Power, irony, & enforced amnesia at ELO

John Vincler replies to Mark Bernstein's concerns about the Electronic Literature Directory (ELD), a project of the Electronic Literature Organization.

Vincler's post reveals some of the what's going on behind the curtain in the production of the ELD. At the moment, questions of what should and should not be included in the ELD are front and center.

What I find most interesting is that authors may not submit descriptions of their own works for inclusion in the ELD. Obviously, one wants to avoid the use of the ELD as a vehicle for self-promotion. But electronic literature is a small and vulnerable field. Unlike print, there are not legions of creators of electronic literature; the universal slush pile of electronic literature is not, in fact, that large. An editor or a team of editors could easily be assembled to cull entries that are merely self-promotional or that point to works that otherwise don't fit. Lifting the restriction would not be costly, and the potential benefits are substantial.

Creators of electronic literature are frequently its first and best critical audience. A creator may also be a work's only audience, at least for a time; this should not be a de facto cause for exclusion from the ELD. Most seriously, the restriction on authors adding their own works to the ELD excludes the viewpoints of the very people who are best positioned to comment meaningfully on the historical and technological significance of this work. Without entries by authors, we lose vitally important critical perspectives, new and different ways to understand and appreciate electronic literature.

Apparently Bernstein is not allowed to contribute entries for Eastgate titles, although Vincler does invite him to write entries for works not published by Eastgate. Would you ask Jonathan Galassi to recommend a good book that hasn't been published by FSG? Any sane publisher would hand you a catalogue with a clear suggestion of where you should stick it -- and rightly so. No one -- certainly not Bernstein, and likely not Galassi, either -- is in publishing for the money. Publishers publish what they love. Asking publishers to direct critical attention to works they've not published while requiring them exclude their own cherished titles is rather like asking a parent to adopt someone else's child while publicly rejecting their own. Kudos to Bernstein for refusing to maim his authors in this way; we should all have such publishers, protectors, and friends.

The ELD once existed as something else, a directory of electronic literary works with much broader inclusion criteria. Authors could add their own material; so could publishers. Eastgate did invest time and labor in drawing up entries for this database; this was one project I managed while working at Eastgate in 1999-2000. But these entries are not part of the ELD, so that labor and time have been lost, as have the entries themselves. [*] According to the ELD's (evolving?) inclusion criteria, these works will not be repopulated into the ELD. Rather, "fans" of these works must be willing to write wholly new entries. Thus, without a fresh infusion of interest in these works, some of which are more than two decades old, they will not be included in the ELD, despite their historical and technological significance. Which is to say that they will fall into a memory hole that ELO is deliberately creating, despite its protestations of being a force for -- among other things -- the preservation of electronic literature.

Many hard truths here: Not everything is preserved. Not even traces of everything are preserved. Some things that are worth preserving may not, in fact, be preserved. Even limited mechanisms of preservation -- the ELD, in this case -- may be faulty. They are always, always shot through with power. Here, the power to keep these works in historical consciousness, in some form, has been wrested from the very people -- the authors, publishers, and even this former editor -- who would be most eager and willing to help with the task.

[*] In a comment to this post, as well as in a more detailed entry on his own blog, Vincler provided an important clarification: ""We are mining the ELD1.0 for entries and editors are adapting and improving these [...] The ELD version 1.0 content has been preserved on a spreadsheet, it also remains accessible via the Wayback Machine." While useful, this clarification does not explicitly address the fate of any specific entries. For me, at least, the story's still evolving. Stay tuned.