Italian television has just launched "Masterpiece," a reality show "in which aspiring authors vie at literary challenges until one contestant wins a major book deal." As the New York Times notes, "All the conventions of the TV talent show are present: the tantalizing possibility of fame, excruciating exposure, an expert panel delivering life-changing verdicts. There’s even a 'confessional' room where contestants can express their anguish (on video, naturally)."
The format sounds both hilariously absurd and (from the point of view of a fiction writer) truly nightmarish. There is a panel of three novelists (Andrea De Carlo, Giancarlo De Cataldo and Taiye Selasi) who sit in judgment on four contestants, each seated behind a keyboard. The contestants are given assignments, and then "every typed word [is] projected on screens for all to see, as a timer above their heads count[s] down and cameras swoop in for close-ups."
The format of the show also involves having the writers stand in front of the judges and read their work aloud (as in the photo above), as well as perform a 59-second elevator pitch to a celebrity guest.
Italian novelist Alessandro Baricco has his doubts. "Masterpiece will give many people an idea of literature," he said. "But it’s not the idea shared by most people who actually do it." It's hard to imagine any literary novelist -- except, perhaps, a Norman Mailer type, the kind who sees writing as a competitive sport and him- or herself as an alpha practitioner -- being able to rise to the occasion under these conditions. (And even then, the competitor's enjoyment of the combat wouldn't necessarily result in quality product.)
The double whammy of the instant sharing of ideas as they come and the ticking clock seems to make this a total nonstarter. I know I can't show my fiction to anybody until it's well underway or it goes completely to pieces. As if the demand for instant revelation and submission to judgment were not enough to kill the mojo, the looming timer pretty much disallows editing. And for most long-form writers, revision of the initial outpouring of crap is where the art starts.
This kind of deadline-based hothouse atmosphere might make for a great competition for, say, sitcom writers, for whom production of quality material on tight deadline is part of their required skillset. It's a heck of a stretch for novelists, though. If I were told to go on national television and produce some literary fiction with a timer tick-tocking behind me and the words I type appearing in full view as type them, I'd probably end up in a fetal position on the carpeting within the first five minutes. Hey, who knows? Maybe that's the point of the show: to provide viewers at home with the spectacle of writers publicly entering into dissociative fugue states. Sounds like a winner!