I can’t hold back an amused smile when I hear about new online writing projects like Penguin’s A Million Penguins, in which a large number of people are attempting to compose a collaborative novel using Wiki software (there’s also a side blog to keep things moving and provide structure). At this point, the Million Penguins blog is somewhat readable, while the main wiki-novel is a fast-changing mass of incomprehensible notions apparently involving whales, bananas and a guy named Artie. Maybe tomorrow it’ll be literature, but today it’s whales, bananas and a guy named Artie.
Yet I commend Penguin for attempting this, and for continuing to see this adventure through. Even though nobody’s figured out how to make collaborative online writing fly just yet, many brave souls keep trying. Take Dennis Cooper, for instance, editor of an Akashic Books anthology called Userlands: New Fiction Writers from the Blogging Underground (an excellent editor’s introduction helps explain the project’s goals). This is a smart collection of short fiction, most of it transgressive or confessional in nature. Every single piece feels strong, but as I hold the thick book in my hand I feel somehow alienated from the social community that created this book, and this makes it difficult for me to enjoy the book.
This is an inherent problem with books created online: it is very difficult to transmit the strong sense of connection that permeates an online community to a book reader who isn’t there. Reading Userlands, I meet one fascinating voice after another, but it all flashes by like a party where I know I won’t be staying long, and where everybody but me knows everybody else.
Maybe we need to adjust our expectations when we explore these territories. Walter Kirn is another adventurer in internet-based literature, having recently completed The Unbinding, an online serial novel that ran at Slate and has just been published in an attractive paperback edition. This is a funny and thought-provoking fable about an employee of an advanced satellite personal security system who begins to get too deeply involved in “the grid”. Walter Kirn wrote the book “on the grid” too, and he explains in an introductory essay that when he began this online writing project he expected to become captivated by the ability to use hyperlinks freely in his fiction. But, Kirn says, once the project began he quickly realized that it was the real-time aspect of online writing — the immediacy of the exchange between writer and readers — that made the most difference, while hyperlinks turned out to be a creative dead end.
Kirn is smart to let the project find its own way, and if you’re planning to attempt your own online literary project I’d suggest you adopt the same posture. Provide as much structure as you can in advance, and then just let it go and hope for the best.
I speak about this with some authority because, well, it happens your friendly webmaster here has paid his dues on the online literary front. Coffeehouse: Writings from the Web, a book I co-edited with Christian Crumlish in 1997, was verifiably the first anthology of web-based fiction and poetry published in book form. We even got respectable (but small) reviews in the Los Angeles Times Book Review and the Washington Post Book World (we got ignored — hah– by the New York Times Book Review).
The book is now out of print and copies are hard to find, though it’s pretty clear that Cory Doctorow’s book designer owns a copy. Was Coffeehouse a good book? Looking back, I have to admit that I think Christian and I blew it. We had some great pieces — some of my favorites were by Joseph Squier, Mia Lipner, Jamie Fristrom, Ben Cohen, Janan Platt, E. Stephen Mack, Walter Miller, Carl Steadman, Greg Knauss, Martha Conway, Jason Snell, Lee Ranaldo, Mike Watt, Robert Hunter, quite a collection — but, like Dennis Cooper with Userlands, we failed to provide a compelling and unified product that readers instinctively wanted to own.
I think LitKicks did a better job with Action Poetry in 2004, though this book didn’t fly off any bookshelves either. But we’re getting somewhere! And so is Dennis Cooper, and so is Walter Kirn.
As for Artie with the bananas and the whales and the penguins, I guess he’s getting somewhere too, but he’s got a ways to go.