Books / Television

IS NOTHING SACRED? (The Answer is No): The Reality Show for Novelists

It was only a matter of time before the novel found itself couched in the histrionic lowbrow of reality television. There’s a reality show—no, multiple reality shows (!)—about storage units, so the fact that it’s taken this long for the novel to find a visual platform is more a testament to the form’s antagonism towards other mediums than a hapless white flag—though that can’t necessarily be ruled out in the current publishing climate. In fact, the flailing industry is cited as one of the prominent reasons why the show Masterpiece is airing on Italy’s state-owned Rai 3.

Gianni Cipriano for the New York Times

Gianni Cipriano for the New York Times

Bottom line: no one is reading in Italy, so executives put some aspiring writers (chosen from 5,000 applicants) on TV and are hoping and praying that 1) the show is a hit and 2) it compels the Italian people to buy books and read again.

Now, over in Italy they’re dreaming big—really, outrageously big. The winner of the show will earn a book deal with one of the country’s largest publishing houses, which will then run 100,000 copies of the victorious manuscript. For a debut novelist in America, pushing those kinds of numbers would be an enormous triumph. The New York Times notes that a successful book in Italy nowadays sells approximately 10,000 copies.

So it better be one hell of a show, right? It’s true that programs like Top Chef consistently garner giant ratings even though the viewer can’t even eat the apparently delicious food they’re cooking. With a reality television show about the novel, at least we can hear some of the work, because—as we all know—readings are where the money’s at. Drake brags about “half a million for a show” in his lyrics for “Started from the Bottom.” Ha! The novelists of the world say! Mere pennies! A Kanye concert v. a Saunders reading at MSG? Walk away, Ye.

The Italian installment features a panel of three judges, all of whom are novelists themselves, who judge flash-fiction challenges that determine whether a contestant can move forward with their manuscript of a novel. (Because naturally one’s talent for the hurried short-form translates into the Next Great [Insert Country’s] Novel.) Take a moment to imagine telling Norman Mailer to accompany a blind person around for a day (a challenge from Masterpiece) and then sit in a room for thirty minutes to write something to then read aloud before a panel of judges.

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer

It wouldn’t end well.

But why not embrace the inevitable? This thing is coming to America. Snooki published a book, didn’t she? And she’s an extremely wealthy, (in)famous reality television star. Why not reverse that process?

Let us imagine just what an American version of this show would be like:

  • There has to be a house. No great reality show is complete without stuffing all of the contestants into the same living space with a bunch of liquor and no contact with the outside world. These are writers we’re talking about here. The tears! The fistfights! The drunken debates over modernism and the death of the author! The jockeying for the perfect “writing space” is great television alone, that itself could be a show. Library Wars! And, of course, everyone on the show will have slept together by the time filming has ended (or, let’s be real, even begun).
  • Special guest judges. This is a given. Project Runway was the first reality show to bring in big name designers; who says there aren’t prominent novelists out there that wouldn’t want some face time on national television? I nominate Franzen!
  • A Tim Gunn figure. But who will it be? Who would be the best show runner of a visual—albeit literary—train wreck? Oprah successfully operated the largest book club in the world. Take a moment to envision her telling a room of over-caffeinated, self-loathing writers to Make It Work, and then looking on as tears, chain-smoking, and destruction of property take place in the confession booth.
  • James Franco. Duh.
  • A workshop challenge, because nothing says ratings like watching a group of writers vying for a lucrative book deal tear each others’ work apart. The workshop leader would change weekly, and they have to be notoriously ruthless. The cameras are rolling and this character isn’t fleshed out! Burn this drivel and dump its ashes into the Hudson! Paging Gordon Lish for a recurring role.
Gordon Lish

Gordon Lish

The possibilities are truly endless, and we haven’t even tapped into the variety of self-selecting writers that such a show would yield in the States.

It’s bound to be a disaster. A beautiful, terrible, horrible disaster.

And we will absolutely watch it.


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