Go on, says Updike, tell me a story ...

John Updike has posted the opening to a whodunit on the Internet, which anyone can finish. It's democracy, just as the Net heads have always promised, but is it Art?

In a celebrity-driven culture, nothing tempts the star-struck punter more than the lure of fleeting contact with the famous. You can't kick a ball about with Cantona or sing along with Pavarotti but now - thanks to the Internet and the Seattle online booksellers Amazon.com - you can write with John Updike. The great chronicler of postwar American society posted the first 289 words of a whodunit entitled Murder Makes the Magazine on a Website last week. Since then, more than 16,000 hopefuls have competed every day for Amazon's rolling $1,000 prize for the best continuation. Updike himself will return like some deus ex machina to round off the tale on 11 September.

A case of literary democracy in action? Hardly. As well as providing Amazon with a first-class marketing stunt, Updike's ghostly presence in this electronic party-game merely blesses the sort of collaborative story- telling that has flourished on specialist Websites for years. And the daily winners - who have followed up Updike's hints about a Miss Tasso Polk who felt something nasty in the office elevator - have scarcely set the Net on fire.

Amazon called for "funny, outlandish, inventive" entries. But the victors so far have turned in curiously bland stuff, with not even a competent pastiche of Updike himself among them. Working in this highest of high- tech media, Jodie Land even mentions an anachronistic "typing pool". Meanwhile, Ben Weiner invents an Uncle James for the mysterious Miss Polk, a cad who "fled Glasgow in 1913 in pursuit of the American Dream, with an incident with a neighbour's wife providing additional impetus". With a firmer grasp of technology than logic, Donald Jackson writes that the sweat on the lip of Miss Polk's boss "created an instant image" in her mind: "an image of Richard Nixon debating John Kennedy, a bad omen for Mr Nixon and, she feared, a bad omen for Mr Evermore". Around 150,000 entries have arrived so far, and it appears that this is the best prose that Amazon can muster.

This vast gap between hype and result afflicts nearly every cultural project on the Net. Indeed, the strongest proof of its benefits to literature I have ever come across arose from the daily diary that Dame Muriel Spark wrote for early issues of Microsoft's classy online magazine, Slate. Dame Muriel (who actually faxed her copy in from her home in Tuscany to Slate's offices) mentioned a long-standing health problem. Within a few days, a world authority in the field had contacted her with expert advice.

The lacklustre performance of Updike's "collaborators" revives the toughest question of the lot about online culture. The low-cost, easy-access democracy of data that the Net allows is often deliberately hostile to the protocols of editing and selection that ensure a good time for the reader, rather than the DIY writer. Hence online publications that aim for a wide mainstream audience, such as Slate, tend to revert to fairly traditional gate-keeping procedures. Elsewhere, in the unregulated hubbub of the Usenet newsgroups, literary buffs can swap tips on (say) the latest sighting of Thomas Pynchon just as another sort of fan exchanges information on the current whereabouts of Elvis.

Updike, who has always inspected trends in mass culture with a shrewd patrician gaze, is not sharing his creative process in any real sense. With the natural and social sciences, though, the Net's power to unleash instant response and discussion can lead to something that looks far more like proper collaborative work. When the writer and journalist Marek Kohn (who contributes the Technofile column to the Independent on Sunday) published a book about the survival and revival of scientific racism, The Race Gallery, he set up a Website to prolong and extend the debate. He reports that it has turned out to be both "a practical way of keeping abreast of developments" in a very contentious field and a democratic forum in which "people of different levels of education can exchange ideas with the scientific community".

That, of course, means hosting a digital platform for the crackpot notions of pseudo-scientific racists themselves. According to Kohn, "the fact that if you trawl around, you'll find a lot of slack jaws" doesn't undermine the value of the project: "The best thing I can do is destabilise some of their certainties."

He does, however, think that a "fractionating process" on the Net will widen the gap between expert and populist arenas. "Eventually, you are going to get sites that will become known for the quality of their discussion". Conceivably, some future Updike in a genuine fix about where to steer his latest plot could seek help from an elite, patrolled Website visited only by other writers. If so, intellectual-property lawyers will have a field day (but then they always do).

A sharper split between the Net's learned and lay elements would tarnish the utopian hopes for a hierarchy-free culture that still drives many thinking tecchies. In fact, the dismal quality of Amazon's winners could well confirm a traditionalist such as Updike in the view that the demotic chaos of the digital media can only hinder the lonely pursuit of truth and excellence.

Aptly enough, the publishing imprint of Wired magazine has just re-issued the two Sixties classics in which media guru Marshall McLuhan anticipated the egalitarian spirit of the Net idealists: The Medium is the Message and War and Peace in the Global Village. McLuhan was a devout Catholic who saw in the emergent electronic age the chance for humanity to cancel the dire effects of selfish, bourgeois - and Protestant - print culture. For McLuhan, "the invention of printing did away with anonymity, fostering ideas of literary fame and the habit of considering intellectual effort as private property." He looked forward to a technological future in which "people are less and less convinced of the importance of self-expression. Teamwork succeeds private effort."

As Wired has noticed, McLuhan's Catholic universalism fits the Internet era like a glove, even though he never lived to see it. "Electronic circuitry," he declared, "confers a mythic dimension on our ordinary individual and group actions." But the realistic novel, as practised by the likes of John Updike, remains stubbornly private, introspective and non-mythical. Science and even politics may yet spin wonders from the Web, but long- distance naturalistic fiction looks set to stay a strictly solitary vice.

Behind Amazon's smart gimmick lurks one more fascinating, McLuhan-esque question. Could writing for the Net change the nature of our prose itself? The Wired crew certainly think so. In their new guide to "English usage in the digital age", Wired Style, they advise that we should "look to the Web not for leisurely, embroidered, Mencken-like prose, but for sudden narrative, the dramatic story told in 250 words - one screenful of text ... For writing to work online, it must be pointed and full of point of view."

True enough: but these tips from the screenface only make one wonder why the leisurely, embroidering John Updike - of all writers - chose to go up the digital Amazon with Miss Polk and 150,000 admirers so far. Perhaps he knew, and secretly hoped, that it would all end in mediocrity and disappointment. And that would give him (and like- minded authors) the perfect excuse to rush back to the selfish comfort of a trusty battered typewritern

Questions about Amazon's `Greatest Tale Ever Told' competition should be addresed via e-mail to contest-questions@amazon.com.

The Race Gallery Website is at http://www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk/racegallery

`Wired Style', edited by Constance Hale, is published by HardWired at pounds 12.99. The companion Website is at www.wiredstyle.com.

Further reading from Virgin Net

Internet Bookshop

http://www.bookshop.co.uk/

Britain's answer to Amazon.Com. No story competition yet, but it can only be a matter of time.

Unofficial John Updike Page

http://www.users.fast.net/joyerkes/

The only site of the millions on the Web devoted to John Updike.

The Official misc.writing home page

http://www.scalar.com/mw/

Excellent resources for writers netted from the misc.writing online

discussion group.

Troma scriptwriting contest

http://www.troma.com/contest.html

Try your hand at a couple of pages of high-class screenwritng for Troma Films, perpetrators of Eve's

Beach Party and Class of Nuke

`Em High

The Independent Online

http://www.virgin.net/bv/havana/news/independent/index.html

The definitive newspaper on the Internet, with all the latest news, sport and entertainment.

www.virgin.net

Winner of...Best Internet Service Provider of the Year - What PC? Virgin Net helps you to find the things you want on the Internet.

For a one-month free trial, call free on 0500 558800

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

    £60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

    Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

    £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

    AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

    £600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

    E-Commerce Developer

    £45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice