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What We Write About When We Write About Reality TV

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When people ask me where I got the idea to write The King of Pain--a novel about a loud-mouthed TV producer who wakes up pinned under his home entertainment system, the book of prison stories that keeps him company, and his hit reality show in which contestants are tortured--I generally weigh two options.

Option one involves telling a long multi-pronged story about my grandfather's 8 years in prison, watching "enter-pain-ments" like Survivor and Jersey ("Hell is other people") Shore, my reaction to Dick Cheney calling waterboarding "a no brainer," and an image that has been with me for years (a trapped man reading a book called "A History of Prisons"). All these elements came together in one eureka moment that was literally 20 years in the making.

Option two involves answering the question with a question: How can any writer living in the U.S. not think of a similar idea?

Reality TV is the most commercially successful format in the most dominant marketing medium in history. (Sorry, Internet, you'll be #1 soon.) This mutating, low-cost, high-ratings, often low-brow train wreck of a genre is everywhere: Network ads, 10 pm newscasts, talk shows, radio shows, gossip pages, magazines, billboards, posters. We tweet about it, we post about it, we discuss it over dinner and at school.

And, it turns out, we write books about it.

I didn't realize this while I was writing The King of Pain, living as I did in my own little writer-at-work-on-the-greatest-idea-ever bubble. But now that I've looked around, reality TV novels abound.

In a universe of absurd scripted social engineering projects (Jersey Shore), cringe-worthy docusoaps (The Real Housewives of Sodom and Gomorrah), and torture-lite competitions (Survivor), I assumed that most of the other reality TV books out there would be satirical works, like mine.

Silly me.

The forerunner of the reality TV novel was, appropriately enough for such a surreal genre, Franz Kafka's The Hunger Artist. This haunting, ambiguous 1922 short story about a man who "performed" before huge crowds, living in a cage for days on end without eating, may have been meant as an allegory about art and appreciation, but was decades ahead of its time in capturing the creepy voyeuristic and exploitative undercurrents that power so much reality TV.

The first reality TV novel that I now know of was a dystopian thriller and actually pre-dates the TV genre's explosion, which was detonated in 1992 by MTV's The Real World (a great name for a completely fabricated set up). The honor goes to Stephen King, who, writing as Richard Bachmann, published The Running Man, a futuristic, dystopian predecessor of The Hunger Games, in 1987. King is credited with many things, but it may be time to add social visionary to his list of accolades.

After Mr. King's breakthrough, the reality TV novel genre stalled. No doubt, the universe of novelists needed time to recover after sitting at home, mouths agape, minds numbed by the likes of Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie in The Simple Life.

In 2001, 14 years after The Running Man, the reality TV novel debuted overseas. English TV writer and comic Ben Elton delivered Dead Famous, a murder mystery and send up of Big Brother. Then came Sulfuric Acid, a controversial 2005 novel by acclaimed Belgian author Amélie Nothomb, that is set in the future and concerns "Concentration"- a show set in a recreated death camp.

In 2006, Carolyn Parkhust, author of The Dogs of Babel, delivered Lost and Found, a novel about contestants on an Amazing Race-like show. In 2007, Chuck Barris, yes, the Gong Show host, published The Big Question, a wild book in which contestants must answer a final question correctly (and win millions) or face immediate execution.

And with that the genre picked up steam and left satire behind. 2008 gave us Suzanne Collins' dystopian The Hunger Games, and year later a second reality TV novel franchise, L.A. Candy, was born, this time tackling very different kind of hell. Written by bestselling author Lauren Conrad, the former reality star of MTV series Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County and a spin-off, The Hills, L.A. Candy spawned two sequels about the ups and downs and lives and loves of the young and fabulous, as well as a second series, The Fame Game.

A look at a list of 36 Reality Show Themed Novels on Goodreads.com reveals that the satirical TV novel, which mocks all facets of the genre, and dystopias, which use the TV format to celebrate heroism in the face of extreme cruelty, have taken a back seat to romance, chick-lit and gay porn, which use the game show backdrop as little more than a social-set up. Reading the book descriptions of titles like Magic Mansion, Scandal Fever and the dismally titled Cream for Me, it's clear satire and cultural critique are not the drivers here.

In fact, many of the writers on the list appear to be very in sync with reality show producers--dealing in sensationalist, lowbrow entertainment that ignores any deeper examination of the disturbing questions and issues raised by the genre. Are contestants being exploited? Are the viewers? What does it mean to passively watch ambition and dreams morph into manufactured competition aimed at stoking hurt and humiliation for so many and triumph for so few?

But I'm not totally alone. In 2011, Andrew Foster Altschul joined Elton, Nothop and Barris with his satirical novel, Deus Ex Machina, riffing on a Survivor-like show called "The Deserted." And I'm sure there are others I've missed.

So while it is now clear I have not, in fact, written the world's first reality TV novel, it's reassuring to discover others have worked in a similar vein. There is, indeed, a tiny subgenre: the satirical reality TV novel. Now the question is what's next?

Unfortunately, probably not much. It turns out book publishing industry has a terrible attitude toward the serious Hollywood novel. One editor who "passed" on The King of Pain told my agent: "I'd be worried about its fate here--at (name of major imprint), people run screaming at the words 'showbiz satire.'" The editor was clearly afraid of the industry lore: these types of books don't sell.

Of course, that industry lore ignores Get Shorty, What Makes Sammy Run? The Player, Day of the Locust, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Books, no doubt, that would send editors running screaming, right? That's the odd thing about books: they work when they work.

So it's likely the satirical reality TV novel will remain in the margins, fighting the good fight.

And that's too bad, because given the dismal, non-critical, exploitative, voyeur-vision, Honey Boo Boo state of reality television, the best shows on TV may actually be books.

Not counting Cream for Me, that is.

As for me? I'm working on a sequel.