Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What We Write About When We Write About Reality TV

Posted: 01/15/2013 -HuffPost

When people ask me where I got the idea to write The King of Pain--a novel about a loud-mouthed TV producer who wakes up pinned under his home entertainment system, the book of prison stories that keeps him company, and his hit reality show in which contestants are tortured--I generally weigh two options.

Option one involves telling a long multi-pronged story about my grandfather's 8 years in prison, watching "enter-pain-ments" like Survivor and Jersey ("Hell is other people") Shore, my reaction to Dick Cheney calling waterboarding "a no brainer," and an image that has been with me for years (a trapped man reading a book called "A History of Prisons"). All these elements came together in one eureka moment that was literally 20 years in the making.

Option two involves answering the question with a question: How can any writer living in the U.S. not think of a similar idea?

Reality TV is the most commercially successful format in the most dominant marketing medium in history. (Sorry, Internet, you'll be #1 soon.) This mutating, low-cost, high-ratings, often low-brow train wreck of a genre is everywhere: Network ads, 10 pm newscasts, talk shows, radio shows, gossip pages, magazines, billboards, posters. We tweet about it, we post about it, we discuss it over dinner and at school.

And, it turns out, we write books about it.
I didn't realize this while I was writing The King of Pain, living as I did in my own little writer-at-work-on-the-greatest-idea-ever bubble. But now that I've looked around, reality TV novels abound.
In a universe of absurd scripted social engineering projects (Jersey Shore), cringe-worthy docusoaps (The Real Housewives of Sodom and Gomorrah), and torture-lite competitions (Survivor), I assumed that most of the other reality TV books out there would be satirical works, like mine.
Silly me.
The forerunner of the reality TV novel was, appropriately enough for such a surreal genre, Franz Kafka's The Hunger Artist. This haunting, ambiguous 1922 short story about a man who "performed" before huge crowds, living in a cage for days on end without eating, may have been meant as an allegory about art and appreciation, but was decades ahead of its time in capturing the creepy voyeuristic and exploitative undercurrents that power so much reality TV. 
Full piece at HuffPost

No comments: