Ten years of LabLit.com
A memorable anniversary of an ambitious project
6 March 2015
In some ways the exercise was hopelessly naïve
Thus was LabLit.com born, ten years ago tomorrow on 7 March 2005, after a lengthy gestation period and inspired by conversations with David Weinkove. Working with just a few kind volunteers, including Matt Day, who gave enormous amounts of his free time building and maintaining the first site, and some friends who helped me solicit and edit content, we assembled a first issue and set it loose on the world.
I had coined the name 'lab lit' a few years earlier to describe the sorts of novels I was writing, in the hopes that one day they'd be published and join the ridiculously small set of books out there that also seemed to fit the bill – fewer than a hundred that I could find, back in 2005. The term science-in-fiction was already long since in use, but people seemed to confuse it with science fiction, and I wanted to create a memorable phrase that would stick in people's minds. Also, science-in-fiction, as conceived by its coiner Carl Djerassi (read our obituary of Djerassi), came bundled up with ideology about the pedagogical potential of fiction, with which I disagreed. Hence lab lit (laboratory literature) – a mainstream, realistic story about science as a profession, taking place in the present or past, with a scientist as a central character plying his or her trade, not necessarily in a lab. And of course, distinct from science fiction (which often contains no scientists or science at all).
In some ways the exercise was hopelessly naïve. The mission itself was ambitious: to promote and highlight not only lab lit fiction (both published and original), but also to provide a venue for writers and artists to shed light on science as a culture, to smash stereotypes and illustrate the profession (as symbolized by that lab door in our logo, its light spilling out into the darkness; lab lit's second meaning is, of course, the illumination of a hidden world). There were practical barriers too: I was an unknown with no online presence, and what's more I had a full-time job to tend to, and no money for the endeavour. And this was long before social media, or at least any social media that I had heard of. So I dutifully updated the magazine each week with no publicity whatsoever. As I tracked the daily traffic stats, I cheered at every new visit or referral (which started out in the single digits!). People stumbled onto the site using search engines, or having heard about it from friends who had contributed, and word spread only slowly.
Then, steadily, we started getting a few mentions in various media, and various blogs. It snowballed from there. The Lab Lit List was the main attraction; it remains to this day the world's gold-standard resource and receives, quite rightly, the most traffic. But many of our early columnists and fiction authors have moved on to bigger and better things – book deals, proper paid journalism gigs – and LabLit remains a place where new writers can have a friendly audience and a chance to showcase their works and ideas.
A lot has changed in ten years. We have published over 860 articles. The List has more than doubled, a combination of a higher profile for the website leading to more nominations of past books, and a frank increase in the number of new lab lit novels published. These days, you can read about LabLit.com in papers like The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and hear about it on US National Public Radio. In parallel, the term 'lab lit' has taken on a life of its own, appearing without reference to me or the website.
I couldn't be a prouder parent. But I'm still naïve, and the website is still a money-losing labour of love produced in a landscape of nearly non-existent spare time. Not only am I a busy practicing scientist, but I now have a hectic sideline in novel-writing, freelance writing, punditry, grassroots politics and other appearances that keep me from slumping on the sofa each night. As such, we are always grateful for any submissions or offers of help (not of money but of people's time) to keep the site going. If you're interested in becoming a contributor or otherwise helping behind the scenes, please get in touch. We'd love to hear from you! Otherwise, do keep reading, and continue to spread the word about lab lit and LabLit.com.
Let's make the next ten years even more successful!