(Published in the Business Standard, February 13, 2007)

It’s been two weeks since Penguin launched A Million Penguins, an experiment with a Wiki novel (“can a community write a novel? Let’s find out…”) and I, for one, am hooked.

Not by the novel, which has reached six chapters, boasts of characters called The Da Vinci Cod, Gestalt, Big Benji, Data Walrus and Alice) and loses and finds the plot several times a day. It isn’t clear how many contributors/ authors there are at any given time, but the Million Penguins team is struggling to manage 100 edits an hour. “The main problem I have is that every time I go back to the website it’s changed, a bit like my girlfriend’s mind,” Jon, an editor for the project, writes on the official blog

Some writers, like The Revisionist, seem almost ready to quit: “A once keen member of the initiative. Now, disillusioned… and unable to spell.” The quality of the writing is underwhelming. This is the (current) first paragraph: “It was still dark when Mark got out of bed. He had packed his bag the night before and laid out his clothes so it only took him a few minutes to get ready. He had been planning the fishing trip for over a month and now that it had begun, his excitement was palpable. He rubbed his hands together briskly, trying to warm up. He felt lucky, he thought, maybe this would be the trip! Maybe this time he would finally catch the Da Vinci Cod!”

Most editors, if they received this in paper manuscript form, would send it straight back to the slush pile, and barring a few flashes of accidental genius here and there, the novel is an incoherent, plotless ramble, a showcase for juvenile humour and flamboyantly bad writing.

But was A Million Penguins created in order to prove that a million writers, collaborating on a wiki-novel, could produce a masterpiece of deathless prose? I don’t think so. Instead, it’s tapping into two quintessentially 21st century trends: the rise of social networking, and the emergence of the unpublished author as a figure in his/ her own right.

On the main Penguin Wiki novel site “authors” sound like tired firefighters. The novel has been vandalised repeatedly; the editors have had to remove porn additions in Chinese and gently dissuade those who want one character to prevail over all the rest. Given the opportunity to create a no-holds-barred, make-up-your-own-rules novel, most of those who enjoy the writing part of the exercise are now pleading for more rules, more constraints.

If, like me, you’ve been struggling to keep up with the bewildering and constant changes on the Wiki novel, you might want to ask Penguin: “Fundamentally, what’s your point?” The wiki-novel stretches even the best editors and moderators. There is just a chance that Penguin might find a few talented authors, though they would have an equally high chance of locating talent in the print slush pile. When it works brilliantly as an exercise in democracy, with every author allowed an equal say, it works abysmally as an exercise in writing. There might be, conceivably, a market for the printed wiki-novel—people might buy it out of curiosity, collaborators might buy it out of a sense of ownership.

But it’s unlikely that the wiki-novel will have any real readership. When it works brilliantly as an exercise in democracy, with every author allowed an equal say, it works abysmally as an exercise in writing. Alex Bunker, one of the contributors to the wiki-novel, came closest to identifying the real point of the project: “Individual story elements, like genes are changed around within stories, deleted, added, mutated, but on a larger scale these develop around competing lines which can not coexist. …We see an ecosystem of story ideas developing. It really is quite fascinating.” As many 21st century artists and writers have argued, the process is the point—especially if you’re directly involved in the project.

So much for the reader; what of the author? In the ongoing debate over whether books are dead, the handwringing over nosediving readership figures, we’ve missed a simple point. The 21st century may not be the age of books or the age of readers, but it’s definitely the age of the author. Jon picked up on this when he noted that there are “a lot more people writing books than are writing publishable books”, but he didn’t go far enough.

Of course many fledgling writers want the whole caboodle—the big advance, the prize nominations, the litfest gravy train. But most of them will settle for having a readership, regardless of whether they’re published or not. As I discovered recently while judging a flash fiction contest, bad writing is ubiquitous. It’s true of the wiki-novel itself, and in both cases, I expected the avalanche of bad writing that the unwary reader is subjected to by these experiments.

What I hadn’t expected to discover is that for a certain kind of writer, it’s not the quality of the writing that counts—it’s that they’re having fun doing it, and they’re glad to have permission to do it for a readership, however small or bizarre. Meet the 21st century’s greatest invention: the author who can’t write, can’t get published, but has an audience anyway.