Originally created 08/14/97

Author Updike makes peace with cyberliterature



NEW YORK (AP) - John Updike once insisted that no computer could compare with the "sensation of ink on paper." A book, he declared, is a "charming little clothy box." Words on a screen are "just another passing electronic wriggle."

Now, the novelist has decided to contribute to the making of electronic wriggles.

The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner has lent his name, and his words, to an online collaborative writing contest in which Web surfers contribute a few lines each to a mystery story with an opening paragraph written by Updike.

The 44-day contest ends Sept. 12, when Updike will write the conclusion of the story, "Murder Makes the Magazine."

The contest is sponsored by Amazon.com, the online bookseller that boasts of being "Earth's Biggest Bookstore." In this spirit, the Seattle-based company has named the contest "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

"Amazon had been speaking to us, and when we presented him with the idea he just immediately loved it. He just got excited," said Wendy Elman, associate director of new media for Random House, the parent company of Updike's publisher, Alfred A. Knopf.

Amazon is hoping contestants will stay on the Web site long enough to browse through its huge catalog. Thousands of e-mailers have been competing to come up with the latest piece of the story. One winning entry is selected each day and is added to the narrative. Each day's winner gets $1,000.

There's also a $100,000 lottery prize, for which anyone can compete. The sweepstakes winner will be announced Sept. 12.

"Murder Makes the Magazine" follows the adventures of Tasso Polk, a 43-year-old employee of The Magazine. Updike begins by having Miss Polk step off the elevator "onto the olive tiles of the nineteenth floor only lightly nagged by a sense of something wrong."

E-mailers have since added several characters, including the heroine's eccentric Uncle James, her elephantine boss William Evermore and her reclusive publisher, Marion Hyde Merriweather, whose mysterious death she is investigating.

Updike received an undisclosed fee for taking part. Paul Bogaards, director of publicity at Knopf, said it was under five figures.

Amazon president Jeff Bezos said several established writers are interested in the contest, too.

Still, some authors are wondering if they would, or should, do such a thing themselves.

"I don't think I'd get involved with anything like that. Writing to me is too personal," said Ernest Gaines, author of "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" and several other works of fiction.

"My true feeling about e-mail is it's psychotic. I don't want anything out of my computer that I didn't put in it," said A.M. Homes, whose novels include "Jack" and "The End of Alice." "I think if Amazon called me up and asked me to do it, it would depend on what was going on that day. There are connotations about doing something online, although those are dissolving pretty quickly."

Literary writers have a reputation for stuffy resistance to technology, but it's not always deserved. Walt Whitman was fascinated by locomotives and other 19th-century innovations, Henry James enjoyed "motoring" in the English countryside, and William Faulkner wanted badly, and in vain, to fly airplanes.

That tradition continues. Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace are among the writers whose books reflect the modern world of television, rock music and computers. The current poet laureate, Robert Pinsky, is poetry editor for the Internet magazine Slate. Writers such as Cynthia Ozick have given online interviews.

Literary games such as the one on Amazon can be found frequently on the Web. The only difference is Updike's participation and the chance to make money.

"People do things like composing messages without the letter `e,' using only words with one syllable, or messages using only words with more than one syllable," said Susan McCarthy, a San Francisco-based writer.

The game set up by Amazon actually pre-dates the computer era. Newspapers have run contests like this for years. And Ozick points out that something very similar even appears in the 19th century novel "Little Women."

"It's called `Rigmarole,"' Ozick said. "One person starts a story, a sentence or two, and the next person continues it. I was so enchanted reading about it. I've been playing it all my life, and here comes this huge company, playing `Rigmarole,' just like in `Little Women."'

Excerpts

Excerpts from "Murder Makes the Magazine," an online story contest kicked off by John Updike on the Web site Amazon.com. Updike wrote the introductory passage. The three succeeding ones were written by Web users.

Miss Tasso Polk at ten-ten alighted from the elevator onto the olive tiles of the nineteenth floor only lightly nagged by a sense of something wrong. The Magazine's crest, that great black M, the thing masculine that had most profoundly penetrated her life, echoed from its inlaid security the thoughtful humming in her mind: "m." There had been someone strange in the elevator. She had felt it all the way up. Strange, not merely unknown to her personally. Most of the world was unknown to her personally, but it was not strange. The men in little felt hats and oxblood shoes who performed services of salesmanship and accountancy and research and coordination for the firms (Simplex, Happitex, Technonitrex, Instant-Pix) that occupied the seventeen floors beneath the sacred olive groves of The Magazine were anonymous and interchangeable to her but not strange. She could read right through the button-down collars of their unstarched shirts into the ugly neck-stretching of their morning shaves, right through the pink and watery whites of their eyes into last night's cocktail party in Westchester, Tarrytown, Rye, or Orange, right through their freckled, soft, too-broad-and-brown hands into adulterous caresses that did not much disgust her, they were so distant and trivial and even, in their suburban distance from her, idyllic, like something satyrs do on vases. Miss Polk was forty-three, and had given herself to The Magazine in the flower of her beauty. Since the day, a nervous bride, when she had been led to a desk in whose center was set a bouquet of sharpened pencils in a water glass, she had ridden the elevator two dozen thousand times, and her companions on this alternating rise and fall were rarely strange. - By John Updike.

Miss Polk entered her office and waded through the pink sea of messages left ever so tidily in the top right corner of her desk. The last brought an unlikely smile, as it was from her Uncle James, a favorite from her childhood and an occasional drop-in, always from an unusual location. James claimed he was named after his great-great-grandfather James Knox Polk, the 11th president, but Miss Polk knew James's parents had fled Glasgow in 1913 in pursuit of the American Dream, with an incident with a neighbor's wife providing additional impetus. - By Ben Weiner.

Miss Polk made a mental note to call Uncle James on her lunch hour. She didn't make personal calls during working hours. She often frowned at the young girls in the typing pool as they huddled against their receivers to ensure no one could hear their empty conversations. As if their blushing faces and muffled giggles didn't tell her that somewhere in the city, young boys were wasting their bosses' time as well. She had just picked up her most urgent messages when her boss, Mr. William Evermore, walked into her office. Glancing up, she smiled politely. "Good morning, Mr. Evermore." Strange. After 25 years of working for Mr. Evermore, he had never once entered her office without knocking. "Miss Polk," Evermore moved to stand in front of her desk. She noticed the beads of sweat gathering on his top lip. - By Jodie Land.

The sweat on his lip 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. She also knew that what was bad for her boss would be bad for her, for she had been his protegee. As his fortunes rose in the company, so did hers. "May I have a seat?" he inquired, as he moved his elephantine bulk into the chair across from her. She watched the chair disappear beneath him, afraid to look him in the eye, knowing what was coming next. "I have some difficult information to share with you." Her heart sank, as it had the only other time she had heard him pronounce those grim words. It had been a short affair with Mr. Evermore, begun in an empty office after a going-away party for his predecessor, and ended after two bashful but not unpassionate assignations in the Karelton Hotel. That had been exactly sixteen loveless years ago to the week, she noted as her heart sank further. In the dead silence of her office, his voice quivering as it had then, Mr. Evermore said, "I'm afraid - " The jangling of her phone cut him off. - By Donald Jackson.