Writing like a reality TV show? Kwame Alexander Presents “The Next Great American Author”


I guess it was inevitable.

We’ve had reality TV shows for singers, models, fashion designers, dancers, chefs, potters, and even artisans (the lovely “Making It” co-hosted by Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman), so now we’re going to have a reality show featuring writers.


“The Next Great American Author” “the breakthrough reality show for writers” is in the early planning stages, but the people behind the effort, including host/executive producer Kwame Alexander – writer of the level novel Newberry’s intermediate winner, “The Crossover” – suggest we’re considering a serious attempt to bring writing to television.

The project is actively seeking aspiring writers who will pitch their books to a panel of publishing experts and then seemingly compete in other challenges (perhaps similar to Top Chef’s quickfires), while also striving to finish a book from scratch in 30 days.

Personally, I am a mixture of skeptic and fascinated by this proposal.

One source of my skepticism is the apparent lack of hard currency backing the project, as the price offered for the single “winner” of the pilot episode is $2,500. I know that writing novels doesn’t pay particularly well, but given how much time and effort the show seems to require, even for a single episode, and the fact that only one contestant can expect to this payment, I don’t know what kinds of contestants the show can expect to attract.

Another source of skepticism, which mingles with my fascination, is wondering how the hell they are going to make the act of writing interesting for a viewer. Other reality TV shows have action inherently built into their structures. Singers sing, dancers dance, artisans glue pieces of felt together.

In ‘The Great British Baking Show’, even an utterly mundane task like carrying a decorative cake to the judges’ table becomes a heart-pounding moment as the audience fears those hours of hard work will crumble.

But writing is an entirely internal process with no external action other than the words appearing on the page. The act of writing can be deeply captivating. Watching someone else do it? Not really.

While working on this column, I was trying to imagine what a TV show might dramatize. Am I talking to myself in the shower thinking about what I might want to write?

Would they capture me kissing the dog, asking “Who’s a good boy?”

How about a challenge to see which contestant can last the longest without checking Twitter?

I just lost.

If you’re curious about what a writer’s handwriting looks like, there’s already an example available over 20 years ago currently archived on YouTube. In a pioneering project for its time, Robert Olen Butler, author of more books than I can count, winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (“A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain”), and also my academic mentor superiors, captured his entire process of writing a single short story over 30 hours of video.

It’s a fascinating artifact of what writing really is, a long, slow process of extracting the mind, often subconsciously, for the words that express what you’re trying to convey on the page. Bob Butler is exceptionally attuned to his own method, which makes it even more interesting, but no offense to my former teacher, not interesting enough for a series of reality competitions.

I’m for anything that elevates the act of writing and the position of writers, but for me it’s wait and see.

John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities”.

Twitter @biblioracle

Biblioracle book recommendations

John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you read

1. “The Legendary Life of AJ Fikry” by Gabrielle Zevin

2. “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

3. “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens

4. “The last thing he said to me” by Laura Dave

5. “Let’s not do that again” by Grant Ginder

— Missy P., Albuquerque, New Mexico

As I mentioned in a previous column, Ms. Biblioracle and I have recently moved house, which has required me to get my hands on all the books I own and put me back in touch with some I love, but which had fallen from the top of my conscience. . One of them is “Trust Exercise” by Susan Choi, which I think is a perfect match for Missy.

1. “Anxious people” by Fredrik Backman

2. “Olive, Again” by Elizabeth Strout

3. “The Abstinence Teacher” by Tom Perrotta

4. “Flying Solo” by Linda Holmes

5. “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles

—Carole T., Chicago

I think Carole will enjoy a witty, emotionally engaged novel about small town folks trying to make good on each other, Katherine Heiny’s “Early Morning Riser.”

1. “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life” by David Brooks

2. “When breath becomes air” by Paul Kalanithi

3. “Dopesick: The Pushers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Got America Addicted” by Beth Macy

4. “The Testaments” by Margaret Atwood

5. “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel

— Chiara M., Brooklyn, New York

I’m going to look at this first book on the list and offer what I think is a superior answer to the question of how we’re supposed to judge whether we’re living a meaningful life, “A Decent Life” by Todd May.

Get a reading from the Biblioracle

Send a list of the last five books you read and your hometown to [email protected].


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