The history of the term “electronic literature”

Names can shape fields. In the proposal for a panel to be held at the MLA this week, Lori Emerson argued that the introduction of the term “electronic literature” by the founding of the Electronic Literature Organization in 1999, in fact founded the field by creating “a name, a concept, even a brand with which a remarkably diverse range of digital writing practices could identity: electronic literature,” as Lori explains in a blog post. Seen in this perspective, the first book on electronic literature is Loss Glazier’s Digital Poetics in 2001. This renders invisible the very rich theory and practice of electronic literature before 2001 (as Mark Bernstein has pointed out), which I dislike, but Lori is correct in that a name that a field agrees upon is important in terms of establishing a creative and scholarly field.

The discussion did lead me to wonder when the term electronic literature first became common. Did the ELO really invent it? Fortunately we live in an age where this sort of question can easily be answered, at least partially, so I asked Google.

Google has digitised around 4% of all books ever published (as described by the Culturomics research team in Michel et.al. 2011), and Google’s Ngram viewer allows us to graph the occurrence of terms over time in all those books. Here is a graph showing the rise and fall of “hypertext fiction” (the red line) and the rises of “electronic literature” (the blue line) and “digital poetry” (the yellow line). “Digital literature” (green) is also fairly common, but “e-poetry” just gives us a flat purple line along the bottom of the graph.

Google's ngram viewer allows us to graph the frequency with which different terms for electronic literature were used in books published between 1985 and 2008. The terms are "hypertext fiction", "electronic literature", "digital literature", "digital poetry" and "e-poetry".

As expected, hypertext fiction (the blue line) was the more popular term in the 1990s, but it also retained its dominance for several years into the 2000s. This could show that the new term “electronic literature” took time to gain general acceptance, or it could also simply be a by-product of the slow pace of scholarship and book publishing. By 2008, the term “electronic literature” is still not as popular as “hypertext fiction” was at its peak, although the combined use of all these terms is growing steadily. It is interesting to see how high the use of “hypertext fiction” remains, even after the dominance of “electronic literature, and the rapid rise of “digital poetry” is particularly striking.

A problem with this graph is that the term “electronic literature” was frequently used in the 1980s and 1990s to describe research literature that is in electronic form, and so there are a lot of false positives, especially in this period. In fact, almost all uses of the term before the late 1990s are in this non-literary sense of the word. However, by clicking through and looking at the individual hits for each year I did find a few notable exceptions.

Jay Bolter published an article in 1985 called “The Idea of Literature in the Electronic Medium” (in the journal Topic: Computers in the Libreral Arts, vol.  39, p 23-34) which consistently uses the term electronic literature exactly as we do today. However, he writes as though there are no works of electronic literature yet. In fact, there were works by Roy Ascott (1983), bp nichols (1984), Robert Pinsky (1984) and no doubt others, but these works were not easily accessible or gathered by a shared community. In the article Bolter  imagines a future electronic literature, writing that the adventure games of 1985 hold promise, but need better writers:

Electronic literature will never attract serious notice, if it remains at the level of the current adventure game. By the same token, no one would snow consider the motion picture an important art form, if it had remained at the artistic level of the nickelodeon. (page 25)

Bolter goes on to describe a system for allowing writers to write in a word processor (rather than typing into the program code itself) and a children’s version of the Odyssey that “enlists interactive participation”, much as the adventure game does. The described work would require readers to attempt to solve the problems Odysseus faces, changing the course of the story in doing so. He also proposes detective stories and quest literature as suitable genres for treatment in electronic literature.

I was surprised at how clearly Bolter states that “such literature is growing out of th computer games that are so popular today” (page 32), given how strongly authors of the late 1980s and early 1990s worked to distance themselves from games. But he also notes that the Oulipo’s works and concrete poetry are natural allies to the computer, and the possibility of generative electronic literature.

Bolter also uses the term “electronic literature” in his seminal book Writing Space (1991), although by this time, hypertext fiction had become the dominant genre and therefore the more common term.

A 1992 article in The Print Collector’s Newsletter mentions that Eastgate publishes electronic literature. In 1995, Robert Kendall uses the term in an article that presents an overview of electronic literature at the time, presciently titled “Writing for the New Millennium: The Birth of Electronic Literature.” So the term “electronic literature” was in use well before 1999 when the ELO was founded.

A few other interesting finds included a notice in Billboard 14 April 1979 of a conference at UCLA:

I would love to know what kind of electronic literature this was. It’s both exciting and frustrating to have such easy access to such a wealth of partial information!

I’ve written an essay on the early days of electronic literature that will be published in an upcoming special issue of Dichtung Digital that will include a lot of great papers on communities of electronic literature. The graph and some of the discussion are from that essay.

03. January 2012 by Jill
Categories: Electronic literature | 6 comments

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