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February 05, 2007

A Million Penguins: A Wiki Novel


Collectively Creating a "believable fictional voice"

"...The novel, A Million Penguins, went live on Thursday and its first lines are already being written, edited and rewritten by enthusiasts on http://www.amillionpenguins.com. Penguin, which embarked on the project with a group of creative writing and new media students, says it is using the novel as a test of whether a group of disparate and diverse people can create a "believable fictional voice".

"This is an experiment. It may end up like reading a bowl of alphabet spaghetti," Jeremy Ettinghausen, head of digital publishing at Penguin UK said, adding there were no plans as yet to publish the completed work. "We are not making any predictions. It would be utterly fantastic if we could at the end create a print remix."" More >>

Also see Ethical guidelines page for wikinovel: http://www.amillionpenguins.com/wiki/index.php/Ethical_guidelines

Blog-- Penguin editors' notes on the novel in progress, thinking about
the project as it goes along: http://www.amillionpenguins.com/blog/ [via]


Collective Authorship

The February 2007 issue of Harper’s has a great series of essays on the theme of collective authorship that make it well worth picking up if you see it on the newsstand.

First is a complaint from Ian Jack about the trend among American writers toward thanking (in print) ever wider circles of friends and acquaintances. While acknowledging the mythical status of the popular image of the writer in solitude, and admitting that writing is often a cooperative act, he worries that this indicates a deeper trend toward the “industrialization” of the production of literature.

Such industrialization is the central vision of a manifesto by Sergei Tret’iakov, a Russian avant-garde writer who died in Stalin’s purges, calling for the “deindividualization and deprofessionalization of the writer.” Tret’iakov argues that small cliques of professional writers are no longer adequate “to keep up with the tempo of the present” and envisions a kind of literary assembly line, on the model of the newspaper, where specialized teams focus on first collecting, then processing, then testing the literary object being produced. I was struck by how this three-tier system echoed some other triads I’ve heard lately: Collect, Curate, Consume, or Create, Synthesize, Consume. “Testing” may at first seem to be quite different from “consuming,” but when you consider that contemporary digital media companies often use their consumers as testers, you see that they are just two sides of the same coin, as are “collecting” and “creating.”

Collecting as creating is illuminated beautifully by “The Ecstasy of Influence,” a remarkable collage text by Jonathan Lethem. As someone who has read a lot of writings on “free culture,” and not knowing the nature of what Lethem had created, I found myself wondering why Lethem was repeating so much tired rhetoric. Yet it flowed beautifully, and I enjoyed reading it. I was truly surprised when I reached the “key” to the piece at the end and realized what a virtuoso performance I had been experiencing. [blogged by Ryan Shaw on sindikkaeshin]

Ben Vershbow on "A Million Peguins":

The problem with A Million Penguins in a nutshell is that the concept of a "wiki-novel" is an oxymoron. A novel is probably as un-collaborative a literary form as you can get, while a wiki is inherently collaborative. Wikipedia works because encyclopedias were always in a sense collective works -- distillations of collective knowledge -- so the wiki was the right tool for reinventing that form. Here that tool is misapplied. Or maybe it's the scale of participation that is the problem here. Too many penguins. I can see a wiki possibly working for a smaller narrative community.

All of this is not to imply that collaborative fiction is a pipe dream or that no viable new forms have yet been devised. Just read Sebastian Mary's fascinating survey, published here a couple of weeks back, of emergent net-native literary forms and you'll see that there's plenty going on in other channels. In addition to some interesting reflections on YouTube, Mary talks about ARGs, or alternative reality games, a new participatory form in which communities of readers write the story as they go, blending fact and fiction, pulling in multiple media, and employing a range of collaborative tools. Perhaps most pertinent to Penguin's novel experiment, Mary points out that the ARG typically is not a form in which stories are created out of whole cloth, rather they are patchworks, woven from the rich fragmentary litter of popular culture and the Web:

Participants know that someone is orchestrating a storyline, but that it will not unfold without the active contribution of the decoders, web-surfers, inveterate Googlers and avid readers tracking leads, clues, possible hints and unfolding events through the chaos of the Web. Rather than striving for that uber-modernist concept, 'originality', an ARG is predicated on the pre-existence of the rest of the Net, and works like a DJ with the content already present. In this, it has more in common with the magpie techniques of Montaigne (1533-92), or the copious 'authoritative' quotations of Chaucer than contemporary notions of the author-as-originator.

Penguin too had the whole wide Web to work with, not to mention the immense body of literature in its own publishing vault, which seems ripe for a remix or a collaborative cut-up session. But instead they chose the form that is probably most resistant to these new social forms of creativity. The result is a well intentioned but confused attempt at innovation. A novelty, yes. But a novel, not quite.

Posted by jo at February 5, 2007 05:11 PM