Category Archives: penguin

first of penguin’s interactive fictions up

Ben posted a few weeks back about an intriguing new interactive project in the pipeline from Penguin. WeTellStories, produced for Penguin by ARG studio SixToStart is now out in the open. Comprising six stories based on Penguin Classics, released one a week for the next six weeks, WeTellStories aims to create born-digital riffs on classic books.
I played through (‘read’ doesn’t quite describe it) the first of these earlier today: The 21 Steps by Charles Cumming, based on Buchan’s classic thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps. The 21 Steps is told through narrative bubbles that pop up as the story picks its way across a Google Earth-like satellite map, and describes the experience of a man suddenly caught up in sinister events that he can’t seem to escape.
Penguin WeTellStories screengrab
Overall the experience works. The writing is spare enough to keep the pacing high, vital when the other umpteen billion pages I could possibly be surfing are all clamoring for my attention. The dot moving across the map creates a sense of movement forward (as well as some frustration as it crawls between narrative points), and the Google Earth styling is familiar enough as a reading environment for me to focus on enjoying the story rather than diverting too much energy to decoding peripheral material. The interface is simple and tactile in ways that advance the story without distracting from its development, either by offering diverging routes through it or overloading the central ‘chase’ narrative with multimedia clutter. And the satnav pictures add a pleasurable feeling of recognition (‘Look! There’s my house!’) to offset an essentially far-fetched story.
For a single-visit online story experience, it was nearly too long: I found myself checking how many instalments I still had to get through. The ending was somewhat anticlimactic. And though WeTellStories has been rumored to have ARG elements, and is produced by an ARG studio, I did a hunt around for potential ARG-style ‘further reading’ rabbit holes and found nothing. So either it’s too subtle for a journeywoman ARG fan like me, or the overarching ‘game’ element really is just the invitation to follow all six stories and then answer some questions to win a prize.
If so, I’ll be disappointed. But it’s early days still, and there may be more up SixToStart’s sleeve than I’ve seen so far. It’s encouraging to see ‘traditional’ publishers exploring inventive ways of riffing on their swollen backlists’ cachet and immeasurably rich narrative wealth. And The 21 Steps comes closer than most ‘authored’ digital fictions I’ve encountered to achieving some harmony between narrative and delivery mechanism. So though I’m being nitpicky, the project so far hints at the possiblity that we’re beginning to see online creative work that’s finding ways of marrying the Web’s fragmented, kinetic megalomania with the discipline needed for a gripping story.

penguin of forking paths

Following on last year’s wiki novel, Penguin will soon launch another digital fiction experiment, this time focused on nonlinear storytelling. From Jeremy Ettinghausen on the Penguin blog:

…in a few weeks Penguin will be embarking on an experiment in storytelling (yes, another one, I hear you sigh). We’ve teamed up with some interesting folk and challenged some of our top authors to write brand new stories that take full advantage of the functionalities that the internet has to offer – this will be great writing, but writing in a form that would not have been possible 200, 20 or even 2 years ago. If you want to be alerted when this project launches sign up here – all will be revealed in March.

The “interesting folk” link goes to Unfiction, the main forum for the alternative reality gaming community. Intriguing…

penguin enlists amazon reviewers to sift fiction slush pile

In an interesting mashup of online social filtering and old-fashioned publishing, Penguin, Amazon and Hewlett Packard have joined forces to present a new online literary contest, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. From the NY Times:

From today through Nov. 5, contestants from 20 countries can submit unpublished manuscripts of English-language novels to Amazon, which will assign a small group of its top-rated online reviewers to evaluate 5,000-word excerpts and narrow the field to 1,000. The full manuscripts of those semifinalists will be submitted to Publishers Weekly, which will assign reviewers to each. Amazon will post the reviews, along with excerpts, online, where customers can make comments. Using those comments and the magazine’s reviews, Penguin will winnow the field to 100 finalists who will get two readings by Penguin editors. When a final 10 manuscripts are selected, a panel including Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of the current nonfiction paperback best seller “Eat, Pray, Love,” and John Freeman, the president of the National Book Critics Circle, will read and post comments on the novels at Amazon. Readers can then vote on the winner, who will receive a publishing contract and a $25,000 advance from Penguin.

a million penguins: a wiki-novelty

You may by now have heard about A Million Penguins, the wiki-novel experiment currently underway at Penguin Books. They’re trying to find out if a self-organizing collective of writers can produce a credible novel on a live website. A dubious idea if you believe a novel is almost by definition the product of a singular inspiration, but praiseworthy nonetheless for its experimental bravado.
penguins.jpg Already, they’ve run into trouble. Knowing a thing or two about publicity, Penguin managed to get a huge amount of attention to the site — probably too much — almost immediately. Hundreds of contributors have signed up: mostly earnest, some benignly mischievous, others bent wholly on disruption. I was reminded naturally of the LA Times’ ill-fated “wikitorial” experiment in June of ’05 in which readers were invited to rewrite the paper’s editorials. Within the first few hours, the LAT had its windshield wipers going at full speed and yet still they couldn’t keep up with the shit storm of vandalism that was unleashed — particularly one cyber-hooligan’s repeated posting of the notorious “goatse” image that has haunted many a dream. They canceled the experiment just two days after launch.
All signs indicate that Penguin will not be so easily deterred, though they are making various adjustments to the system as they go. In response to general frustration at the relentless pace of edits, they’re currently trying out a new policy of freezing the wiki for several hours each afternoon in order to create a stable “reading window” to help participants and the Penguin editors who are chronicling the process to get oriented. This seems like a good idea (flexibility is definitely the right editorial MO in a project like this). And unlike the LA Times they seem to have kept the spam and vandalism to within tolerable limits, in part with the help of students in the MA program in creative writing and new media at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK, who are official partners in the project.
When I heard the De Montfort folks would be helping to steer the project I was excited. It’s hard to start a wiki project with no previously established community in the hot glare of a media spotlight . Having a group of experienced writers at the helm, or at least gently nudging the tiller — writers like Kate Pullinger, author of the Inanimate Alice series, who are tapped into the new forms and rhythms of the Net — seemed like a smart move that might lend the project some direction. But digging a bit through the talk pages and revision histories, I’ve found little discernible contribution from De Montfort other than spam cleanup and general housekeeping. A pity not to utilize them more. It would be great to hear their thoughts about all of this on the blog.
So anyway, the novel.
Not surprisingly it’s incoherent. You might get something similar if you took a stack of supermarket checkout lane potboilers and some Mad Libs and threw them in a blender. Far more interesting is the discussion page behind the novel where one can read the valiant efforts of participants to communicate with one another and to instill some semblance of order. Here are the battle wounded from the wiki fray… characters staggering about in search of an author. Writers in search of an editor. One person, obviously dismayed at the narrative’s dogged refusal to make sense, suggests building separate pages devoted exclusively to plotting out story arcs. Another exclaims: “THE STORY AS OF THIS MOMENT IS THE STORY – you are permitted to make slight changes in past, but concentrate on where we are now and move forward.” Another proceeds to forcefully disagree. Others, even more exasperated, propose forking the project into alternative novels and leaving the chaotic front page to the buzzards. How ironic it would be if each user ended up just creating their own page and writing the novel they wanted to write — alone.
Reading through these paratexts, I couldn’t help thinking that this was in fact the real story being written. Might the discussion page contain the seeds of a Tristram Shandyesque tale about a collaborative novel-writing experiment gone horribly awry, in which the much vaunted “novel” exists only in its total inability to be written?

*     *     *     *     *

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.

media consumption #2

While browsing bookstores in london yesterday — still one of my most favorite pastimes — i came across a beautiful box of 70 thin-spined pocketbooks, the colors of the spine intentionally creating a stunning run of the spectrum from blue to orange. turns out it is a series of 70 essays and short fiction celebrating Penguin’s 70th anniversary and its claim to have initiated the ‘paperback revolution.’ [note: legendary editor jason epstein claims to have done this for Doubleday. does anyone have any insight into whether either claimant really has bragging rights?].
penguin 70.jpg
Although i wanted to spring for the whole box, the $125 price tag was too daunting so i bought 3 of the slim volumes — “The Desert and the Dancing Girls,”, a travelogue by Gustave Flaubert describing his journey to Egypt; On Seeing and Noticing,” a collection of philosopher Alain de Botton’s short essays, and “The Mirror of Ink,” seven of Jorge Luis Borge’s wonderful short stories. the cover of each volume is exquisitely and thoughtfully designed, each by a different artist.
Each title is so beautiful in its own right, Penguin has succeeded in putting together a series which underlines the appeal of books as objects. the success of the series stems less from the elegance of the graphic design than from the decision to “go small.” none of the books in the series exceeds 60 pages; given the size of the page and the font, they are probably equivalent to a long piece in the New Yorker or the chapter of a book. had Penguin decided to celebrate their birthday with 70 beautifully designed books i would have wanted to own the objects but wouldn’t necessarily expect to read any of them. however, the curatorial intelligence behind this series seems to have come up with a concept which is “just right.” there is something about the discrete boundaries of these short volumes which makes me think i could read them and that i want to read them, not just own them. the closest analogy is to a box of deliciously appetizing chocolates where i browse the contents over and over, making decsions about which to eat first and which to save for later.
Sad to say i can’t even imagine writing the above to describe offerings in the digital domain. we may get there, but the terms will be different.
(media consumption #1)