I’ve decided that my new novel ‘Pop!’ is in fact the secret love child of George Orwell and Jessie J! Or maybe Suzanne Collins and Simon Cowell…crikey! what a thought!
Because ‘Pop! is perhaps only the latest chapter in the on-off, will-they-won’t-they love saga between reality TV and literature that’s been going on for decades.
After all, it was a character from Orwell’s dystopian ‘1984’ that spawned ‘Big Brother’ – the ‘big brother of all reality TV concepts’ – and now ‘Surveillance-TV’ is inspiring a new generation of novelists (myself included). Meanwhile, the boundaries are getting blurred: with reality TV stars turning novelist (and vice versa) and the editors of Reality TV melding fiction with reality in their heavily scripted ‘docu-soaps’.
For today’s young people the twin cults of celebrity and surveillance are a ubiquitous feature of the world they are growing up in. So perhaps it’s not surprising to find reality TV becoming an increasingly prevalent feature in children’s books. From dystopian fiction to satire, tweenie novels to spin-off chick-lit, the ‘Reality TV Novel’ is perhaps the ultimate 21st century hybrid!
Probably the best example is ‘The Hunger Games’ – which presents a dystopian future vision of a reality TV contest taken to a horrifying new level. And what makes it so brilliant (apart from the love triangle and the gruesome killing and unputdownable story line, that is!) is that the conventions it draws on are all so recognisable. The chat show style host and diary room-esque moments: it’s all just a small distortion away from Saturday night staple TV fare.
But it’s not only dystopian fiction that has been influenced by reality TV. The TV Talent contest has been a feature of some of the most interesting contemporary fiction to emerge over the last few years. Annabel Pitcher’s ‘My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece’ melds terrorism with televised talent contests; Joanna Nadin’s ‘The Money, Stan, Big Lauren and Me’ is like ‘The Treasure Seekers’ for the ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’ generation; and my own latest novel ‘Pop!’ is a mash-up of ‘Billy Elliot’, ‘Shameless’ and ‘The X Factor’.
What’s interesting about all these novels is that they confront complex contemporary issues – recession, strikes, terrorism – and in each the child protagonists see reality TV as a viable solution to their problems. And no wonder. Growing up under the shadow of recession, no wonder today’s young people are drawn to the rag-to-riches tales scripted by the editors of Saturday night TV. In bleak times, Talent TV seems offers the fairy-tale endings we crave – with Simon Cowell as the ultimate Fairy God-mother (or perhaps David Walliams will fight him for that particular tiara)!
My own forthcoming novel ‘Pop!’ sees a group of kids pursuing the Talent TV dream in the recession hit North West. In a community divided by strikes, winning ‘Pop to the Top!’ seems to offer these kids a chance to escape from broken homes, bankruptcy and bailiffs.
And Talent TV loves nothing more than a tragic ‘back story’, as my main character Elfie observes: ‘It might be a battle with cancer or drugs, or a dead dad/dog/goldfish who told you to ‘follow that dream’ or a crippling stutter or stage fright or just chronic ugliness … it doesn’t matter: if you want to win you need a healthy dose of misery in your back catalogue.’
And the folks in Talent TV-land are the ultimate story-tellers: from the heart-rending back stories; to the will- they won’t they moments; the rollercoaster rides; the butterfly-from-the-cocoon makeovers; the nail-biting cliff-hangers; the tear-jerking goodbyes and the edge-of-your-seat grand finales. The bods in the editing suites at ‘The X Factor’ and ‘BGT’ are some of the best story-tellers around today!
No wonder that they are starting to jump ship, going from from production houses to publishing deals! ‘Strictly Shimmer’ (described as ‘A 100% official Strictly Come Dancing novel, featuring the dancers, stars and judges you love!’) is written by Amanda Roberts, a production runner on the set of Strictly! And the ‘L.A. Candy’ series – a story of some girls being plucked from obscurity for a reality TV version of ‘Sex and the City’ – was actually written by Lauren Conrad, one of the stars of the hit US reality TV show ‘The Hills’.
And when it starts working the other way – with children’s writer David Walliams appearing on the judging panel of a Talent TV show (no doubt he’ll be writing a novel about it next!) – it all just gets too much to get your brain around!
Meanwhile, the new generation of Reality TV shows are also starting to play with their own fictionality. ‘Docu-soaps’ like ‘Desperate Scousewives’ ‘The Only Way is Essex’ and – my own particular fave – ‘Made in Chelsea’ warn us that, whilst, ‘these people are real, some scenes may have been staged for your viewing entertainment’. And when the producer turns ‘actor’ in his own show (a la Hugo from ‘MIC’) half the fascination of watching comes from trying to work out who’s playing who? Are the producers like puppet masters pulling the strings or are the ‘actors’ (characters? contestants?) now writing their own scripts, manipulating the conventions of the genre to their own ends?
Which is exactly what my main characters do in ‘Pop!’! Elfie reckons she’s figured out ‘Rules of Talent TV’ a foolproof recipe for attaining stratospheric stardom based on years of Talent TV watching. But then she sets out to manipulate them: staging her own ‘rollercoaster’ moments; scripting ‘car-crash’ TV and even trying to manipulate the judging panel – all with hilarious and heartbreaking consequences.
So, the shelves are stacked with ‘Reality TV Fiction’ but, if you ask me, the best of the genre sets out to explore what our national obsession with reality TV tells us about contemporary society. But what next: a TV Talent show for novelists? A televised version of a Talent TV novel? Who knows, but reality TV and fiction have got serious romantic history so I look forward to reading the next chapter in their tempestuous love affair!