A Modest Proposal
Summer is the season for truly bizarre reality TV programming. The networks test out their flimsiest ideas: a show about musical chairs? The weirdly addictive Bachelor Pad? With TV viewers becoming less and less interested in unscripted shows, and so many skill-based competition series focusing on singing, cooking, and fashion, maybe now would be the time for an exec to take a crazy risk by green-lighting a competition show about writing books.
The prospect of a writing show is sometimes talked about but rarely taken seriously, because writing a book is hard, solitary work, and it would seem nothing could be more boring than watching someone do it. Even shows about writing music and writing movies, which have way more visual and cross-promotional potential than a show about writing books, have fizzled. As someone who loves writers as much as the fiction they create, I’d add a show about up-and-coming authors to my DVR if it’s done in a fun way. Here’s a ridiculously detailed pitch — half joking, half serious — for a fiction-writing competition I’d totally watch. Proposed title: Great American Author. Though a network would probably change it to The Next Best-Seller.
Bookish people sometimes get a reputation for being a mousy, un-telegenic bunch, but I can tell you from my experiences as an MFA student that struggling writers can often be argumentative, dramatic, delusional, promiscuous, and highly dysfunctional. In other words, reality TV gold! They can also be inspiring, brave, and funny — you have to have reality villains and heroes. Many of them actively seek out interesting experiences to serve as fodder for their work, so you might get a broader range of characters than the typical toned and tanned wannabe-actors you see on many reality shows.
There are certain writerly “types” you can cast for a good mix. There’s the pretentious, bearded experimental writer who looks down on anyone who uses adjectives or writes about anything resembling human emotions (typical first sentence: “BoyMan woke up with the realization that Brooklyn would explode if he ever shaved again.”) There’s the 20-something socialite who believes everyone wants to read literary accounts of his/her drug binges at boarding school. There’s the scarf-loving libertine who writes poetically about complicated young women who have affairs with much older professors. There’s the mom who realizes only after the kids are grown that she wants to be a novelist. And there’s no shortage of up-and-coming ethnic, sexual, and religious minority writers who can offer up different perspectives. The possibility for memorable reality TV personalities is endless.
Casting could get tricky, though, because you’d need writers who are serious about craft but are also shamelessly pursuing fame and fortune — who else would agree to the indignities of reality TV?
THE WRITER’S COLONY
Contestants will be housed in a hip but not sterile converted warehouse in Brooklyn. Unlimited supplies of coffee, dark liquor, cigarettes, subversive texts, and Moleskines will be provided.
Many established fiction writers and publishing professionals have little desire to be in front of the camera, but here’s a fantasy wish list for my judging panel. The head judge is usually a successful craftsman, like Tom Colicchio of Top Chef or Michael Kors from Project Runway. For this show, I’d pick Gary Shteyngart. Young writers love him, and he’s a good example of a contemporary writer’s writer who’s achieved a high level of recognition. Then, you need a media insider who isn’t a craftsman but an arbiter of taste, like Food & Wine‘s Gail Simmons on Top Chef or Vogue‘s André Leon Talley on America’s Next Top Model. In the fiction world, the equivalent might be Deborah Treisman of The New Yorker or Lorin Stein of The Paris Review. Then you need a host-slash-judge, and that person is typically the most relatable and famous person on the panel. I’d pick Kathryn Stockett, who has the right mix of literary and commercial appeal. Lastly, you need a mentor who’s in the workroom nurturing the contestants. My choice for the Tim Gunn role would be Pulitzer-winner Jennifer Egan — I know from having met her a few times that she’s incredibly warm and approachable, and she seems to genuinely enjoy talking to students about the craft of writing.
One of my favorite parts of this idea is the potential for guest judges. Here are some authors across genres I’d be excited to see on the air: Téa Obreht, Jeffrey Eugenides, Emily Giffin, John Irving, Helen Schulman, Tom Perrotta, Zadie Smith, Amy Tan, Tom Wolfe, Colson Whitehead, and Junot Diaz. And let’s not forget the possibility of using major editors and literary agents as judges, too.
Much like models amass their portfolios and fashion designers build up their collections, the fiction-writing contestants will work on their manuscripts throughout the season. Just to simplify things, the show should just focus on novels and short stories (poetry and memoir are a whole other show). Each week, the contestants either have to submit either a complete short story or a substantial portion of a novel. (Of course, most sane authors would never attempt to write an entire short story collection or novel in the time it would take to film the season, but this is reality TV we’re talking about.) After the airing of each episode, the contestants’ manuscripts-in-progress would be available on the show’s website. If the manuscripts are good, the show could garner a separate following online as fans eagerly await new installments.
The whole “competition” aspect would be the hardest to televise — how interesting is it to watch people write?
Let me just say to all you doubters: There’s nothing as mortifying — or schadenfreude-inducing — as one creative writer reading another creative writer’s bad prose aloud in a critical tone. If you find yourself queasily entertained by a singer’s devastation after one of Simon Cowell’s withering critiques, imagine the wannabe writers’ faces after a famous author dryly mocks their soul-deep observations on love and humanity. It’s awful, but it might also be entertainment.
With that in mind, the last 20-25 minutes of each episode take place in “The Workshop” — the equivalent to the runway from Project Runway, the Judges’ Table from Top Chef, and The Boardroom from The Apprentice. The contestants all sit around a big seminar table, and the discussion is moderated by the mentor as the judges watch silently. The show’s producers will decide beforehand which passages from the week’s submission each contestant will read out loud in front of everyone. (The readings, obviously, would be snappily cut down and re-edited for time in post-production.) In the tradition of real-life creative writing workshops, the mentor will ask everyone “What works?” in each person’s submission, and more importantly, “What needs work?” At this point, the writers are welcome to rip into their rivals’ stories, and this could be a strategic element of the show — the judges are watching, and the contestants can sway their opinion. But also in the tradition of real writing workshops, the writer whose work is being discussed can’t talk back (though they’re welcome to make faces!). They’re not allowed to argue until later. Ooh, drama.
An idea to make things more visual: Maybe in post-production, a bare-bones acting troupe can quickly and creatively dramatize what’s being read during the Workshop — only we at home could see the scenes. Maybe some weeks semi-famous New York character actors could act out parts. That could be funny and surprisingly tasteful — or, more likely, really corny.
After the Workshop, the judges debate the strengths and weaknesses of the submissions and each writer’s progress as the whole. In addition to observing the workshop, they’ve also read the entirety of each person’s work beforehand. They call back the three bottom writers, and those writers finally get a chance to defend their own work in front of the judges. The judges choose the loser, and the host-slash-judge delivers the all-important elimination catchphrase. In a perfect world, it’d be, “YOU’VE BEEN SLUSHPILED!” But if we’re being authentic to the publishing world there would have to be more decorum: “I’m afraid we’re going to pass on your manuscript” — or, more snappily, “I’m sorry, but it’s a pass.” If we’re being really authentic, they’d get a form rejection letter via snail mail six months later.
FLASH FICTION CHALLENGES
Most reality competitions start with a low-stakes mini-challenge that jolts the episode with a bit of action (like the Quickfire in Top Chef). In the case of my proposed writing competition, these mini-challenges would be more of a concession to the fact that it’s a TV show than a real test of a person’s ability, but here are some fun ideas:
Agent pitches: I love the “go-see” episodes of ANTM, and the publishing equivalent would be agent pitches. Toward the end of the season, the final contestants will have to run around New York City pitching their book to major literary agents, and whoever makes the best impression on the agents wins. Nothing like this really happens in the publishing world for an unproven author, but this is fantasy-meets-reality.
Ghost-writing: A celebrity visits the show and commissions an uber-short story based on an incident from his/her life. The celebrity chooses the winner. (This challenge would make a lot of writers want to kill themselves, but come on … it’d be funny to watch a serious Iowa grad try to create art out of Kim Kardashian’s latest crisis.)
Book tour: Each contestant has to give an author reading at a packed bookstore.
Group-story: The contestants divide into teams of three. The team members can’t talk to each other, and they take turns writing one sentence at a time. Stories must have a beginning, middle, and end — best team wins.
Day jobs: Struggling writers often have to take crappy temp jobs in order to eat, and some of them might even sneak some writing while they should be answering phones. In this challenge, each contestant has to spend a day working at a job that’s especially busy and especially crappy and still find time to write a good short piece of fiction about the workplace by the time they clock out — and getting fired is an immediate DQ. Examples of jobs: Being the secretary to a horrible boss; nanny-ing evil children; working at an indie coffee house where the customers have really particular demands; pouring drinks at a bar full of NYU kids who need their IDs checked. Of course the producers would make sure the bosses are totally unreasonable and crazy.
Inspiration: Most of these challenges will involve writing flash fiction based on some form of inspiration: food, paintings, songs, etc.
Imitation: Each contestant picks a famous dead writer’s name out of a hat. The contestants have an hour to research the dead writer’s works. Then they have to write a 500-word story in the dead writer’s voice about some really contemporary topic, like modern love in the digital age.
“Hills Like White Elephants”: This is really MFA-nerdy of me, but contestants must write a short story consisting entirely of dialogue between one male and one female character. Two famous Broadway actors will perform each story; the guest judge will pick the winner.
The tear-jerker: After months of being cloistered during a show’s filming, reality contestants get starved for outside interaction — there’s always that weepy Survivor episode when loved ones from back home visit the island. What if the writers’ loved ones visit, and the writers have to read the one passage from their manuscript that they’re most uncomfortable about sharing to their loved ones? Especially intense since many writers are driven by unresolved family trauma.
Mini-prizes for the mini-challenge winners: Cash, one-on-one time with famous authors, notes by an experienced editor for the current week’s submission prior to The Workshop, publication in literary magazines, the opportunity to sell a winning short piece as a Kindle Single, etc.
THE BIG PRIZE
What else but a six-figure book deal with whichever publishing house the TV network decides to partner with. Plus publicity from the network’s affiliated national morning show.
Would you ever watch a writing competition on TV? Would it be good or bad for the publishing world? Or should fiction writing and reality television never mix?
A Modest Proposal