A couple of weeks ago I taught a memoir workshop where we discussed “the ethics of writing nonfiction.” Memoir is the literary equivalent of the reality TV show, and so I was rather surprised at what the workshop participants had to say about this era of “scripted nonfiction” that we are living in. “It’s all made up anyway,” one of them said. “You can’t believe any of it,” said another. “Just look at the shows on TV.” This writer was referring to the recent defeat of gay contestant Adam Lambert in the final round of American Idol, apparently as a result of voting manipulation.
I have to say I found these reactions a bit surprising. These were, after all, people who were diligently working away on memoirs. There seemed to be a disconnect between these writers wanting to tell the “truth” of their own lives and their view that the “reality” stories portrayed in the media were more or less completely false. It got me to wondering whether the era of the reality show might be over — having lost all credibility.
There has been so much scandal of late, both in television and in books, that the reality genre surely must have lost most of its bite. I’m not an idiot, you could hear people saying back when I taught the class. That big guy with the black eyeliner, he was way better than the other guy. And in the past few days we’ve had another dose of this sort of thing, with the disclosure that the purportedly happy TV couple, Jon and Kate, have been living apart for some time, and are now planning to divorce.
The funny thing is that none of this scandal appears to have dented the ratings of these shows. To the contrary, according to the New York Times, the Jon & Kate Plus 8 show jumped “to a record breaking audience of 10.6 million TV viewers” after the couple announced their separation. The more I thought about it, the more I began to see that these shows are now more about the scandals threatening to blow holes in their manipulated story lines than about the stories themselves.
Very little actually happens on these shows, which tend to verge on being product infomercials. The fun lies in waiting for the next revelation to tip over the apple cart. The people behind these shows walk a fine line. On the one hand, they benefit from scandal in terms of ratings. On the other hand, scandal often threatens to destroy the entire enterprise, as has happened this week with Jon & Kate Plus 8. It must be pretty nerve-racking for the producers.
Still, I believe it is these multiple levels of “reality” within the reality show genre that have helped keep it fresh, and that keep people watching long after the original formula has worn thin. Think of it as "The Producers versus The Tabloids." Can the folks behind Jon & Kate keep the show going, even as the Internet-fueled gossip-mongering makes everyone involved squirm? For that’s the reality show we are now watching. It must be very disconcerting for the media companies broadcasting these shows, even as it’s wicked good fun for everyone else.
My students who are writing memoirs, though, should probably keep this in mind, as they pen the literary equivalent of the reality TV show. James Frey sold far more books after he was excoriated on Oprah’s couch for his fabrications. But was it really worth the humiliation and the damage to his reputation? If you write a memoir these days, or if you produce a reality show, you need to be aware that you are stepping into the shark tank. A cynical public and the tabloid media are no longer looking at your narrative; they are looking for the holes in it.