Crowdsourcing the Novel

Obviously when he was writing during the reign of Czar Nicholas I, Gogol didn’t have the Internet. He couldn’t have imagined that, a century and a half later, the kind of collective publishing experience he describes in  his  forward for Dead Souls would actually be possible.

Reader, whosoever or wheresoever you be, and whatsoever be your station – whether that of a member of the higher ranks of society or that of a member of the plainer walks of life – I beg of you, if God shall have given you any skill in letters, and my book shall fall into your hands, to extend to me your assistance.

Gogol's Preface to Dead Souls

Gogol’s Preface to the Second Edition of Dead Souls, 1946

Uncanny, right? It’s like the guy was predicting participatory creation. I love that he’s addressing the kind of mass audience that his novel never could have reached at the time, but with the confidence that somehow, sometime, it would fall into the right hands.

Next he goes on to add all kinds of disclaimers, the kinds of excuses, justifications, and self-deprecating remarks you’d find today in a medium a lot like, well, a  blog.

Probably much of what I describe is improbable and does not happen as things customarily happen in Russia; and the reason for that is that for me to learn all that I have wished to do has been impossible, in that human life is not sufficiently long to become acquainted with even a hundredth part of what takes place within the borders of the Russian Empire.

To top it off, he even asks his readers to supplement his  literary efforts with their suggestions, the kind of thing we take for granted today on Wikipedia. Here’s Gogol’s bald-faced appeal for free editing and factchecking services,  from the author’s introduction as well:

Also carelessness, inexperience, and lack of time have led to my perpetrating numerous errors and inaccuracies of detail; with the result that in every line of this book there is something which calls for correction. For these reasons I beg of you, my reader, to act also as my corrector.

The way I see it Gogol, like most geniuses, was living ahead of his time. Which is why I’ve decided, with infinite humility, to fulfill his original vision by bringing my mod of Dead Souls into an era of true interactivity.  It’s crazy exciting to me that we live in a time where the kind of help he envisioned is  technologically possible.

Oh yeah, and in terms of all of the mistakes I’m going to make along the way:  what he said.

Update: just found this great article about a project to posthumously crowdsource the economist Jeremy Bentham’s work. Dude lived around the same time as Gogol and produced so much material it’s taking hundreds of volunteers today to help sort it all out!


  • Very creative introduction to your idea and book.

    All the best!

  • Kirstin Butler wrote:

    Thanks Ahmed! Very glad to have come across myself–looks like you’re doing some great work. I’ll be following along on the Twitters :)

  • Kristin – I ended up here via Brain Pickings and have to say I am a huge fan of your cultural curations as well as your Dead SULs project. The concept you are working is brilliant and very timely. I am very interested in seeing how this develops. Best of luck!

  • Kirstin Butler wrote:

    Thanks so much, Karla! I’m so glad you found the site via Brain Pickings (obviously one of my own favorites on the interwebs :). I’m hoping to have the first draft finished by end of May, and stay tuned for a Kickstarter project as well…

  • Emily Wojcik wrote:

    Hi Kirstin, Got here through Derek Stubbs… I like your interpretation of the audience-appeal through the 21st-century idea of crowdsourcing. I wonder if you might also be able to use the idea that Gogol (at least in his mind, presumably) is participating in a very standard novelistic trope of the 19th century, when novels were very very new, and regarded with suspicion for their “falseness.”

    One way that authors ironized and complicated that suspicion was to pretend as though such “lies” (i.e. fictions) were unintended consequences of their own haplessness. Yet, of course, they were also inviting the reader to collude with them in either a) recognizing that fiction was an artform, or b) helping expand those “lies” and thus implicate themselves. You see this especially with early women novelists, who had the double-bind of making “public” their ideas, which often was made synonymous with being a “public woman” (i.e. a whore).

    Anyway, since you’re a woman writer doing interesting new genre-breaking work, thought this idea might be at least of interest to you, too, if not useful…

  • […] Here is her first blog post and the post explaining the process. […]

  • Kirstin Butler wrote:

    First of all, your WordPress template just blew my mind. Secondly, thanks for the mention!

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