History of the ELO

Scott Rettberg recently published a history of the Electronic Literature Organization, highlighting its successes and explaining its shifts in focus.

Interestingly, he views the founding of the ELO to be a reaction to the "Eastgate school" and to Eastgate's model of publishing. Rettberg wanted a better alternative to CD-ROMS for sale; he wanted "free, web-distributed hypertext literature." In his own notes in the wake of a 1999 conference, he writes that

More hypertexts need to be free. People like free stuff. In order to generate a popular following for the new literature, we need to work to make it more accessible to readers (I haven’t read any of the Eastgate hypertexts because I’ve been in graduate school. To my knowledge, they are not available at my university library. That is a problem).

Rettberg thinks that work should be free. More broadly, he wanted to change hypertext’s economic model. Eastgate's approach was based on the economic models of print, and while this might not have been the perfect approach, it did set the precedent for authors to get paid for electronic work just as they had with print work. Mark Bernstein was surely aware of the possibility that web distribution could change the economy of publishing. He also warned of the perils of patronage, the risk of returning control of art to the prince and the priest. For electronic literature, patronage is pretty much exactly what has happened.

Rettberg paints an enthusiastic vision of community building. There was a lot of money and they had fantastic parties, but eventually the literary world lost interest and the organization turned to the patronage of academe. In the process, they lost focus on the writers.

While in its first iteration the ELO may have been envisioned as an organization focused on writers and on popularizing e-lit, it was increasingly becoming an actor in shaping an academic field of practice: moving from something more like the Academy of American Poets to something more like the MLA, or perhaps on a more appropriate scale, the Association of Internet Researchers or Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts. This is not to say that ELO was abandoning a focus on bringing electronic literature to audiences and helping e-lit writers to build a community, just that the channels for doing that were increasingly embedded with an academic context.

This transition parallels the overall state of the field: most of the writing is now done as a theoretical demonstration by the scholars who study the writing. Little of today’s eLit is meant to be read by an audience beyond conference reviewers and exhibit curators.

The shift from literary to academic was not the ELO's fault, but it's indicative of a clear shift that has taken place: we're no longer focused on writing. We're focused on theory, and much of the writing is being produced to demonstrate it. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it is not inviting to groups outside of the academy, or successful in promoting eLit to a non-academic audience.

And why would the writers stick around? They're no longer getting paid for their work. There are certainly some very talented writers doing good work, but the proofs of concept dominate our discussions and attention.

It's easy to think of the ELO and Eastgate as two warring distribution models that can't reconcile how to provide authors with incentive to create, but surely there must be some middle ground in which the works can be easily distributed and studied, but can still provide authors incentives beyond a line on their CV. Free Web distribution has not provided us with the vast audiences some thought it would. The remaining question, as we see in eBook markets, is whether the price point is $0.99 or $9.99 or $19.95.