Over the past couple of days, there has been some debate over which or what term we should use when we are talking about our work. On the one hand, we have writers who think that we should call our field ‘web literature’, or ‘weblit’; on the other, we have writers who want to use ‘web fiction’, or ‘webfic’. While this does seem like an unnecessary discussion, particularly so on the face of it, it appears to send quite a number of us into a religious rage, and so it would do to take these issues apart to explore them properly, if only for the sake of completeness.
Firstly: why settle for a name? The reason most commonly given is that a name serves to unify the platform on which we’re writing, making it easier to promote and/or find our fiction. On Twitter, these terms are particularly important: the hashtag feature of the medium serves as a community gathering point, and there should only be one of them in use (in order to prevent community splintering, word limit, etc et all). And so if we see promotion as a primary reason to choose a name, then it would be useful to note that we are really talking about two platforms on which said promotion occurs: normal web search, and Twitter.
Let us now look at the semantics of the two terms being proposed. I am particularly interested in ‘literature’ as it is used in the phrase, ‘web literature’. We must acknowledge that there are really two uses for this term in daily discourse. The first use (the one, I suspect, that is being adopted by the WebLit.us crowd) is the definition taken from the Oxford Dictionary: i.e. (any and all) works of artistic merit. This definition includes fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, and even certain forms of journalism (though this last category is certainly debatable). ‘Literature’ as is used in this manner can best be seen when a potential customer approaches a technical salesperson, and asks “to see the literature” on a particular technology. What we’re talking about here is that of ‘literature’ being used as a category, the same way that ‘prose’ is a category, and ‘photography’, and so on.
So what is its second use, then? The second use of ‘literature’ is the equivalent of the term ‘literary fiction’. We use it like this, I think, because academia and publishing have seen it appropriate to brand the genre under such and such a name. There are a number of academic definitions of literature [see: What Is Literature? (Meyer, 2007)], but the easiest way to understand it is to see it as fiction that strives to have ‘literary merit’. What that really means is beyond the scope of this article, and while I recognize that it may be impossible to define such a loosely-held standard, for the sake of completeness I shall provide you with a couple of examples to give you some idea of it. A book may be said to have literary merit if it attempts to discuss something of universal human value. This discussion may be about the nature of consciousness, perhaps, or the problem of pain, or the tricky issue of identity in a globalized, culturally-displaced world (which, by the way, probably explains why so many awards go to Indian authors writing about Indian characters immigrating to New York/London/Chicago/wherever). Or it may be that the book has literary merit because it captures the spirit of an age (e.g.: The Age of Innocence, War and Peace). Literary writers use different methods to achieve this. Some of them use classical techniques such as the allegorical story, or satire (Horatian/Juvenalian), or symbolism. Others use the form of the novel against itself: David Foster Wallace, for instance, made liberal use of end-notes (200 or so pages of them) in his novel Infinite Jest in order to mimic the splintered nature of our consciousness; he also ended his first novel in the middle of a sentence, to illustrate this idea that stories never end the way books say they do, in real life.
So now there are a couple of things that we must make clear. We certainly cannot use literature as it is defined in the second definition, because very few works in the online fiction-sphere can be said to have literary merit. As a community, we are primarily genre writers: we are interested in writing sci-fi and fantasy; in good stories and strong characters, but not so much thematic symbolism/literary discourse. Using literature as defined as ‘literary fiction’ to describe our work would be dishonest of us. Secondly, however, almost anything that is written can be described as ‘literature’ (under the first definition), and so it is perfectly reasonable to have ‘web literature’ describe our field of writing. The question we need to ask now is this: to the average Joe on the street, which meaning does he associate ‘literature’ with? I would say that he associates ‘literature’ with ‘literary fiction’ more than he does with ‘literature as a category’. This understanding should explain most of the opposition to the use of ‘weblit’: many of us assume that it refers to the second meaning, while its proponents insist that it is the first definition that they base their usage on.
With that out of the way, I would like to make the case that as far as web fiction vs web literature is concerned, web fiction should be used. However, where #webfic vs #weblit are concerned, #weblit can (and should) be used (and oh God, what a headache I have now). The second argument is simpler to make: both #webfic and #weblit matter only as far as Twitter is concerned (that is: not particularly important, in terms of promotion). Both terms are shortened versions of the full word, and therefore lit does not draw upon the double meaning of the term literature. Of the two, #weblit sounds better (no fanfic interference); more importantly: the hashtag has already reached critical mass. It would not do to forcibly ask everyone to change their hashtags at this stage. It would be more acceptable, however, if we recognize that weblit does not in any way refer to literature as we understand it, the same way that chicklit does not refer to literature (or have any pretensions to be credible).
Now let us discuss web literature vs web fiction. Bear in mind that we cannot use web literature to describe our community – too few of us are interested in writing literary fiction, and doing so would be dishonest (not to mention instantly discreditable). Before I go any further, however – humour me and Google web literature, web fiction, and weblit. The first search would give you a link to the Web Literature Digital Online Library. The second search would give you Web Fiction Guide, right at the top. And the last search would give you a link page with a three way split between a few top results (two Twitter streams), webkit (Safari’s web rendering engine) and a series of random writer blogs that neither explain the term, nor provide prominent linkage to the general community of works. In this particular case, if we consider the fact that search is a larger source of conversion/traffic than Twitter, ‘web fiction’ is the clear winner of the three.
Now let us look at the existing search data for the three terms. How many people are likely to search for ‘web literature’ over ‘web fiction’? Quite a number, in fact (refer to Google graph below) which is rather interesting even if I don’t understand why the results are so. But seeing as a) our community is nowhere near the top for ‘web literature’, and b) we cannot use ‘web literature’ without being dishonest, we shall have to settle for web fiction. (Weblit as a search term is not even worth talking about, because so few people search for it in the first place).
So where does this leave us? Web Fiction Guide is still, perhaps, the best entry point for our community, and with the next iteration it should get better at converting readers to web fiction. Novelr shall, from now on, use web fiction to describe the writing we do, on the web, and on a personal note I hope to be able to use #weblit as a Twitter hashtag without much discomfort. It should be interesting, though, if one of us decides to build a new site around the term ‘web literature’ … but as the top result on Google for that describes itself as a directory for ‘the greatest literature ever written’ this should present itself as quite a problem.
1. I find it interesting, however, that while weblit proponents say the term is based on the first definition of ‘literature’, they attempt to buy credibility through association with the second definition. This is not particularly clever – it wouldn’t take long for any credibility to be destroyed by a slush-pile work. ↩