On The Weblit vs Webfic Debate

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.[1]

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).

web fiction
1.00
web literature
2.50
weblit
0

Google Trends For Web Fiction, Web Literature, and weblit

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.

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  • http://webfictionguide.com/ Chris Poirier

    Thought I’d toss some stats on this bonfire. ;-) Search terms leading to WFG in the last month, with visit count:

    web fiction guide (319)
    sora’s guide (163)
    web fiction (94)
    online novels (93 + 284 to novelsonline.info)
    free online novels (82)
    online fiction (82)
    webfiction (63)

    Of particular note, “free online novels”, “online fiction”, and “online novels” all have high rates of new visits. And somebody should start “sorasguide.com” in a hurry. ;-)

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    You and your damned interesting posts. I’ll never get anything done!

    The biggest danger of calling ANYTHING you do “literature” is that many people see the word as meaning the second definition, and the thing about the word is that it’s not something YOU can use to describe your own writing… it’s got to be bestowed upon you by the literary community. Anyone (in print or otherwise) that goes around calling their work “literature” is going to be smacked down something fierce, unless they’re already sufficiently literary that the community is afraid to question them :)

    Which is to say: don’t go calling your writing “web literature.” Let someone else do it for you, and even then, don’t promote it. It reeks of self-importance. Far better to be modest, and let the words speak for themselves.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Which is to say: don’t go calling your writing “web literature.” Let someone else do it for you, and even then, don’t promote it. It reeks of self-importance. Far better to be modest, and let the words speak for themselves.

    Hear, hear. I really do have a headache now, and I pray that this would be the last time I write such a semantically hair-splitting post.

  • http://www.loveandwartx.com amber simmons

    I admit that I’m one of those who finds the whole debate/argument/conversation a bit silly. You’ve got a handful of people who happen to be a member of one or two particular communities hashing this out as though they speak for some larger group of people.

    But the things is… they don’t.

    There are tons of people out there writing and publishing online who don’t even know this conversation is happening. And they probably don’t care. They write, they publish, and they don’t worry about what people on weblit or WFG is calling it. It’s a small subset of writers quibbling about this. But ultimately? Not really that substantive.

  • http://www.fluffy-seme.net Isa

    You know, I was watching the American National Dog Show on Thanksgiving this year (with my father no less! who has finally come to appreciate my joy in heckling John O’Hurley) and as the competition wound down the Non-Sporting Group arrived.

    The announcer explained “Used to be dog shows only had too sections: Sporting and Non-Sporting, but then they kept breaking off more and more specific categories until finally the only thing that was left in the Non-Sporting Group was a haphazard collection of dog breeds that seemingly have very little in common”

    ….This is the way I feel about the term “Literary Fiction”. Large major bookstores benefit not from alphabetical ordering, but from grouping similar books together so that you find new stuff that interests you easier and buy more stuff. As a result, new genres keep being broken off one after another until the only thing that’s left behind in the “Literature” section is an odd collection of books that fit nowhere else.

    I switched to #weblit for one reason and one reason only: they have a widget on the weblit.us site that pulls up and displays anything tagged with the #weblit hashtag. In my experience people don’t search hashtags that often on their own so the only way my Tweets are going to get displayed outside my followers list is if they are ReTweeted or if they have a hashtag that feeds into a widget. :)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Yes, you’re right, Amber. I really should stop talking about such things now. This would be the last I write of this.

    BTW, you might want to check this out – Forecast 42. I find the links particularly interesting, because they all represent (web) writing communities in their own right.

    @Isa: I’m going to use #weblit too. And I do have to agree with MCM, with such a tight word limit on Twitter, #weblit really does have a nice ring to it. (PS: love the dog show story!)

  • http://www.chevenga.com Karen Wehrstein

    When I don’t have two posts to do and a town council meeting to cover by midnight, I will do a lengthy post somewhere, possibly two places as I think territoriality doesn’t help, re thoughts I have been having about promotion, especially in the last little while. But I’ll throw out the main premise for others to discuss first: To me it seems that there are two major barriers to greater readership: 1) people don’t know our work exists and is available and 2) people assume it is amateur-quality. Every promotional idea I’ve had has come out of these two concerns.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Karen: good luck at the Town Council meeting tonight.

    On your premise: I worry about (1) over (2), to be honest. I believe obscurity to be particularly dangerous, but certainly easier to handle as compared to issue (2). In fact, I don’t think there is anything promotional you can do about (2). I believe the only good way to prove that we have good quality is to show them. Cheap-shots like using names (i.e.: weblit, because ‘lit’ invokes ‘quality’) and other things like that would only backfire in the long run.

  • http://www.meilinmiranda.com/ MeiLin Miranda

    I’ll limit my remarks, since my thoughts on this are linked in Eli’s piece (summary: use whichever or both but be aware that outside our community, webfic = fanfic):

    “[I]t wouldn’t take long for any credibility to be destroyed by a slush-pile work.”

    That’s true of any subsection of writing, including “literary fiction.” All “literary fiction” has going for it is a shrinking group of academics/academic wannabes deciding what it is and what it isn’t. You’ll find crap there, too. (I prefer weblit myself to “web literature” for just the high-falutin’ reasons Eli cites–it’s like blog vs journalism and equally as hair-splitting.) We are all tarnished by the medium no matter how many good or bad pieces we publish, just as blogs initially were. But that turned around. Our medium will turn around in reputation, too, as long as there are those of us who put out quality work. Whatever you might think of my work, at least the spelling and grammar are good. ;)

    On Nathan Bransford’s blog recently a commenter had this to say:

    “I think the web is already giving us a new pulp era – cheap and cheezy amateur reads. Maybe opportunities and audiences on both the web end and the traditional publishing end will finally converge in to a new model soon.”

    So we’re beginning to reach serious visibility. Science fiction and fantasy are finally regarded enough that people are no longer ashamed to admit they read it; in fact, I just got back from Orycon, a whole building full of people who enthusiastically proclaim they read it. But I’m old enough to remember when that was not the case. Adults didn’t read genre, and to admit you did was to say you were intellectualy a 12-year-old.

    We are at the pulp fiction stage, the early blogosphere stage, of our medium. It’ll turn around, perhaps even in our lifetimes. Whichever term you prefer, I don’t care. Just keep working on your stuff, and make it the best it can be, for all our sakes. :)

  • http://www.chevenga.com Karen Wehrstein

    Yes, yes, yes, hear hear, MeiLin!

    “We are all tarnished by the medium no matter how many good or bad pieces we publish, just as blogs initially were. ***But that turned around.***”

    90% of my web surfing is done on the progressive political blogosphere. I started seeking out alternative news sources on the Internet on Sept. 12, 2001. I watched that blogosphere grow from nothing to being ridiculed (e.g. “Kos kids”) to forcing every traditional news outlet to start a blog to interacting directly with heavy-hitter pols. I’ve seen a guy go from blogging amateurly to making $50,000 per year through solicited donations ***in two days***. That kind of success, plus that of Alexandra Erin, was my original inspiration.

    Now we can’t exactly ape what they did, but we can certainly look at it to see what aspects can apply to us.

    More later.

  • http://www.phantasiaonline.com/ Dary

    I’ll make a dynamic entry and announce…

    …I use “webserial” XD

    Notice also that that good ol’ source of all that’s inaccurate, Wikipedia, doesn’t have anything for “web fiction” but DOES have a “webserial” page.

  • http://www.chevenga.com Karen Wehrstein

    A bit more now, re sff: I watched that too. (I’m within two months of the same age as Mei.) That’s a genre rising in respectability; if you want another example of it happening with a medium, I was at the World Fantasy Convention where Neil Gaiman’s _Sandman_ won an award. I saw the graphic novel as medium jump up in respectability right before my own eyes. Quality is absolutely required, of course — but also required is quality presentation and quality promotion.

  • http://inmydaydreams.com JZ

    @Dary

    At the risk of being pedantic, I’d like to point out that Wikipedia does have a web fiction entry…

    I’m not saying that it particularly matters though…

  • http://www.phantasiaonline.com/ Dary

    It’s a category though, so it doesn’t show up if you search for it. Which it probably should D:

  • http://inmydaydreams.com JZ

    Incidentally, when you search Google trends for “web serial,” it toasts either web fiction or web literature in number of searches. It’s not as all encompassing as either, but just for what that’s worth.

    You know what’s funny though? For all the discussion about this, we’ve no control over how it comes to the public’s attention. Whatever phrase is being used by the thing that gets attention first will probably stick. It could be weblit, web fiction, web literature, web novel, web serial, blog fiction, or even e-fiction…

    So yeah… Semantics.

    Sometimes they even matter.

  • http://clarekrmiller.digitalnovelists.com Clare K. R. Miller

    Does this mean you’re going to stop using “blook”?! Oh, happy day!

    @Dary and JZ: Doesn’t “web serial” specifically refer to web TV shows? I know I read that somewhere, and everywhere I can recall seeing the term, that’s what it meant… unless I’m mixing it up with some other term, which I may be.

  • http://www.phantasiaonline.com/ Dary

    That’s “web series” I believe. Though I remember that being used back in the day interchangeably with “web serial”. Webfic and Weblit appear to be more modern terms that’ve appeared in wake of ToM.

    As well as Wikipedia, TV Tropes also lists everything as web serials.

    Though I’d personally rather “web serial” be used for stuff that’s actually, you know, a *serial*. There’s too much confusion between novels and series at present. It’s like mixing up films with soap operas…

    Thus this is all about an umbrella term…

    WHICH THEN BEGS THE QUESTION… what’s all this bollocks about in the first place?

    REMOVE THE WEB.

    “I’m publishing a story on the web, what shall I market myself under? Web Fiction or Web Literature?”
    “I’m publishing a story, what shall I market myself under? Fiction or Literature?”

    Thus proving that ultimately this argument makes ZERO SENSE.

  • http://www.meilinmiranda.com/ MeiLin Miranda

    Dary says:
    “Though I’d personally rather “web serial” be used for stuff that’s actually, you know, a *serial*. There’s too much confusion between novels and series at present. It’s like mixing up films with soap operas…”

    Yeah, I’m trying to re-brand the History as a series of novels, not as a serial. Scryer’s Gulch is definitely a serial; I have no plans to ever novel-ify it, and it’s plenty soapy. :)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @MeiLin: I think your original comment makes perfect sense.

    Whichever term you prefer, I don’t care. Just keep working on your stuff, and make it the best it can be, for all our sakes.

    Over time, this should and would change. And I think Jim’s got the most pragmatic approach to this – whatever we use, it’s more likely than not what the public deems it to be that’ll be the lasting term.

    @Clare: I think I talked about how I wouldn’t be using blook any longer, in a LinkedList post … but I can’t remember which. But I’m glad to finally leave it behind. It was a rather clunky word to be stuck with.

    @Dary: You can go out and start webserial.us if you wish. I wish you luck. You’ll need it.

  • http://inmydaydreams.com JZ

    As I understand it, one of the motivations behind it was search engine optimization. If you’ve got a brand name that covers the whole brand, people know what term to search for.

    “Web fiction” or “weblit” is as good as “web comics” in that respect and give the concept an identity.

    Personally, I’ve been using web fiction and web serial for the last two years since becoming aware of the idea…

  • http://vjchambers.com V. J. Chambers

    Oh, that wikipedia article reminded me of “blook.”

    I’m SO glad we are not calling them blooks anymore. Eew.

  • http://www.chevenga.com Karen Wehrstein

    > As I understand it, one of the motivations behind it was search engine optimization. If you’ve got a brand name that covers the whole brand, people know what term to search for.

    This is the purpose that I hope will not be destroyed by this tempest in a teapot.

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  • http://prav.us/ K. Godwin

    I’m with Jim.

    This reminds me of:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNU/Linux_naming_controversy

    In the end, it is the mainstream media and the public at large that defined which term was the ‘right one’ for SEO, not the group of people who debated the issue.

    http://www.google.com/trends?q=GNU%2FLinux%2C+Linux&ctab=0&geo=all&date=all&sort=1

    Which one is better from a SEO perspective?

    Probably Linux.

  • http://www.chevenga.com Karen Wehrstein

    That’s because groups of people *debating* issues don’t get anywhere. You don’t succeed by winning.

  • http://prav.us/ K. Godwin

    Yes, Karen, that is sort of the point.

  • http://peacock-king.infernalshenanigans.com/ Irk

    When promoting my stuff in advertising, I use and mix a number of terms depending upon the desired result and/or audience. I’ll often say “a WebLit serial fantasy novel” when describing Peacock King in short. WebLit works pretty well in tiny spaces because it is a short word. I’ve never described PK as “web literature” because I don’t find the term useful in application to, well, much of anything that I do.

    I like that WebLit can be a catch-all term for works that also include memoirs, poetry, and nonfiction. Web fiction narrows the scope a bit if you’re trying to talk about, say, a large group of people who publish their writing on the web. I tend to use #WebLit on twitter to be included in the greater whole, and also invite the others in. I love meeting poets!

    I am not using webfic in my branding at all because I think it is a very bad idea to have your original work confused with fanfic. It’s already screwed MeiLin over when getting considered for doing a reading at a con, and honestly the first thing I thought when I saw the term “webfic” was “haha no thanks, I’m not getting my work confused with fanfic”. That’s a credibility loss risk that I do not want to take. “Web fiction” is a lot less easily confused and so it doesn’t ring nearly so many warning bells in my head. (For the record, I don’t consider someone sticking a #webfic tag on a PK RT as some dire alarming situation, since I don’t think one not-by-me tweet is likely to be construed as officially representing me and my work. In that, I don’t find the #webfic tag to be harmful in the way that calling something “webfic” in the story’s description on its website, or on an ad is.)

    I don’t think one blanket term is really going to serve all the different purposes that people have for what they need. For instance, google optimization has almost nothing to do with what my ad graphics call my work – someone’s not going to pull up my project wonderful ads in a search for anything, and whatever words are in those ads are not going to affect Google’s algorithms. If I plug in some data in PK’s site’s meta tags, I’m going to put everything from free novels to online fiction to western to epic fantasy. If I talk to my parent’s friend’s boyfriend about this newfangled internet book I’ve got, I will likely not use the term “weblit”. But if I’m going to encourage people to join a community of writers who are trying to promote their work online, I will likely use WebLit because that sums up everyone’s work more than webfic. That’s most of the reason behind the WebLit.us name. It would be nice to have a genre name to tuck everything under but it nobody wants to use it, it still works as a name for a community.

    (If you don’t want to be in a community that is named “WebLit” because you don’t consider your work “literature” then… why? I like dragging down the name of Academia into the mud along with my depraved works, it makes for a fun time.)

    In any case, in marketing you need to use the words that best serve your purpose. WebLit serves my purpose some of the time. Web fiction actually serves my purpose less, because most times I will be saying “web novel” or “web serial” instead. We are all writers (right?) so we are all often found trying to pick the words that best fit the situation. If you don’t need WebLit, don’t use it. If you need web fiction, use it.

    For the record, when I first looked into publishing PK on the internet, I googled “web novel” “free novel” “free original fiction” and the like. I’d never found WFG before, I didn’t know serials were popular on the internet, and all I knew was that there has been a LOT of fanfiction on the internet for years and for once I was trying NOT to find it. I think I ended up at Novelr first because of the “novel” bit in its name. When you’re thinking about google, you have to think about what people are trying to find and what they’re going to type to find it. When you’re thinking about ad text, you have to think about what will catch people’s attention and entice them to click to find more. The first is helping someone find you, the second is trying to bring someone to you – they are different games.

  • http://www.ergofiction.com JanOda

    Can I add something here?
    I don’t really care if it’s either #webfic or #weblit or something completely different. I try to change the hashtag when I’m retweeting, because retweeting hashtags doesn’t make sense (as people who look for a hashtag would see it double then), and thus I try to reach as many people as possible by changing them.

    However, the use of hashtags is to reach people who know what they are looking for and want that sort of information.

    So changing a hashtag after it has been established for a while seems stupid to mee, since you are probably loosing viewers since they don’t know what you changed the hashtag to.

    I am not referring vs #weblit and #webfic, both have been used almost equally long it seems. In fact I personally use #webfiction most of the time.

    However, changing #WebFicWed to #WebLitWed after it has been used for quite a while seems redundant to me, because people won’t find it, and the articles, interviews and reviews that are written around it aren’t tagged that way.

    So please, feel free to use #weblit as much as you want, but don’t be too Nazi about it, and don’t change things that are already established, because I believe that won’t gain you anything.

    (On a complete sidenote, I do prefer WebFic, but that’s probably because I never have been in FanFic middens. I understand where both sides are coming from, I just like the sound of Web-fiction better)

  • http://www.ditchwalk.com Mark Barrett

    Late to the party, here’s my two cents….

    It seems to me that if categorization or naming is important, it best be done with the biggest axe and the fewest chops. So my money is on webfic. Agree also with the point that weblit sounds elitist, and suspect on some level that that’s the point: to emphasize the ‘literature’ aspect. As MCM says, best to leave that to others to brand you with….

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