With a little help from some cyberscribes, the celebrated author tries his hand at creating a story on the Internet

Cyberspace is no place for great literature, at least not yet. Says author John Updike, ”It’s linear and hasty, the communication that goes on is like telephone calls, only put down in print.” That being the case, the biggest mystery of Murder Makes the Magazine is why Updike lent his name to it (his publisher says his fee was less than $5,000). Hosted by the online bookseller Amazon.com, the story is a collaboration between Updike and 44 Net scribes whose E-mailed paragraphs were chosen from among thousands of submissions. Each coauthor won $1,000 for continuing the story begun by the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

Updike, a fairly unwired 65-year-old, actually wrote the opening paragraph around 1960 — on a typewriter. Since then, he’s upgraded to an IBM PS/1 but nevertheless used an alternative to E-mail (the U.S. Postal Service) to supply Amazon with the 293 words that introduce the story’s heroine, Miss Tasso Polk, an editor at The Magazine.

As the tale progresses, Miss Polk is tortured by metaphor and bad clichés while probing the strange events surrounding the suicide of her lifelong employer, publisher Marion Hyde Merriweather, ”the M behind the black crest of The Magazine and one of the last of the world’s great recluses.”

Although the work is rife with amateurish Updike mimicry, the author considers it ”rather well written.” The experience, he says, ”was kind of literary in a reassuring way. As if books haven’t really been totally ousted yet.” His pessimism about the book business shows up in the ending he wrote. We won’t give it away, but suffice it to say we are told that The Magazine is failing because former readers ”now cruise the Internet, communicating interactively with a world of electronic buddies.” Updike might as well have added, ”and ordering books on-line from Amazon.com.” After all, the stunt was all about publicity for the bookseller, and in that regard it was a smash. Amazon averaged 1,000-plus entries a day, and publications from The New York Times to the South China Morning Post covered the contest.

Indeed, the online novella has overshadowed Updike’s just-released novel, Toward the End of Time (Knopf, $25), a futuristic, post-nuclear tale set in New England. Updike does not regret the decision to ”stick his head into the mouth of the electronic lion,” but he will forgo a sequel: ”I think the next such experiment some other writer might enjoy stepping in instead of me.”