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‘Rigmarole’ is cq in last graf. Also in Thursday AMs report.

August 14, 1997

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.‴


The Web site for the contest is http://www.amazon.com.

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