Reading Kevin's Forum post about the guy who falsely claimed Oprah status (James Frey Redux) reminded me of an issue that's been simmering under my hat for a while. It's linked to the must-be-a-memoir-to-get-on-Oprah craze--which I guess is a subcategory of the self-help genre.

Other than for reasons of network economics, can anyone explain the morbid fascination with"reality" entertainment? The commercials for some of these shows seem like a Mad Magazine parody (the one with the women who are ten years younger and ten years older than 'the catch' they fight over comes to mind).

I've never been able to fully watch one of these things. Am I missing something? I mean, the creepy crawly underbelly of American culture is something I can write about, but somehow seeing it displayed between beer and erectile dysfunction drug commercials makes it all so much worse. There's nothing "real" about this stuff, yet it continues to generate big bucks for somebody.

This blur between fiction, 'reality' and fantasy is just plain disturbing. And where does it leave us, the creators of fictional worlds? Will the kids growing up with Survivor even look at a novel?

If you know the answer, please share. Maybe someone will come up with a cure. Or at least a brighter entertainment future than "American Idol lives the Simple Life serving as Apprentice in the Kitchen to the Bachelor who Thinks He Can Dance."


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I share the pain, Margot. I was brought up not to rubber-neck at accidents, and that's what reality tv (and tabloids and much of tv news) feels like these days.

I've got a burgeoning theory (putting on my pop cultural historian hat, here) that we're in a similar state of hysteria to the early Cold War years. "True crime" was very popular in mass media, similar pressures were exerted on the press (though there were people like Murrow and Shirer to resist), consumerism was the national pastime. Of course, a big difference is that the 1949 economy really was robust.

And even so, the mass media at the time is dignified (yeah, even Tales of the Crypt) in comparison with some of the stuff on TV.

I thought we got some journalism back in the wake of Katrina. I hope it grows and doesn't get completely stomped out by Rupert Murdoch.
I don't think it's all that new. American Idol is just a tarted-up amateur hour; Punk'd is just Candid Camera. This stuff is as old as television. There's just more of it now. Perhaps if Hollywood was telling better stories, people would be watching those instead, but it's not and they're not.

I'm more disturbed by what I call "news-flavored programming" -- Nancy Grace, Greta van Susteren, Chris Matthews, To Catch a Pervert, and all the purveyors of the Missing Pretty White Woman du jour boogieman tales.

Two 'pundits' screaming at each other ain't news, and I think that's more corrosive to the national spirit and psyche than a bunch of hambones playing Robinson Crusoe for a new SUV.

Your mileage may vary.
Thanks for the comment, Kev, especially as your own forum post got me thinking about these things.

'Sfunny--I think we've got similar odometers. As I was going to sleep last night, I was trying to sort out the degrees of distaste--the 'ick' factor--in reality TV. American Idol and most of the contest stuff doesn't bother me, because--as you point out--they've been with us for a long time, and many seem fairly benign. Sinatra got his start on Maj. Bowes' Amateur Hour (with the Hoboken 5, I think). Queen for a Day (which I personally find disturbing) was the forerunner to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. In some ways, though, I could make a case that the Survivor kind of programming is a descendant of the Roman amphitheater. Scary thought.

My own response to 'reality' shows--no matter how long they've been around--depends on what I'll call the degrade factor: How much will people degrade themselves in order to be on television? And why is watching someone degrade themselves (and, admittedly, many will not think of it as degrading, which in itself is very scary) entertainment? The Truman Show, anybody?

This relates to your observation about the "news-flavored programming", which I think is spot-on. Issues are issues, not just loud-mouthed opinion, but by obscuring data, statistics, and other facts (which much of the public seems to either not under understand or not care about to a large extent) with blubber and bluster, journalism has forsaken real debate. It's a reality show of its own, a "Who's got the biggest mouth?" contest between who can be more obnoxious or downright nasty.

Where's the news? And why don't people want to hear it?
Excellent topic. The books that sell best are non-fiction. Almost all involve helping people improve their dysfunctional lives. As we lose more and more readers (1 in 4 Americans never reads a book of any sort, according to some blog someplace), few people mention the fact that the remaining readers turn to non-fiction.

In other words, people no longer dream impossible dreams. They want hands-on experiences.
Thanks, L.J. I find this very worrying, too. I link the "reality" craze to the memoir explosion (Are you alive? Have you overcome any legal, health, mental, financial or emotional problems? Write a memoir!) and a precipitous decline in imagination.

A close friend works at a large corporation in SF--one with a large proportion of creative, well-educated, affluent people. She's amazed to find out that most don't read anything but self-help books along the lines of Attila the Hun: CEO and Who Moved My Yogurt. Fiction of any ilk, apparently, is too demanding.

People need to fantasize--we all know that--and imagination is linked not only to fantasy, but to all sorts of complex reasoning abilities. So what's killing imagination? And can the Harry Potter generation alone bring it back?
Good point. I suppose my concerns revolve around the new definition of 'prominent' (the old 'sleazy'), as well as to whom the confessional aspect is aimed.

I'm tempted to link this seemingly unquenchable desire to expose oneself to a wide audience of strangers (i.e., memoirs, video life-cams on hats, "reality" shows, YouTube, etc.) to an anxiety of globalization--that is, the more closely the world is connected, the more desperately necessary it may be for many to feel significant.

I guess only time will tell ... and in the meantime, we've got DVD and the occasional cable show. ;)
i'm not sure it will ever end. i think that as a culture we're starved for meaningful human interaction, and sadly this is how we get our fix.

my interaction so far today:

read and replied to a few emails

walked to the post office.
passed several strangers on the way. briefly interacted with the girl at the post office as my package was processed. then i walked to the drugstore, crossing several busy streets. i had a green pedestrian sign, but at every intersection the drivers ignored my right of way which reinforces the people-are-assholes viewpoint. bought a few things at the drugstore and headed in the direction of home. passed more strangers on the sidewalk. stopped at the farmer's market and bought honey from a friendly stranger. continued on. the mailman said hi.

now i'm here.
I'd hate to think that what passes for reality on television is our only cultural interaction.

Older generations tend to be much more socialized. Whenever I encounter seniors on the bus, at events, in the stores, as a rule they tend to launch conversations, which I gladly enter into.

Writing is so solitary, I think it's more necessary for writers to get out and talk--whether through volunteering, socializing, or even taking a class in something you find interesting. Crimespace is extraordinary, but nothing replaces human contact.

Anyway, Anne, I shout out a loud "Hi!"... and hope we can talk in person some time.
I've been thinking a lot about this topic myself and more specifically how it relates to publishing. If you guys can forgive a very long post and a reprint to boot, here's something I wrote about "realness" back in January of 06. If not or if you read it already, feel free to skip to the next post.

We as a culture seem to be totally obsessed with phony “realism.” Reality TV. Reenactments. Based on a TRUE STORY. There is this unshakable idea that something is better (and more marketable) if it “really happened.” It seems almost as if people don’t trust themselves to decide if a story is good or not and they need some kind of empirical data, some verifiable proof before they feel comfortable allowing themselves to enjoy it. According to this logic, if a story “really happened,” then it must have some kind of resonant and undeniable truth that gives it deeper meaning and sets it above all criticism.

Hogwash. Me, I love fiction, reading it and writing it. True crime books can be fun and entertaining, but I prefer to read (and write) made up stuff. Real reality, that is to say the unvarnished chronicling of actual events, is horrendously dull. Just ask anyone who ever had to read through transcripts of actual conversations. Writers like Laura "JT Leroy" Albert (The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, Sarah) and James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) knew that their made up stories would be much more successful if they were perceived as “real.” Not boring everyday real, but that weird twilight celebrity real of Reality TV. It blows me away that James Frey first tried to sell his book as fiction and couldn’t get arrested until he reworked it to make it “real.” This just goes to show the power of this weird tabloid “realness” in publishing. It seems like the thing that hooked Oprah and her legions of female readers on A Million Little Pieces was not the vividness or power of the prose, but this “realness.” The “honesty” and “unvarnished truth” of the harsh, gritty narrative. Yet I can’t imagine Oprah recommending Charles Bukowski or Edward Bunker or Stephen Elliot or any number of authors who have poured all their own inner darkness, shame, addictions and criminal experiences into their fictional work. Why? Because those stories are “just” fiction. Those stories are made up, not “real.” It doesn’t matter that the stories were written by a real alcoholic, a real criminal or a real sexual abuse survivor because they don’t have that histrionic tabloid confessional me-me-me flavor that seems to make readers go all gooey and sympathetic. Oprah herself mentioned how she had to stop reading A Million Little Pieces several times and turn back to the author photo to reassure herself that he was alive and safe, that the author/character had survived the hell described in the book. If the character had been presented as fictional in the first place there would be no such comfort available. Plus, a fictional character can’t appear on your television show and get all dewy eyed and vulnerable over his shameful past so you can give him a big hug and make it all better.

(OK maybe Bunker isn’t the best example, since he actually did write a legit “real” memoir, but while he was still alive he sure wasn’t young and handsome enough to go flog it on Oprah.)

Of course, once the ruse is discovered, the author is reviled as an evil liar. Excuse me, but aren’t we writers all liars? Isn’t that a writer’s job, to lie so well that it makes you love, hate, or otherwise identify with made up people? James Frey was not evil, he was smart. He, like Laura “J.T. Leroy” Albert, saw which side of his bread was buttered and went with it. Now, everyone is all pissed off because those writers gave them exactly what they wanted. The world is full of alcoholic, crack addicted criminals and sexually abused teenage hustlers and I would imagine that most of them are terrible writers. They probably wouldn’t be very entertaining as guests on Oprah either.

While I often say that you don’t have to be a murderer (or a murder victim) to write about murder, any more than you need to be a monster or an alien to write horror or science fiction, I can’t say that I have never benefited from the marketing power of “realness.” I received a lot of attention for my first novel CONTROL FREAK because I worked as a professional Dominatrix. Reviews sited how “real” the novel was, and attributed that realism to the fact that I lived the lifestyle I described in my fiction. However, I never claimed to be any of the characters in that novel. In fact, I was told by more than one prospective agent that they could not sell CONRTOL FREAK, but that if I wanted to write a “true” story about myself as a pro Domme, that they could sell the hell out of it.

This strange business with phony “realness” seems to go much deeper than simply writing what you know or being meticulous in your research. It’s about pseudo-celebrity and this modern fetish for divulging all your most shameful secrets on national TV, even if you have to make them up. Give me the totally constructed, artificial, set bound and shadow painted world of film noir over Reality TV any day. Give me stories, not true confessions. I want fiction.
Amen, Christa. Very eloquent, and beautifully said.

There's an elevation, a lift to fiction that we as writers can give it--noir can transform the tawdry into the sophisticated, the squalid into splendor, the disfigured into glamorous beauty. An instance of a man marrying and having children with his mother is grotesquely repugnant on every level. But the art of the writer--and actor, when you see the play--somehow lifts this above yet another horrific peep at one of the most basic taboos and makes it high tragedy.

Reality can not only be boring, but horrific and sad and make you want to jump off the nearest bridge. It's easy to focus on the muck--there's too much of it in too many places. As fiction writers, we can make it mean something--make it have a point--and maybe--just maybe--give people something to cling to that is more 'real' than Lindsay Lohan's rehab stints.
Jon said: Said bigwigs aren't known, by and large, for being creative envelope-stretchers--they tend to chase celebrity with big money (usually a mistake) and place very small bets on that which is original or outside the box--if they bet at all.

Paralleling the disappearance of the middle class is the disappearance of the midlist. I think most writers would be happy to make $50,000/year. Those advances hardly exist. You're more likely to find $5,000 or $500,000. The midgee advances are spread out there to keep the field alive and (perhaps) find someone who can be grown into the next Sue Grafton or Janet Evanovich.

And then there are the truly ludicrous payouts. Last year, I reviewed the first novel by a playwright - the ms was the subject of an unholy weekend bidding war and he ended up with $2 mil for two novels. Guess what? The first one got terrible reviews and (from what I understand) performed way below expectations. Sure, he'll get the rest of his money - but he'll be hard-pressed to stay in the business after that. If they give you $2 million, you'd better earn back $2 million for them, and quite a bit more. Publishing houses are not dumb...mostly.

That goes a long way toward explaining why delicately written, highly literary memoirs by unknown authors go begging -- and why the New York houses will spend big-time on My Pursonel Storry by Me!, Britney Spears! or whatever.

As a side note: the biggest advance I ever got was for an "as told to" book - I was to be the amanuensis to an exceedingly minor celebrity who had known some major ones. Before it was done, the publishing house underwent a spasm and dropped about 1/3 of its upcoming titles, including mine.

Which was, as they say, A Good Thing. And I kept the money, thank God - because my other advances were a lot closer to $5,000 than $500,000.
I remember that there was a brief "Woe is Us" from good TV writers when reality shows got their legs, then they just packed their PCs and headed for cable. They make less money, sit farther back at the awards shows but still the public finds their stuff and enjoys it. Watch "Rescue Me." The monsters living under Dennis Leary's bed must be amazing. "Saving Grace" also has some great potential.

The reality stuff is mostly about cheap distraction. As is the news. If you can't afford to upset your corporate owners and they keep your budget such that you can't afford to go looking for truth, you just turn out fluff that is one step away from ripping it off of the AP printer. All the talking heads can only be clever if they have straight white teeth and great cleavage (boys and girls).

I think readers and writers have always had the world's "back" so to speak. From Cave Painters to E-ziners and alternative newspapers/sources. We may have more layers to get through and more competition, but heck, Gutenberg (sp) knew there were only half a dozen guys within 100 miles who knew how to read, but he wrote anyway.

As for existing in ever increasing isolation. I don't think reality TV contributes to that. Quite the opposite. The five people in my office who are devoted reality fans hold regular coversations with each other. I have no idea what they're talking about, but I plunder great snippets of conversation that I store for future use. Its the reward for having an office across from the inner office mail boxes and the copy machine.


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