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The Electronic Literature Directory: Postproduction

[Editor's Note: The Electronic Literature Directory is a community-driven endeavor that seeks to identify and describe works of electronic literature that appear within the growing cosmos of digital media forms. Some works seem, at first blush, to identify themselves as literary, others only appear so after careful reading and consideration. The grand result is that the ELD itself is something of a microcosm of the larger macrocosm from which it is drawn--a sprawling and chaotic assemblage of voices writing about an equally sprawling and chaotic body of work. The editors try to guard ourselves against pushing a narrative by being transparent about our principles and always seeking to broaden our readership and our content. As a result, much of the chaos and sprawl of the ELD is intentional. However, this is the place where we, the editors, do step outside of our neutral aspirations to highlight a particular frame of reference, an historicizing narrative, or an intriguing trajectory. Rather than think of these invited interventions as definitive statements on Electronic Literature, we ask you to see them as shapes in the clouds or constellations in the night sky. We invite you to lay on the grass and gaze with us, for a moment, to ponder the patterns and consider their implications. --Davin Heckman]

In the Summer of 2007, I wrote up some ideas for collecting electronic literature in a white paper, "Toward a Semantic Literary Web: Setting a Direction for the Electronic Literature Directory" (http://eliterature.org/pad/slw.html). I want to bring those reflections up to date in light of what we have here, in the implementation that went live Jan 01, 2010.

Generally, the directory realizes the goal of interoperability - that is, an archive consistent with other networked collections (a bibliographical contribution), whose participants are in communication with one another and with international partners (a social and institutional contribution). The "featured article" segment - which I hadn't thought of including initially - is one place where our collaborators can bring their conceptions and concerns to the archive, ensuring that the literary vision expands and undergoes continual revision even as the Web environment itself changes.

The use of a wiki platform is a key development that distinguishes this directory from version 1.0 (which ran from 1998 to 2010 and is now itself a part of e-lit history, archived at
http://archive.eliterature.org/archive-it-wiki). Works from the old directory, many of them, are going to be ported. There's no practical or technological barrier to doing so but these previous archived works will need to be described, tagged, and (eventually) discussed so they can have a presence in the new directory. The discussions around individual works, collections, and conceptual writing on electronic literature, promise to make the directory a living archive, one that is created and maintained by many, not a few.

The wiki is a great way to bring collective literary knowledge into wider circulation and recruit a new generation of online readers. But the directory needs to be more than that: it can be also a way to enlist readers as writers and, in some cases, as authors whose work can be referenced (and so reinforced), but also questioned, clarified, and (if necessary) contradicted.

The desire to maintain a role for critical writing accounts for a small but crucial difference between the directory and other open access platforms: directory content differs from blogs and wikis in that each entry, once it is approved by a board of editors, is unchanging. That one place of fixity is essential if literary work is going to be conducted in an otherwise fluid environment. The role of literature, its look, its feel, have already changed to the point where many seasoned readers have been unable to locate the literary in new media . If there has not been a major born-digital narrative work or epic poem by now, there probably won't be. But narrativity and lyricism are not the only, or the most important, aspects of literary writing. As Steven Moore shows for example in The Novel: An Alternative History (Continuum 2010), story-telling was not always within the mainstream of the literary novel; it predominated only during a relatively brief period when the realist novel was on the rise (see Ian Watt). Before that, epistolary, dogmatic, gothic, and mostly episodic presentations were much more common than narrative continuities and sustained character creations. In other words, the "alternative" novel history looks a lot like electronic literature, as we move away (often) from aesthetic realism and comforting continuities - not least, the continuous sense of selfhood that story-telling supports but postproduction media tend to displace.

Those deviations from conventional narrative, to be recognized as literary, need to be named, and the names need to circulate in a Web 2.0 environment. The critical function of "tagging," though it may have seemed a minor element in my 2007 essay starts to look more central when one recognizes that collecting works of born digital writing means recognizing, and revising, "the imaginative qualities of actual things" (citing Gilbert Sorrentino, who reclaimed the phrase from William Carlos Williams). The application of tags to the study of electronic literature has generated quite a bit of critical discussion about works that previously had been viewed through narrower perspectives.

This opening of perspective is fundamental, I think, and not just the addition of yet another "new" perspective on yet another cultural aspect of received literature. Scholars are now able to comb through a large number of works that have been tagged with user-generated metadata, allowing us to evaluate (and revalue) literary designations like "Gothic," "Found Poetry," or "Travel Literature." In the past, such critical designations had been the purview of individual scholars or journal editors. In the Electronic Literature Directory (ELD), these minute acts of criticism are carried forward by users and are not limited to the established range of critical concepts - that is, those established relatively recently, with the rise of the novel and lyric poetry. Concepts from earlier, pre-print periods may well re-circulate in post-print, electronic environments. The ELD offers a way to recognize that longer literary tradition in multiple media.

Another feature I had not anticipated in my 2007 essay, is the inclusion in the present ELD of a number of entries on "antecedents," works which are not "born digital" but which gain new relevance when viewed through the framework of the directory. The idea of identifying print antecedents can be useful for reclaiming alternative literary histories that have been repressed, not by print itself, but by the selection of one kind of writing (narrative, continuous) whose predominance is reinforced by programs in Creative Writing and multi-cultural studies that are themselves relatively recent and surely not definitive.

From the start, the directory was designed to be inclusive. We recognized that a critical vocabulary, to be relevant, needed to change with each new literary genre created for each new technological platform. While accepting the fluidity of our object, however, we needed to ensure that the discourse around a work was itself stable enough to record the changes. For literary knowledge to develop, judgments need to be made, but (equally important) these judgments need to be questionable, and questioned. Hence our crucial departure from the wiki model, where it is not immediately evident to readers how an entry has come to its present form, after frequent revision by many contributors. The ELD now has many contributors and we are working on having more - but the numbers alone won't demonstrate much unless each contributor has a stake in what is written, and that means fixing entries once they are approved by the board. Without that fixity (and citability), literature and its active criticism won't work.

Another thing I underestimated, when I started on this project in 2007, was the extensive transformation of "peer review" that would be needed, for authors to be recognized not only among specialists but among anyone capable of communicating a literary sensibility. Among the entries featured even in these first few months of the directory's implementation, one will find entries written by seasoned scholars and graduate students seeking entry into emerging academic programs with an emphasis on digital, rather than print, resources. But we also have several entries written, for example, by undergraduates who were introduced to electronic literature by members of our editorial team. These undergrads have friends and they all talk, text, blog and twitter. Some of them are bound to know about, or will want to discover, born-digital work worth writing about - at length and over many years.

Like the networked literature collected here, peer review itself is becoming something networked. Accreditation for career purposes, though necessary, is not the end of online, peer to peer review, but its beginning. Every reading of a new work presented in the directory is itself a candidate for further review, and that review can be made public along with the entry approved by the ELO editorial board. The board uses its authority not to determine a canon but precisely to ensure that the included works and their descriptions can be contested. The terms of evaluation, embodied in tag sets, in time will create a profile of the field, with some tags becoming more frequent and recognizable to readers and others falling out through disuse. By tracking the use of tags, I don't expect to find familiar narratives of generic development, comparable to "the rise of the novel" (Ian Watt), "the anxiety of influence" (Harold Bloom), or even one of my all time end time stories, the disappearance of "grand narratives" (Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard). Descriptions will be elaborated as new readers encounter a work; new readings will be meaningful because readers are free to depart from prior established readings. That process, of rereading and a global revision, is a literary practice the directory can help support.

No doubt, before long there will be still more elements unanticipated in my own writing on the directory. That, too, is to be expected when scholarship moves away from research to an involvement in invention.