On 1st February, A Million Penguins officially launched. UK publisher Penguin joined forces with De Montfort University (Leicester) to see if a novel can be written by a worldwide collective of authors.
Using wiki software, the goal is to see if strangers from around the globe can create a piece of legitimate fiction together.
As the site explains:
The buzz these days is all about the network, the small pieces loosely joined. About how the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. About how working together and joining the dots serves the greater good and benefits our collective endeavours.
This is undoubtedly true in many fields. Software is rarely written in a vacuum and indeed the “open source” movement is built on the premise that collaboration is the only way to get bugs spotted and move forward. Scientific research, too, is more often than not a collaborative activity – and peer review is key to checking and honing the development of scientific ideas.
However, is the same true in artistic fields? We are used to the romantic notion of the artist or the novelist working alone in an attic room, or in the shed at the bottom of the garden. As James Joyce memorably put it, the artist forges in the “smithy of [his] soul”. Yet many of the most highly regarded television programmes of recent years are written by teams of writers; and the majority of films go through rigorous screen testing exercises (and are often altered as a result) before they reach the paying customer. The painters Holbein and Titian, among any number of their contemporaries, used students to add the detail to their pieces before signing them, a tradition continued to this day by Damien Hirst who openly acknowledges the contribution of his studio team.
But what about the novel? Can a collective create a believable fictional voice? How does a plot find any sort of coherent trajectory when different people have a different idea about how a story should end – or even begin? And, perhaps most importantly, can writers really leave their egos at the door?
At present, there are three distinct novels being written on the site. The project is scheduled to last 5 weeks, with guidelines stating that any single contribution should not be more than 250 words, but encouraging frequent and regular submissions.
The usual rules of wikis apply, so constant editing, updating, and deleting occur. The creators ask that authors ‘leave their egos at the door’ and it will be interesting to see if this works.
This is a fascinating project and one that I wish I could spare the time to be a part of. Then again, I’m not sure if my ego and self-importance could stand collaborating on such a project with so many people.
It will also be interesting to see what happens if and when a complete story is produced. Who will own it? What will happen to it? These are questions that don’t seem to have answers at present. As with many aspects of social networking sites, haven’t been encountered before in publishing and media history.