Emerson On Elit

A dispute recently broke out over Lori Emerson’s MLA panel abstract for Reading And Writing Interfaces: E-Literature’s Past & Present. Mark Bernstein responded to Emerson calling Loss Pequeño Glazier’s Digital Poetics (2001) the “first book on electronic literature:”

This overlooks Jay David Bolter’s Writing Machines, George P. Landow’s Hypertext, Michael Joyce’s Of Two Minds, Silvio Gaggi’s From Text To Hypertext, Jane Yellowlees Douglas’s The End of Books, and I shudder to think what I’m forgetting.

Emerson’s rebuttal:

Of course books on computer-mediated literary works – especially those on hypertext – existed before Loss Glazier’s Digital Poetics. However, what did not exist until the founding of the Electronic Literature Organization in 1999 (thanks to Scott Rettberg, Robert Coover, and Jeff Ballowe) is a name, a concept, even a brand with which a remarkably diverse range of digital writing practices could identify: electronic literature. Moreover, it’s not simply that writers had something by which to bind them together and identify with but it’s also that increasingly e-literature became known as something of a coherent field with a wide, yet still bounded spectrum of means by which critics, teachers, students, scholars could talk about their work. In other words, e-literature became something much more than just hypertext, as valuable as that particular mode of writing may be.

Emerson is probably right that the branding of the “electronic literature” field widened the scope from the perceived limitation of “hypertext” and made it more attractive to digital poets, animators, and game developers.

However, I don’t believe anyone would argue that hypertext literature doesn’t at least fall under the umbrella of “electronic literature” even if she doesn’t believe it serves as a synonym. To defend that Digital Poetics—as influential as it was—as the first book on electronic literature implies that either (1) hypertext literature isn’t eLit or (2) eLit didn’t exist before we bequeathed it with that particular name and brand.

In response to this criticism, Emerson added some comments on institutionalization:

That said, I do think there’s a lively discussion to be had about the potential drawbacks to institutionalization – about how e-literature is in in the unusual position of coming into being at the exact moment that critics, all of whom are contemporaneous to the writers themselves, are attempting to define and delineate the field. There must be something to the fact that we, critics, may be over-determining the field at the same time as we’re helping to support and give shape to it.

A lively discussion indeed; not only does this institutionalization make the field more intensely political and personal than it already was, it shapes the scope of research and creative endeavors to fit within this political framework. In this environment we, as a community, must be vigilant in making sure that history is recorded correctly and that politics don’t overshadow the work.