A work of “artifact literature” is any creative writing that takes the form of non-creative writing. It is a story in the clothes of a non-story. An essay in the form of an application for divorce. It’s a novel told only in recommendation letters. It is a poem as a recipe.
In 2013, I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. It was an immersive, realistic-yet-zany world full of beautiful characters. Every chapter was different, and like its own little story. As I read through it, I thought, “This book is amazing.”
And then something happened. Chapter 12 happened. Chapter 12, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” happened to me. It’s still happening to me. I know exuberant over-statements run rampant in the literary world, but I’m not lying when I say I just got chills pasting in that hyperlink. This chapter is written and displayed/formatted in the shape of a powerpoint presentation. And it’s funny, yes, but it’s also deeply moving. I had never read something that did what this story does.
So then I started looking for more like “Great Rock & Roll Pauses”. Every time I found one, I added it to a list. In 2014, my partner and I started calling the works in this list, “Artifact Lit” because we couldn’t find a term for what this stuff was, and we were supposed to teach a workshop about it. My college textbooks suggested “metafiction” and “pastiche”, and literary magazines offered, “experimental” or “hybrid”, but it wasn’t specific enough. (Last summer I was at a CNF conference where I first heard the term “hermit crab essay” which is exactly what I mean by Artifact Lit. But…I’ve been calling this Artifact Lit now for 6 years and I’m not changing my ways!)