America’s Next Top Novelist

January 22, 2008 | 6 3 min read

Those wandering aimlessly through the barren channels in the midst of the writers’ strike are no doubt aware that reality programming, already a staple, has flooded in to fill the void. In fact, the heavyweight of the format, “American Idol,” is now back for a seventh season.

“American Idol” is what I like to call occupational reality programming. In this strain of the genre, the goal is to bypass the paying of dues and the climbing of the ladder to go directly to your dream job. Sure the show’s creators make it tough with grueling schedules and the very real possibility of nationally televised humiliation, but it still beats making a go of it on your own. Who would choose working two jobs, scraping together rent, and maxing out credit cards in pursuit of one’s dream over a twelve-week race on prime time TV?

Television networks have given us many examples of occupational reality programming. “Project Runway,” “Top Chef,” and the ultimate guilty pleasure, “America’s Next Top Model,” have all been favorites in the Millions household at one time or another. Donald Trump-vehicle “Apprentice” strikes me as perhaps the oddest example of occupational reality programming in that the prize is simply a crappy sounding job down the hall from someone who has to be one of the worst bosses of all time, Trump himself. No thanks, I’d rather be a temp. Meanwhile, TV execs have tried to give nearly every occupation its reality show doppelganger, from interior designer (“Top Design”) to stand up comedian (“Last Comic Standing”).

And so it must cause no small amount of consternation among aspiring writers not to mention agents and editors with visions of prime time stardom, that the art of fiction has not yet been deemed worthy of the reality treatment. Perhaps it is the visually dull finished product or the often copious amount of time spent in the throes of creation or the sometimes less than telegenic writerly types who might comprise the cast.

Until “Fiction Idol” debuts, the internet has been filling the gap with several contests in recent years that have offered publication as a prize. Recently, a contest sponsored by Amazon and Penguin asked readers to “help decide who will be the next breakthrough author.”

The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award has winnowed down an initial submission pool of nearly 5,000 novels down to a group of semifinalists. Finalists will be announced on March 3rd and a winner on April 7th with the prize being “a full publishing contract with Penguin to market and distribute Grand Prize winner’s winning Manuscript as a published book, including promotion for such published book on” The contract comes with a $25,000 advance, nothing to scoff at for the typical aspiring novelist. (A contest sponsored by Simon & Schuster and recently awarded publishing contracts and $5,000 advances to a pair of first-time romance novelists.)

The Amazon prize seems laudable in that the contest doesn’t appear to be a ruse to bilk wannabe writers via exorbitant reading fees, nor does it impose an onerous contract upon the “winner.” The now infamous Sobol Award promised just that in 2006. Agent-blogger Miss Snark did the math and debunked the contest, which was eventually canceled under a storm of criticism.

The thing about occupational reality television is that the implicit principle that underpins the concept is that the system of finding talent is broken, that the powers that be in the music, fashion, and food industries are so caught up with the nepotism of “it’s who you know” that a fresh, new talent would never make it in the door, that the old guard lacks vision and has poor taste. As such, an elaborate contest must be held, scouring hidden talent from the dusty corners of America. (As for Trump, using a TV show as part of your hiring process is just pure narcissism, but you knew that).

What doesn’t make sense about this theory is that if these contests were so successful at finding new talent, why wouldn’t the big companies that hire the creative types simply take some lessons from the shows and do a better job? The answer of course is that the shows themselves are big business. They lavish attention on sponsors and benefit the companies that secure contracts with the winners, winners who already have built in audiences by way of being on television. Viewed in this light, it’s clear what Amazon’s contest and the other publishing contests that preceded it are trying to do. They are trying to create a pre-packaged, publishing phenomenon with a built in audience and an ample dose of the industry’s most valuable commodity: “buzz.”

For a singer or a model, maybe being “pre-packaged” is something to aspire to, and undoubtedly some aspiring authors feel the same way. But for many writers (and many creative people in general) part of becoming successful is refusing to believe that the deck is stacked against you. Contests aren’t a just way for the little guy to get noticed, they are another way for the big guys to play the game.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. Thanks for mentioning the contest Max. Whether or not I make to the finals I really hope it becomes a respected annual launching pad for new writers.

  2. Great post. I've been thinking about these "occupational reality shows" for some time now. It seems to me that there's a big divide between America's Next Top Model and something like Top Chef, in that the contestants of America's Next Top Model are made to seem like true amateurs while Project Runway and Top Chef are all about getting the cash to step up and get to the next level of the profession (starting their own line, opening their own restaurant, etc.). Of course, what the shows are really about, as you note, is fame and notoriety, that's what will make their fashion line or restaurant actually succeed. ANTM is really just American Idol without the singing.

    On the subject of whether a "Fiction Idol" type show could succeed, I would say it can. The writing might be boring to watch, but hearing people (especially the other writers) rip somebody to shreds in a workshop would be pretty fun. There's got to be some mid-list author or editor out there dying to become the Simon Cowell of the literary world. There's a strike on out here. Who do we need to screw to make this happen?

  3. Great post!

    As a fan of Project Runway & Top Chef, I admit to having tried to figure out the writerly version of this. Howabout a "quickfire challenge" a la Leigh Hunt and Keats: Write a sonnet about an insect. Must be 14 lines of iambic pentameter. Go.

    I'm with Patrick–I think we could make this happen. The critiques would be hilarious. And what about the workroom fights–who stole my thesaurus?

    We should make them write on typewriters w/o internet.

  4. I had a long conversation with a friend in grad school about a show like this. You could put the writers in one house, make them all work in the same room, and have weekly challenges that address various genres and writing-life woes: write a poem, write the prologue of a novel, write a scene for a movie, write a realist short story, give a reading, pitch a story to an agent, do a poetry slam. And aside from a vicious workshop, there could be 3 critics: one agent, one editor, and one midlist literary author/creative writing teacher, along with guest judges: Joyce Carol Oates, perhaps, or celebrity blogger Max Magee of the Millions! Imagine the possibilities!
    (Of course, what self-respecting apsiring author would perform in such a circus…?)

  5. Excellent Post. I'd watch FICTION IDOL on the tube, but I'm already having a blast reading the excerpts and, especially, the associated Pub Weekly and Top Amazon reviewers' 'critiques' on the ABNA. Quite a circus. Fascinating, especially in context of the recent SLATE piece on what it really means to be a 'Top' Amazone reviewer (all those free books…).

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