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.
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?
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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.