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Word Circuits




Stalking the Wild Hypertext:
The Electronic Literature Directory

By Robert Kendall

(also in SIGWEB Newsletter, Vol. 9, No. 1, Feb. 2000; revised May 2001)

Somewhere at the bottom of the literary totem pole--below author, editor, publisher, and even critic--is the cataloger. The work of this lowly laborer may not be glamorous, but without it how difficult it would be to fully gauge and appreciate the richness of our literature. My own tentative activities as a literary cataloger began in the early '90s, when I compiled a Paradox database of interactive poetry and fiction in an effort to get a handle on this emerging form. I kept track of all the examples of the genre I was able to ferret out, as well as the tantalizing references to and rumors of other work that I was unable to track down. My biggest problem was trying to verify that many of the works actually belonged in my database. It was either very difficult or impossible to get copies of many of these early pieces. Sometimes just confirming their existence was a challenge, and all too many proved, upon further investigation, to be nothing more than computer games.

How times had changed when in 1997 I renewed my cataloging endeavors to create the Word Circuits Directory of hypertext and cybertext authors and publishers. Now the problem was not finding the work but keeping up with it. The authors section of the Directory quickly grew to include annotated entries for the work of more than 50 poets and fiction writers. While I managed to catalog a significant proportion of what was available, it eventually became apparent that a single editor--or even a group of editors--manually compiling each entry would soon become overwhelmed by the project. I began to understand why Michael Shumate had abandoned his similarly ambitious Hyperizons directory of hypertext fiction.

I was determined to persevere because I strongly felt the need for a comprehensive, up-to-date guide to this work. Many people, including me, had come to depend upon the Word Circuits Directory. It seemed clear that the only way to allow it to maintain its momentum and continue to expand at the desired rate would be to tap the energy of the people most motivated to see it kept up to date--the authors and publishers themselves. This energy was evidenced by the frequent e-mail I received from authors asking me to add their work. I began working with database programmer Nick Traenkner of Kent Infoworks to turn the Word Circuits Directory into a live database in which authors and publishers could create and maintain their own entries.

Soon after this, in the fall of 1999, the Electronic Literature Organization was founded by hypertext fiction writer Scott Rettberg. With a mission to help nourish literature on the Web and in other electronic media, the ELO has a particular interest in hypertext and other techniques that truly exploit the digital environment. One immediate goal of the fledgling organization was to build a database of electronic authors and publishers on its Web site. One of my goals was to find additional resources for the development of my directory. Sensing a mutually beneficial relationship, ELO hired Nick and me to spearhead its directory project, and I agreed to port the contents of the Word Circuits Directory into it. The ELO's Electronic Literature Directory now takes up where the Word Circuits Directory left off.

This new directory has a small but skilled and dedicated staff behind it. It is growing within the context of ELO's other activities, which increases its visibility and usefulness. The ELO Web site reports relevant news items, sponsors biweekly chat sessions with electronic authors, and maintains a mailing list, among other functions. The organization has established one of the most significant prizes available to literary authors--the $10,000 Electronic Literature Awards for poetry and fiction. It also sponsors symposia and is planning to develop educational outreach ventures and a program to make authoring tools more accessible and affordable to writers. The ELO has a modest but growing budget and the support of a board of directors that includes Robert Coover, Mark Bernstein, Stuart Moulthrop, and William Wadsworth (Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets).

At the time of this writing, the Electronic Literature Directory has descriptive listings for over 825 works, 475 authors, and 100 publishers. It includes only poetry, fiction, drama, and literary nonfiction that make use of electronic techniques or enhancements such as hypertext or multimedia. Listed authors have their own accounts, enabling them to log in to add entries for new works and keep their older entries up to date. Publishers also have accounts that let them create and maintain listings for the authors and works they publish. Anyone who writes or publishes work suitable for the Directory can contact us at directory@eliterature.org to obtain an account.

The Directory accommodates many technical details about individual works, as well as biographical information. Users of the Directory can search by title or author, browse alphabetically, or browse by category. For example, they can choose to view only listings for hypertext fiction or for poetry that uses animated text.

More-complex selection and filtering options will be available in the future. In fact, our criteria for what to include in the Directory have been strongly influenced by our plans to implement these advanced filtering capabilities at a later stage of development. Any directory must define its boundaries, but we found the lines were not always easy to draw. Advanced filtering will let us avoid imposing one set of standards for inclusion, instead letting individual viewers determine them. Should recorded readings be counted as electronic literature? Does nonfiction belong in a directory of literature? How about genre fiction? Should we include only published work or also unpublished works-in-progress? Should we exclude self-published work? Should we allow self-published work but only if it is by authors who have also published with "legitimate" publishers? Users will be able to choose to include or exclude any of these categories of work when they view listings.

Usually directory editors must decide between a comprehensive and objective compendium or a more selective presentation with subjective critical commentary. Being all-inclusive and completely even-handed certainly has its benefits, but sometimes a selective offering with critical appraisals can be more useful for anyone simply looking for something good to read. We hope to have our cake and eat it too by supplementing our core catalog and its purely factual descriptions with critical recommendations by different commentators. We will provide some of these critical evaluations ourselves, while others will come from invited critics. We also plan to let any site visitors add their own recommendations.

When the support for recommendations has been implemented, Directory users will not only be able to see who has recommended any particular work and to read those recommendations, they will also be able to view a listing of everything recommended by any selected critic. Thus users can have an experience similar to exploring the "favorite links" lists at a variety of Web sites, yet they won't have to travel all over the Web to find them. Our approach will also allow direct comparison of different critical appraisals. It will combine the multivocality that is the Web's strength with the convenience of a centralized location.

We plan to send out periodic mailing list announcements of interesting new work as it is added to the Directory. In keeping with our democratic philosophy, we hope eventually to supplement this with an e-mail notification system that will tell subscribers when their favorite authors have new work available. We hope also to automatically notify authors and publishers when broken links occur in their listings.

I would now like to make a direct plea to authors and publishers to support our project. The accuracy of the database will depend largely upon your participation. You will also be the biggest beneficiaries of the project's success, however, which should bring increased exposure for your work and better recognition of any unique elements within it.

copyright 2000-2001 Robert Kendall



Contact site director Robert Kendall at kendall@wordcircuits.com.
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