This week’s entry: Collaborative fiction
What it’s about: Outside of TV production, writing is nearly always a solitary pursuit, but occasionally the crazed loners who produce the world’s literature decide to risk human contact and work together. While the majority of collaborations are “as told to” ghostwriting or of “the inspired by Tom Clancy as written by Not Tom Clancy” variety, occasionally authors will genuinely work together to craft a narrative or write separate, but related, stories.
Strangest fact: In 2007, Penguin Books pioneered the “wikinovel” with A Million Penguins. Inspired by the success of Wikipedia, Penguin set up a site where anyone could add to the content of the book. Predictably, things spun out of control almost immediately, with more than 100 edits an hour and widespread vandalism. The project was shut down after five weeks, with mixed reactions to the chaotic result. De Montfort University, which sponsored the project, stated that while the experiment was “ground-breaking and exciting,” they concluded that “the answer to whether or not a community can write a novel appears to be ‘not like this.’”
Biggest controversy: In 1969, Newsday columnist Mike McGrady was convinced that the culture had coarsened to the point where people would buy any old tripe as long as there was enough sex in it. To prove his point, he enlisted 23 other journalists to collaborate on Naked Came The Stranger, an intentionally bad, sexually explicit paperback, in which each chapter was written by a different author, with no consistent style. McGrady’s dim view of the reading public was vindicated, as Naked was a bestseller. After a year on the shelves, McGrady and some of his cohorts admitted the hoax, but that pushed sales even higher, as people wanted to see what the fuss was about. In the end, Naked sold more than 400,000 copies, and McGrady penned a follow-up called Stranger Than Naked, telling the story behind the hoax.
Thing we were happiest to learn: While nearly any kind of artistic collaboration is made easier by the advent of the Internet, collaborative fiction is an old tradition. The 1931 detective novel The Floating Admiral was co-written by 14 authors—Agatha Christie among them—in which each author contributed a chapter. While the final author resolved the mystery, in the book’s afterword, each collaborator revealed the conclusion they had in mind when they wrote their segment.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Academics dislike collaborations, as they’re harder to over-analyze. There seems to be a fixation on who wrote what, and which idea came from whom, and these discussions can overshadow analysis of the work itself.
Also noteworthy: While multiple authors for the same book isn’t always an ideal situation, multiple authors working on a series can work just fine. In the late ’70s, fantasy author Robert Asprin started the Thieves’ World series, in which multiple authors contributed stories that all shared a setting and characters—one author’s minor character might be another’s protagonist. (Wikipedia also lists Asprin’s pun-heavy Myth Adventures series as collaborative, but he simply turned the series over to another author after writing his share of installments).
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Collaborative writing is often used as an educational tool at 826 Valencia, the non-profit founded by author and McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers to nurture middle-school-age writers. 826 is the San Francisco address of a writing lab housed within a pirate supply store—a conceit Eggers came up with to appeal to the kids, but also because the space he wanted was zoned for retail only. Seven more locations have opened up in the U.S., as well as outposts in Ireland, Italy, and the U.K.
Further down the wormhole: An interesting influence on collaborative fiction is role-playing games, where a group plays together to determine the story. In particular, the article links to the granddaddy of role-playing games, Dungeons & Dragons, where a dungeon master drives a narrative that only takes shape based on the other players’ decisions. It also provided hysterical moral crusaders for something to fixate on in the early ’80s, as the game was falsely linked to teen suicide and Satanism, as memorably documented by Mazes And Monsters, the Reefer Madness of anti-gaming hysteria, a book made into a TV movie starring a young Tom Hanks. While rolling 20-sided dice doesn’t lead to devil worship, we’ll still take a look at those who worship Old Scratch next week.