Media Circus: Author-free writing

On and off-line, collaborative writing does away with the authorial voice -- and much of the fun of reading


Benjamin Marcus
December 13, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

Literary "interactivity" is forever presented as something unquestionably good, something every reader should want. Who, after all, doesn't desire more control, a say-so in the telling of a tale? But stepping in and manipulating a story, or "voting" for its outcome, is another way of stating that you know exactly what you want and that the author is just a bother in the process, like a tool or a piece of software to be manipulated for greatest effect. The pleasures of being surprised and led to unknown territories are ignored, as is the idea that the author might require "authority" to succeed at the story, while the reader behaves as a customer who's damn well entitled to modify the product. Such meddling is a liability in the recent round of interactive literary collaborations, played out both on paper and online.

Amazon.com, the online bookshop, asked John Updike to script the first paragraph of a mystery novel, then had customers compete to add paragraphs to the text. The winners, chosen daily by an editorial committee at Amazon, received $1,000 and publication in the growing patchwork project, not to mention the bonus of rubbing paragraphs with Updike. After laying down an average mystery template paragraph, Updike tagged out to a string of Amazon customers, who proved no better. When some 44 of them had taken their turns, Updike supplied the closing paragraph and the novel was finished. The result is fairly typical genre fare, called Updike's first murder mystery, but it's not clear why Updike is the author just because he wrote one more paragraph than his collaborators. Well, it is clear, actually. Amazon has found a way to create, and use for promotional purposes, a "John Updike novel" with hardly any help from Updike, who probably spent all of 30 minutes on the thing.

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Microsoft Network took a different approach and excluded the amateur writing of its customers, setting its chosen writers -- Mark Leyner, Maggie Estep, Michael Chabon and Christopher Buckley -- in competition with each other and letting readers vote on which paragraph "best" advanced the piece. Here the audience is running the show, and the writers are gunning for votes, so the winner is likely to be the most entertaining writer with the best tricks, the one able to light the most fires in a paragraph -- can you guess who that would be? Every time Leyner's paragraph is voted in, he derails the project with such madness that it cannot reasonably be returned to anything un-Leyner-like. By the end of the piece it's almost impossible to tell which writer is the real Leyner, because the other three are helpless but to clone him. Leyner can take lethargic writing and stomp on it until it looks and acts like his own. He forces the other writers to play his game and they look like bores if they resist him. Since the piece as a whole is of dubious readability and only demonstrates what happens to writers when they shamelessly pursue applause and "votes," Leyner is the only writer who emerges intact, because he has figured out how to remain himself and not become a sluggish content provider, conforming to expectations. Why would writers let a mob of Internet customers manipulate them like puppets? Who knows. Maybe writers are in need of occasional jollies; maybe, like everyone else, they enjoy a little attention now and then.

Yet if we go way back in time, when monks and Jews and women collaborated to produce a kick-ass work of mythology called the Bible, it's clear that tag-team writing needn't always produce awful results. And the more obscure veins of it, arising from surrealist impulses and spearheaded by Andri Breton, have produced fascinating examples of the form, including the classic sentence-trading novel "A Nest of Ninnies," by poets John Ashbery and James Schuyler.

It is in such a tradition that "S.," a collaborative novel published recently by Lumen Editions, finds itself. Seven French and American writers parse the life of a female character, variously named Sue, Suzy, Susana and Suki, depending on which author is serenading her, and set out to create her life. Predictably, she is often depicted as a typical femme fatale, an elusive beauty sought by men as she flits about appearing wan and unattainable. Because she never narrates and has closed off her head to those who do, no portrait emerges, and the routine pleasures of following a character throughout a book are denied. Apparently, we should be amused by the fact of collaboration merely, and grant concessions accordingly. The writers have referenced details from each other's chapters, including a rabbit that dies from boredom and Suzanne's "digital defloration" at the hands of a loser magician. Oddly, without the false gestures of noveldom that pretend this book was written by a single author, this would be a collection of occasionally elegant, eccentric narrations on a shared subject. Think of a themed literary anthology: writers writing about first love, dogs, fathers, the sea. But the theme here would be, well, Suzanne, and since there is no development to her, the focus must be on the writing itself.

In which case, Harry Mathews steals the show with a droll, inventive chapter that makes you wish he had written the whole book himself. The scene is trademark Mathews: A man whose neck glows with "stammer points" when he's nervous is in search of Suzanne, and in the meantime he reads golf farces and drives around in a "fan car." As with Mathews' first two novels, "The Conversions" and "Tlooth," impossibilities are delivered in a deadpan voice and you believe him the way you would believe an encyclopedia entry on a subject unknown to you.

Clearly "S." has been written in the spirit of play, so harsh judgments regarding its failure as art seem inappropriate, much as expecting the online ventures to actually work seems miserly. Yet this trend of lazy collaboration is frustrating precisely because it waives a reader's right to the true pleasures of reading, as if such immersion were an outmoded desire and no longer the task of literary artists. The evidence still suggests that singular labor is in order for a book to evoke a world that is more than just a mannequin, which might look realistic from a distance but, upon inspection, is cold and unresponsive to the touch.


Benjamin Marcus

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