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?
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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

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