Literary media has been buzzing with the news of Masterpiece, an Italian game show which is offering one lucky author the chance of mainstream publication with a planned 100,000-copy print-run. Well, it had to happen, didn’t it?
Masterpiece whittled down 5,000 applicants to 70 wannabes, and thence to four “contestants” in each edition. The key section of each 90-minute show is to drop the writers in an unfamiliar environment (for example, spending a day with the blind), then take them back to the studio, sit them in front of a computer – and a studio audience, and give them 30 minutes to write what they can about it. For the two contestants who survive to the final round, each gets 60 seconds to give their “elevator pitch” to the Editor-in-Chief of the sponsoring publishing house as they travel with her in, er, an elevator.
This all sounds perfectly hideous to me; a crushing commercialisation of fiction writing thought up by desperate TV execs who are running out of ways to milk the talent show genre further. Putting writers on a stage with an audience and expecting them to produce their best, most compelling work, seems utterly ludicrous.
However, the most insidious aspect is that Masterpiece constitutes little more than yet another writing lottery, albeit a very public one. Yes, one of those 70 will win a contract and may go on to have a glittering literary career. Perhaps. But 69 of them most certainly will not, and will likely spend the rest of their writing careers hoping no one recognises them as a loser on the show. Wannabe authors are not the same as wannabe singers, comedians and actors. For many writers, the very attraction of the craft is the solitude; the crafting of characters, stories and themes in the privacy of our own heads.
On the other hand, what do I know? A look around suggests that I might be in a minority. In this piece on Publishing Perspectives, Claude Nought watched the first edition and reported on the show’s structure, and how the writers had a coach. Nought concluded that none of the contestants were in any way humiliated. Perhaps they weren’t humiliated in a manner seen on some talent shows, but that doesn’t mean their failure to progress won’t affect them in other ways. Yes, a setback can be a Good Thing, if their very public failure doesn’t destroy their will to write.
So, is it only a matter of time before someone in US and UK television buys the format? According to the author and co-founder of Writer Beware, Victoria Strauss, it looks like we’ve already been there. Strauss is generally not impressed with Masterpiece because “who but another writer is interested in writers writing?” and then lists half-a-dozen writer-themed talent shows which, ahem, didn’t get past the first draft. Way back in 2007, shows with titles such as Publish My Book!, American Book Factory, and The Ultimate Author were being bandied about as the Next Big Thing. If Masterpiece succeeds where they failed, it must surely be just a matter of time before the format spreads virus-like to TV screens around the world, in a manner not dissimilar to the oft-forecasted zombie apocalypse.