The Democratic Fiction

Groupthink as Entertainment

Democracy is a wonderful thing. It is the realization of thousands of years of human progress, and a great civilization, at its peak, must embrace the notion that each man should have a voice in how his nation is governed. Through a long and often difficult historical struggle, the notion of self-rule and self-determination for all has emerged as the zenith of political and philosophical enlightenment. Even though it frees people to make what sometimes turn out to be bad choices, it cannot be denied that a democratic society is a free society. Where democracy flowers, civilization flowers.

Unfortunately, when it comes to literature, democracy is about as welcome as a stiff thumb to the eyeball.

As a rule, artistic endeavors don’t lend themselves well to democracy. Of course, this isn’t always the case; some art forms are more conducive to democratic structures than others. Some, like film and television, invite group participation by their size, complexity and expense; others, by their very nature, involve a division of labor into specialized groups, which can be quite conducive to various forms of democratic behavior. Almost all performance-oriented art forms, in fact, necessitate some form of participatory democracy; since the person creating the art form (the composer of a symphony, the choreographer of a ballet, the writer of a play) is usually not the person presenting the art (the orchestra, the dancers, the actors), there is almost always a give-and-take between author and performer that assumes the form of democracy. (Those heavy-handed directors, conductors, and so on who look at their art as an auteur-driven medium are often sorely disappointed.) And in a performance art where the participants are often of comparable or equal talent — a rock or jazz band, for example — democracy can even be the norm as each member of the group contributes something unique and important to the process of creation. Perhaps this is why the performing arts are more popular in America than the solitary ones: performance is democratic! It’s all-American! A play or a television show or a performance piece is part of the process, not like some dirty Nazi drawing or short story.

These latter are solitary endeavors. They require no group, no committee, no organization — just one person, with one singular vision, working alone to realize a solitary creation. The visual arts are like this for the most part, but, even more so, there is the art of writing. Literature may be the most autocratic of all the arts because it is the one most likely to be carried out in solitude. The writer commands a workforce of one. Unlike almost every other art form, writing has no component that is expressed physically: an artist must have the technical ability to sculpt or paint, the dancer must know how to dance, the musician must know how to sing or play an instrument, the filmmaker must learn to operate her cameras, but the author needs only his mind. He doesn’t even have to know how to type. With only minimum assistance, a writer can do his work from an iron lung — or, for that matter, as a brain in a jar. With such a lack of restrictions, with so little need for collaboration or corroboration, is it any wonder that writers become like isolated boy emperors, issuing dictates to himself in a vast empty palace that are always obeyed without question? It’s not for nothing that the person who compared a committee to a cul-de-sac down which ideas are led and then quietly strangled was a novelist.

Of course, this is not to say that there have never been attempts to apply the venerated and venerable principles of democracy, group participation, and the sacred right of voting to the world of literature. There’s been plenty. It’s just that, well, as a rule, they ain’t pretty. As America prepares to go to the polls to make one of the most important decisions in the history of the American democracy, we must always remember the vital importance of participation. But as America looks through this list of attempts to bring democratic ideals to inherently solitary and individualistic art forms, we must likewise never forget: sometimes, democracy just doesn’t work.

Religious Texts

Perhaps the earliest known instance of collaborative fiction — I’m sorry, collaborative literature — is that of the great religious works of the western tradition. While inspired by the divine word of God himself, it is now widely believed that God worked with a number of ghostwriters throughout the years, all of whom were, sadly, not of comparable skill. The result has been the creation of a number of texts which give a rather terrifying interpretation to the notion of the unreliable author, as the intent of the Creator is often difficult to discern from paragraph to paragraph, let alone from page to page. Making a bad situation even worse is God’s notorious reluctance to work with a decent editor. Despite some workmanlike efforts on the part of the fine people at Reader’s Digest in the 1980s, the Bible remains contradictory, overwritten, poorly structured, and featuring confusing shifts in character. Additions to the book were made all throughout the first millennium-and-a-half after its completion. In a pattern all too familiar in collaborative writing, some of the clumsiest prose was attributed to God, when in fact it was likely the work of an ambitious monk with his eye on quick sainthood and a cozy tenure in one of the better monasteries. Judaism faces a similar problem, going so far as to have produced a set of commentaries on God’s original text that is approximately forty-seven times as long as its subject, while Islam has reacted against the tendency towards franchisement, devoting much of its energy to preventing illustrations from being added to the text. While the jury is still out on further collaborations such as “The Chocolate Lover’s Bible” and “The X-treme Sports Torah,” it seems likely that history will judge history’s first literary collaboration as its worst.

Political Manifestos

While some purists would resist the categorization of a political treatise as “literature,” it fits the description in all the important ways: it’s self-important, meaningless, and largely fictional. The manifesto (whether political, philosophical or artistic) is a perfect illustration of why democracy is so perilous in the creation of literature: no matter how like-minded the affinity group responsible for the creation of a text may be, it’s very unlikely that they all possess equal amounts of writing talent, let alone identical notions of what issues should be prioritized. And if everyone is given an equal vote in what goes into the document, disaster can ensue. That’s why no matter how democratic we fancy ourselves as a nation, America will always be a land born of one man’s authorial voice. For it was one man, in the person of Thomas Jefferson, who bears the primary responsibility for the crafting of our Constitution — and we should be thankful he allowed his voice to dominate, even if it drowned out those of fellow founders Button Gwinette (whose suggestion that perfume manufacturers be granted their own representatives in the House was scrapped from the final draft) and Benjamin Franklin (whose “Free French Maids Amendment” met a similar fate). Worse still, manifestoes are often written by men and women whose specialty is rhetoric, not style, and are less likely to contain phrases like “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” than phrases like “Reject vociferously the jackal-headed specter of counterrevolutionary hoarding.” The Futurist’s Manifesto may have been an idea whose time had come, but you don’t see a lot of people reading it in airports.

Round-robin Novels

Perhaps the purest expression of literature as democracy is the round-robin, or participatory, novel. Invented in the 19th century by contemporaries of Charles Dickens who likewise were paid by the word, the round robin novel consists of a book-length fiction presented in segments (often serialized in a magazine during the midst of a subscription drive) of one chapter, each by a different writer. The idea is that one person begins the story and introduces the characters and situation, then hands it over to the next person, who uses the same characters and situation and picks it up where the first person left off, adding his own style and twists to the story. The problem, once again, is usually the stubbornly undemocratic problem of unequal distribution of talent: the author who takes up your story not only has her own ideas about where the plot is going, but also very likely is a worse writer than you are, not that you would ever say that to her face. Such projects also tend to start the story with the biggest, most famous, or most talented writer going first, so as to pique interest in the project; by the time it gets to the fifth participant, it’s likely a much less talented friend of the second author, and by the time it gets to the eighth participant, it’s the editor of the magazine’s worthless son-in-law and the reader has cancelled his subscription and started buying Field & Stream instead. Writers are an egotistical bunch, and the best of them rarely want to take part in something that might result in their finely crafted, perfectly honed prose being handed over to someone who decides that what the story needs is more ninjas. If you want further evidence that this sort of democratic fiction is doomed to failure, ask yourself this: how many good novels can you name that have more than two authors?

Exquisite Corpse

This is a fascinating concept dreamed up by the Dadaists, and like most fascinating concepts dreamed up by the Dadaists, it’s a lot more interesting when you describe it than when you actually do it. The way it works is, one person writes part of a sentence on a piece of paper, and then folds it so that only the last word can be seen. He then passes it to the next person, who adds more to it, folds it again, and passes it on, and so on, and so on. It’s all very exciting in theory, and it should come as no surprise that it’s very popular at parties attended by artistic young people who have been drinking a lot or smoking marijuana. The name comes from a poem written during one of the very first occasions that the exercise was attempted: “The exquisite corpse drinks the new wine.” The biggest problem with it is that you get a lot of lines like “the exquisite corpse drinks the new wine.” It has largely been abandoned in favor of a similar game that involves drawing rather than writing; this has been more successful, because the world can never get enough doodles of a cartoon man with wings and pine trees instead of feet.

Screenplays

The multiple authors listed in the credits of a movie are, technically, not so much the product of democracy so much as they are the product of plutocracy. Hollywood studios, in love as they are with focus groups and test screenings, are entirely capable of hiring nine people to write an adaptation of Hamlet, even though it only took one person to write it the first time around. Auteur theory notwithstanding, there’s still a big market for screenwriters, and most people who enter that highly competitive trade are able to ease the resentment they feel at seeing their vision betrayed with a series of high-priced hookers and expensive cocaine treatments at a spa in Covina. And just as, in our great republic, there is an eternal conflict between Republican and Democrat over the best way to govern the country, there is in Hollywood a never-ending war between critics, who tend to think that one person is enough to write Friday the 13th Part XII: Jason vs. Dracula, and studios, who tend to think that eleven people might be cutting it too close. Still, this is not to say that there’s no fun to be had watching a committee-authored Hollywood blockbuster: you can make a game of it, by guessing which of the seven writers listed in the credits were given a production note reading “more tits.”

Mad-Libs

Speaking of games, this paradigm-shifting literary experiment was introduced in the 1970s and soon became very popular amongst the demographic who considered themselves too highbrow for Pet Rocks. A daring reframing of the entire concept of fiction, Mad-Libs essentially turned literature into a game — and, not coincidentally, proved to be the most democratic form of writing yet developed. The idea behind them was simple: a basic story was provided (usually a simple scenario involving commonplace situations and familiar characters), but certain key words were left out of the narrative. Participants were asked to provide their own words to complete the story — and, in a show of innovation and dedication on the part of the creators, all parts of speech were used, from nouns and verbs to popular favorites like adjectives and even critic-pleasing obscurities like adverbs. After the process was complete, the story would be read back to the participants, who would be the first (but not the last) to revel in the delight of their own unique creations and interpretations. When Mad-Libs first debuted, no less a luminary that Northrop Frye called them “a paradigm-busting development in the creation of fiction that will have no less effect on the world of letters than did the invention of movable type.” Alas, the only thing that Mad-Libs proved is that given the opportunity to use the word “fart” repeatedly, most people will do so.

“Choose Your Own Adventure” Books

A favorite of preadolescents in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books promised to put the reader in the heart of the action. In a series of exotic and fast-paced adventure scenarios, the reader, not the author, would be the one to decide what would happen next to the doughty heroes of the book. Not only was it an appealing idea, not only did it promise a major breakthrough in democratic fiction, but it also taught America’s young people valuable lessons about life, such as not to listen to the advice of pirates or that it is very easy to be killed. Many blame the ultimate failure of the medium on its pedestrian writing, its predictable scenarios, or its rather limited range of options; but in truth, it was technology that destroyed “Choose Your Own Adventure.” The first wound came from text adventure games like Zork, which used to its advantage the fact that nerds really go in for this sort of things. It was finally killed off by the popularity of high-resolution video games, which proved that it’s one thing to choose your own adventure if it involves helping a line drawing named Billy find the lost treasure of the tiki, but it’s quite another thing to choose your own adventure if it involves helping a stacked archaeologist named Lara defeat a Russian mobster in a fistfight, especially if there is a chance her clothes might get ripped in the process.

Internet Message Boards

You want to prove to yourself in about a half an hour why participatory literature is doomed to failure? Write a joke. Go to an internet message board that is at least tangentially dedicated to the subject matter of your joke. Post the joke, and encourage others to post their own versions or variants on it. See how long it takes you to wish you’d never been born.

Save your precious democracy for your co-op meetings, school board elections, and avant-garde theatre companies, folks. We readers like our fiction fascist.