The portion of the blogosphere devoted to digital/new media writing and e-publishing is filled with concerns, despairing, and a truckload of theories about how this emerging (emerged?) literary genre is to be organized, recognized, distributed, and brought into the canon of literature.
The importance of creating/accepting a canon for any given genre has been discussed much, as has the difficulty of establishing a central depository for works that often have no physical form. The technology is evolving quickly – works that are considered part of the canon are often just old enough that modern machines can’t run the files, like a collection of the world’s greatest films on Beta tapes.
Concerns have also flown about who exactly is to do this deciding. In the past, we (humans in general) have left canon-building to the scholars. Not even film or novels, so closely tied as they are to box office numbers and bestseller lists, derive their canons from public opinion. Blade Runner was a box office flop, and The Da Vinci Code has now been read by everyone on the planet. Merit is not tied to profit.
But Web 2.0 has a different culture, a leveling culture for those who participate in it. You don’t have to have a string of letters after your name to promote good work anymore, to recognize it, to review it, to consult with peers.
The Electronic Literature Directory is a depository for e-lit that takes the idea of a peer-reviewed canon, and brings it forward into this 2.0 generation. The interface is sleek, with little flash and dazzle to A) take away from the creative works in the collection, or B) distract from the purpose of the site.
The works that are listed in the directory are not limited to those that a committee – or a librarian – decides have merit. Membership to the site is open to any and all interested parties, and those parties can create entries for works directly on the site. No making requests of the keepers of the collection. Also, no whining about what is and isn’t included.
Previously, the best we could do to find digital work was to scroll through lists, follow blogs, hope for recommendations from a dozen different sources, or rely on tagging systems based on a set of terminology that has not yet solidified in the digital literature field. I know I for one have spent hours browsing through e-lit pieces, to find very few relevant to the topic or area I’m interested in.
The method for finding works streamlines that hunt-and-peck method. Yes, there is a search engine. But the key item is the tag cloud – now so ubiquitous because of its usefulness on blogs and websites – that is really the dominant visual of the home page. Users can zero in on the key words, generally genre-indicators. For more refinement, users can conduct a search on a combination of tags.
The goal of the site – the scholarly pursuit side of it – is to have each posted work reviewed by an ELD editor (these editors are chosen by the ELO organizing group from scholars and artists in the field), as well as a system of peer-to-peer network reviews. This is not to be an Ebert-type thumbs-up or -down sort of critical review, but more a brief analysis of what the reader/user will find when they enter into the work.
Members are free to offer their own reviews and comments on the same page. This system of reviews, utilizing both scholarly input and that of a general public, is not entirely new – after all, Amazon uses Publishers Weekly reviews as well as customer reviews. It’s purpose here, however, is to generate discussion on the work in question, and to establish a groundwork for an e-lit canon.
This review system is something that has been pushed and discussed much in just the past couple of weeks (here, here, here, and yeah, here), and here it is, live and in the beta. ELD’s system might not incorporate the hierarchy that has been discussed, but it does have an advantage in the simplicity of the peer-to-peer network. Like much of the Web, it places all members on a level-playing field – something of a fresh breeze when value is often dictated by editors or accountants.
Overall, from my standpoint as a new media writer (you see how fluid our terminology still is? Geez), from my standpoint as a new media scholar, and from my standpoint as a member and potential reviewer of the site, I think this is a great foundation for success. It will build, and it will by necessity become more complex, and will evolve as the genre evolves. In five years, something may prove even more useful than the tag cloud, much as search engines replaced card catalogues. At the moment, this interface gives the best potential for the various paths e-lit may take.
My one concern about the ELD – about any collection of e-lit, really – is that they are not libraries. To keep with the library analogy, the ELD is a card catalogue. It contains information about the works, and points to their locations, but it does not collect and preserve them in any real sense.
Rather, they link to the works on outside networks, on the internet. What happens when the artist/writer moves to another institution and loses their server space? What happens when the creators of these pieces pass on, and their domains revert back to the public? How will these works of art, works of literature, be preserved?
Until we work out a solution to this, e-lit will remain an evanescent art. The poetry of Virgil and Homer could not be passed on to future generations (and okay, arguably, what was passed down wasn’t actually the poetry of Virgil and Homer…but academic arguments aside) until it could be fixed to paper and preserved. For every passage in Homer and every quotation from Aristotle, there are thousands – millions – of works that are lost to us.
The problem with e-lit at the moment is that it is ALL impermanent, not just some of it. ALL of it.
And I’ve gotten off-track. Anyway. Visit the ELD. Sign up. Become a member, post your favorite works, review them. Build e-lit to the point we can get some funding for an E-Library of Congress or something.