November 15, 2013

So You Think You Can Write


It was only a matter of time until writers made it onto reality television (I guess?), and Tom Rachman reports in the New York Times that the Italians have beat the rest of us to it. Debuting on Sunday in Italy, Masterpiece is a show with a board of judges, a confessional room, and the chance for aspiring authors to try their hands at writing until one of them gets a book deal.

How many people feel like they need public pressure to get words onto the page? Five thousand potential novelists applied for the show within a month, which is a smaller number than you’d expect, actually, and the TV staff whittled the submission pile down to a group of four writers per episode. Writers have thirty minutes to complete each prompt, and must read their work aloud to the judges after the allotted time.

In the most public writing workshop imaginable, writers’ words are projected on a screen behind them for the audience to read as they type. (Rachman reminds us of the “Monty Python” sketch about the writing of Return of the Native.) The contestants are evaluated by a judging panel of well-known Italian novelists, Taiye Selasi, Andrea De Carlo and Giancarlo De Cataldo.

(In the L.A. Times, Carolyn Kellogg made a list of eleven writing-based reality show pitches of her own.)

Some actual challenges from the show that are mentioned in the article:

1) Spend a day with the blind. Write a diary entry from the perspective of someone who has gone blind.

2) Watch a wedding. Write a one-page story from the perspective of a man who must watch his lover marry someone else.

OK, I didn’t say they were going to be good challenges. You could come up with these prompts on your own and set a thirty-minute timer. You could buy any book on writing and find something more original.

Becoming TV famous isn’t a terrible way to build your platform as an unknown writer. But there are at least two major points that make the idea of a reality show about writers totally untenable (I’ll spare you ‘writing should be done alone in a room,’ or ‘this is probably boring to watch’).

The first is that a writer’s initial ideas are rarely shared with the reader, and often take months or years before the seeds of those ideas turn into something she can work with. How can you eliminate a novelist for a half-baked idea? Moreover, some of the best ideas prove difficult to resolve in a satisfying way in the final pages of a book — which is why few novels are ever acquired based on a proposal.

But the second issue is bigger. Bompiani, a big publisher in Italy, is publishing the winner’s book in May with initial print run of 100,000 copies. Unless the public will really buy the books of the people on television, that’s a career-destroying number of copies. Even if a writer manages to be TV-famous, write publishable stories in under thirty minutes, and win votes from the public, she may never be able to write a second book.

Alessandro Baricco, a prominent Italian novelist who turned down the opportunity to be on the show, said to Rachman, “Masterpiece will give many people an idea of literature. But it’s not the idea shared by most people who actually do it.”


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.