at Brown University and visiting researcher at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said texts that take the form of fictional digital artifacts like e-mail or blogs held promise for a generation that grew up with computers. "I read more on the screen than I do on paper," he said, "and I'm pleased to see people take imaginative writing and put it into the spaces where we do our living."

Mr. Wardrip-Fruin compared "Intimacies" to an epistolary story by one of his students that consisted of e-mail messages with attached photos and diary entries and that was published through a Yahoo e-mail account. He said that such projects, as well as some narrative and life-simulation video games, qualified as literature worthy of attention.

"These are forms of e-writing as surely as experimental hypertext poetry," he said. "We just have to understand that like traditional literature, e-literature has a range of styles, including popular ones."

What will take electronic literature to the next level, Mr. Wardrip-Fruin suggested, are multimedia projects involving so many inventive procedures that they cannot be reproduced or mimicked on paper. "Think of the textual analogue to video games," he said. "You can't really capture the way a video game works by printing it out; that's what will have to happen with electronic literature for it to become popular."

"Intimacies" has achieved a level of popularity: in the four months it has been available online, Mr. Brown said, about 5,000 people - over 10 percent of the visitors to his Web site - have downloaded it, and youth-oriented Web sites like have included links to it.

His next step, he said, will be to use e-stories in communications training for executives and to teach writing to schoolchildren who may enjoy computers more than they like reading. He said he was also working on customizing the third version of his software for hand-held organizers and cellphones in the hope of reinvigorating the concept of the e-book.

"The problem with e-books has always been that they use traditional text and layout," Mr. Brown said.

With "Intimacies," the interface had to be developed before the narrative could unfold. "We made it especially to look like the place where people get their most interesting and vital forms of information today," he said. "How else is a modern writer supposed to get involved in his readers' lives?"

this site holds hyper(text)fiction thoughts, links, and bits from noah wardrip-fruin.

what is hypertext? well, the term comes from ted nelson:

"let me introduce the word 'hypertext'* to mean a body of written or pictorial material interconnected in such a complex way that it could not conveniently be presented or represented on paper. (* the sense of 'hyper-' used here connotes extension and generality; cf. 'hyperspace.')"
- ted nelson, 1965

"'hypertext' means forms of writing which branch or perform on request; they are best presented on computer display screen."
- ted nelson, 1970

hypertext is not just nodes and links - as in the web - that's a subset of hypertext that nelson (1970) named "discrete" or "chunk-style" hypertext. our concerns here are broader, including things others might discuss as installation art or computer games.

fiction - undefinable - includes here what others might call poetry or performance.