Monday, October 30, 2006


Canon fodder

At last week's Autostart festival, celebrating the release of Volume 1 of the Electronic Literature Organization's annual digital anthology, the conversation turned occasionally to the notion of quality as it might apply to electronic writing. Just what constitutes quality in electronic writing? Is it necessary that the text the medium presents be of high quality? And does that mean that the measure of a successful electronic piece is at least in part how well it stands up to the quality of mainstream (or counter-mainstream) print writing? What about the digital presentation? What makes one presentation "better" than another? Who gets to decide?

The very fact that there is an Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1 certainly implies that its editors, having made editorial choices, believe that there is a standard of quality that can be applied to electronic writing. The "e-blurb" blog entry says that the collection represents a "broad overview of the field of electronic literature." But there is no discussion (at least that I can find) concerning why the editors included any particular work.

This is important. The canon is defined by who makes it into the anthologies. In time e-writing will become a field for conservative pedagogy, the locus of PhD dissertations, and knowledge of it the currency of a future body of scholars. And about what and about whom the, by then, petty arguments rage will be determined by choices made now. Shouldn't there be really good reasons motivating those choices, so that only the aristocratic make it in and that the rabble be left behind?

Jim -- I can say that our basic criterion was "literary quality," which probably meant different things to each of us. We also agreed that there would need to be consensus. We were choosing from a limited universe of work. While we did encourage some people to submit, we were working with a pool of submissions. The other criterion was that we would need to be able to present the work on both the web and on CD-ROM. In composing the collection, we were also thinking about trying to represent multiple modalities of electronic writing, and to achieve a balance among several different identifiable types of electronic writing. I'd imagine that future volumes of the collection, edited by others, will have much different blends of types of work. Ideally, I'd also hope that the collection is distributed widely enough that it'll "flush out" some interesting work from corners of the world unknown to the editors of this collection, and perhaps inspire people to create new electronic writing who haven't yet experimented in the many available new forms.
Another quick note -- I think that the keywords index of the site also offers some clues as to our reasoning in selecting what's there. Now I'm wishing we taped the conversations that Nick, Steph and I had in Nick's apartment as we went through all the submissions one by one.
Jim, it's also worth noting that we're at a very different stage of canon-formation, if indeed that's what it is, when it comes to e-lit and new media.

In the sort of canon represented by the Norton Anthology or Ph.D. exam list, the question is how to narrow down tens of thousands of works, published and read widely for centuries, taught and discussed in thousands of universities around the world, to a core that everyone should know about and be able to use as a standard.

Personally, I do not object to this sort of canon, as long as it is used to think deeply about new and alternative work and not as an excuse to avoid such work.

But what we've tried to do with the Collection is a broadening, not a narrowing to a core. We wanted to bring a variety of selections to readers, teachers, students, and scholars, improving access to them and showing that there is a context, or many contexts, in which they exist. So, for one thing, we sought quality work illustrating a variety of practices and aesthetics; for another, we planned a serial rather than a single definitive volume.
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