8 Novelists Who Should be Getting Paid to Write Reality TV
Lucas Mann, author of ‘Captive Audience,’ pairs fiction writers with reality television shows
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I n this cultural moment where prestige dramas are dominating the airwaves and generating endless thought pieces, the idea of the bingeable teledrama as the new novel is already a cliché. More and more great prose writers are realizing that they can make a lot of money writing shows without sacrificing their literary cred. But television’s ascent into high culture hasn’t included reality TV, and I think that’s a huge untapped opportunity for book writers.
After all, if people uniformly claim now that unscripted reality shows are, in fact, quite scripted, why can’t we give our best writers the job of writing these scripts? I’m not expecting this idea to take off instantly, though I do think I deserve a reasonable finder’s fee if it does and I eagerly await the appreciative emails from these writers. Here are eight pairings of some of our greatest prose stylists with the reality TV shows they were always meant to write:
“Keeping Up With The Kardashians” by Hanya Yanagihara
KUWTK is the benchmark of the modern reality genre: immensely, almost confusingly watchable; seemingly unending; crammed with every possible emotion, as we trace what may end up being the entire lives of its characters. In this way, it’s closer to the shape of the classic Russian novels than most modern novelists dare to get. But not Yanagihara. With A Little Life, she proved willing and able to plumb the kind of ongoing depths provided in the Tolstoy/Kardashian experience. Also, Yanagihara has the remarkable ability to make an audience sustain care for the grossly and unapologetically wealthy, which is the job requirement of KUWTK.
“Naked and Afraid” by Chris Kraus
It’s a tragedy that Amazon canceled the TV adaptation of Kraus’s incredible I Love Dick, but fuck it — who needs Jeff Bezos? Let’s move on. I would welcome a Chris Kraus treatment of every reality show ever made, but I’ll start here, with Naked and Afraid. There’s a line in I Love Dick, when Kraus’s autobiographical protagonist describes being a lover of a certain kind of bad art, which offers a transparency into the hopes and desires of the person who made it. Who better to provide the lines that telegraph the murky motivations of these strangers who sign up to be dropped into the woods together, ass naked, demanding to be seen?
“Sister Wives” by Alice Munro
First of all, polygamy seems like the perfect match for any short story writer who can give quick, quiet, and devastating insights into the perspective of each wife and child. But a polygamist family famous for its veneer of suburban normalcy? If there was ever a reason for Munro to leave retirement, it is this.
“The Challenge” by Junot Diaz
What novelist better expresses the toxic absurdity of modern masculinity than Diaz? And what figures have more clearly embodied it for the past decade than the stalwarts of The Challenge — men like CT and Johnny Bananas? They keep getting older and thicker; they return to the same situations with the same women, fuck up again. Swaggering, angry, horny, and ultimately sad, these men were born for Junot Diaz to shed light on their souls.
“Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” by Han Kang
If I know anything about Han Kang, it’s that she can write a haunting dream involving meat. If I assume anything about Guy Fieri, it’s that he has many haunting dreams involving meat.
“The Bachelor” by Mary Gaitskill
Mary Gaitskill’s characters often lead double lives: a dark, vulnerable, and often brutal side hiding behind their public facades. Contestants on The Bachelor start off with perfect blow-outs and earnest proclamations of “being here for right reasons”, but they eventually crumble into a teary-eyed mess at just the right made-for-tv moments. Just close your eyes and think about the biting portraits Gaitskill, an astute observer of human behavior, would come up with.
“Vanderpump Rules” by Bret Easton Ellis
Not surprisingly, Bret Easton Ellis is the rare contrarian novelist who is out in the open with his reality TV love, once proclaiming that the Real Housewives shows were more interesting than most modern novels. If he loves all the nastiness of human nature that the Real Housewives explore, I say let him loose on the world of Vanderpump Rules, a Real Housewives spinoff that is, in my humble opinion, the ideal docu-soap. Like Ellis’s best work, the characters of Vanderpump exist in the dark spaces between seductive excess and simmering rage. Plus, like any great Ellis novel, drugs of the snorting variety are a huge catalyst in Vanderpump (legal disclaimer: that’s speculation, but come on).
“Million Dollar Listing: New York” by Jay McInerney
I mean, isn’t every New York novel just a story about assholes and expensive real estate?
Lucas Mann was born in New York City and received his MFA from the University of Iowa. He is the author of Lord Fear: A Memoir and Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere. His latest book, Captive Audience: On Love and Reality TV, will be published in the US by Vintage on May 1st, 2018. He teaches creative writing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and lives in Providence, Rhode Island with his wife.