John Updike and Amazon.com: "Sticking My Head into the Mouth of the Electronic Lion"

Photo Credit: Robert Spencer, New York Times

Yesterday, after we heard the very sad news of John Updike's death, among the many shared in-house memories was the fact that over a decade ago, way back in 1997, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author took an early step into cyberspace and collaborated with Amazon.com on an exclusive online writing contest dubbed "The Greatest Story Ever Told." Updike wrote the opening and closing paragraphs to the serial story he called "Murder Makes the Magazine," and starting on July 29, 1997,  for over 44 days visitors to Amazon could submit their own paragraph to keep the story rolling (and have the chance to win $1,000 if their entry was selected). Updike concluded the story on September 12, 1997.

I don't think any of the current Amazon book editors were on staff back then, but I can only imagine how exciting it must have been--to think that a literary legend like Updike would take part in such an experiment in our early days. (Or overwhelming. On the peak day the editors received nearly 20,000 entries!) Then editor James Marcus, Amazon employee No. 55, was there and in his behind-the-scenes memoir, Amazonia, summed up the mood: "It was like Mozart appearing on American Idol."

Here is the introduction to "Murder Makes the Magazine," from Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com's Founder and CEO:

"I am understandably leery of sticking my head into the mouth of the electronic lion," were John Updike's first words when he agreed to author for us the opening and closing to the first-ever on-line, collaborative writing contest. His opening three paragraphs hit our Web site on July 29, 1997.

Though the uniqueness of the Web, for 46 days, people from all over the world enthusiastically followed the story of Tasso Polk. Thousands of authors contributed superb entries, expressing strong and sometimes hilarious (Elvis Presley, John Updike himself, and many others showed up in some of the non-winning entries) vision of how Tasso should behave. Each day Amazon.com's judges whooped, hollered, and pleaded for their favorite entry to win the day's prize and be added to the story. Each day the mystery grew more intriguing.

Enclosed is a special publication of this collaborative and eclectic story. We had a lot of fun with it. We hope you did too!

Updike jokingly told USA Today that "['Murder Makes the Magazine'] has gotten more ink than my last six books." And in The New Yorker he added: "When the last entry was in place, I just tried to tie up some of the bundle of loose ends and reward Tasso Polk for her patience. I came to love her--she was the one who leaped into cyberspace, not me."

Read "Murder Makes the Magazine" [PDF, 21.6 MB]

PS: If any of those 44 winning writers happen to come across this, we'd love to hear your memories of collaborating with the literary master.

--BTP


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