So I confess, I am a little addicted to reality TV. Not the Big Brother/I'm a Celebrity/humiliation variety, but X Factor? I'm there. Dancing on Ice? Love it. Over the Rainbow? Try getting me off my sofa for the final this Saturday night (or at least try to stop me desperately catching up on Iplayer on Sunday!)
Let's consider the evidence...
I guess it's the actress in me - I know how excruciating the audition process is, and it's irresistible to watch those hopeful Dorothy-wannabes perform their socks off on live television, before being whisked off on a giant swinging moon. Priceless.
Hats off to them, they've got guts (guts I realised I lacked when I failed to attend my own Over the Rainbow audition in January - writerly commitments, ahem!).
However, now with my writerly cap on, I'm starting to notice a few similarities between the writing world and that of reality TV, thanks largely to Ben Elton's wonderful Chart Throb (you'll never watch X Factor the same way again).
Let's consider the evidence...
Writing is rewriting - no first draft makes it to print (thank goodness!)and more often than not the final book will be a scarcely recognisable version of this beast - characters will be slaughtered, chapters viciously slashed, and after this has happened a number of times, under the guidance of friends and agents and editors, if you're lucky, a smaller, shinier butterfly will emerge from the cocoon ready to face the world.
Likewise (though not always as friendly) the TV editor holds the power. Yes, you may argue that it's live TV - how much impact can they really have? But they choose which angle to shoot from, who to focus more on in the group numbers, whose best acting clip to show, whose innocent comment to cut and paste as an arrogant boast - who to make and who to break. There is such a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and the slightest hint of the latter is the kiss of death to any contestant. Case in point: Danyl on X Factor. The talented teacher showed not the slightest sign of cockiness on any of the shows, but one comment from Cheryl and he was out of the running - the public forgot how much they loved his first audition 'With a Little Help From My Friends' and he cowered under the media glare, his confidence shot. Now it's Lauren's turn. Unless you answer extremely carefully, the recurring question: Why Should You Be Dorothy? is a complete trap, designed to tempt volatile soundbites from the unsuspecting contestants, to be used how and when the editors (and producers) please.
Don't judge a book by its cover, right? But of course however good the book, its cover is what the buyer sees first and unless there's another (X?) factor involved (eg they know and like the author, or have already heard of the book) it is very unlikely, no matter how wonderful the "talent" is, that a book with no marketing and a boring cover will hit the bestseller list above the 'featured', on-the-island, stand-up book with the stunning holographic/sparkly/black-and-red cover. Marketing is key.
Contestants? Marketed? Oh yes indeedy. Who chooses the songs they sing, their choreography (or lack of), the outfits (and colours!) they wear...? You've guessed it. Is it any surprise that dancer Stephanie went out the one week she was the only one not to dance? Or that Jess left the week her Supercalifragilisticexpiallidocious was pitted against power-ballad 'On My Own' (please) or that 'favourite' Danielle is always given the same type of 'safe' intense ballad that suit her so well, (even though she excelled with the 'risk' Mambo Italiano)?
Occasionally, admittedly, another factor creeps in - never underestimate patriotic voting, for example - a worthy opponent to poor song choice any day. But look closely and you'll see the subliminal messages - the producers know who they want to win. As Ben Elton's 'Simon Cowell-a-like' character insists - he doesn't need to fix the vote to get the result he wants...
So alright, there's not really that much in common between a singing popularity contest and writing (writing actually seems a much more friendly place - at least your editor and marketing department are on your side!) but my point is that there are, increasingly, many other 'factors', other than the writing, that work towards a book's success - and as writers come out of their shells and onto the web and are encouraged to tweet and blog and have an online presence as well as an physical one, at schools and events, aren't we moving in a similar direction? Are we aspiring to a culture of celebrity-authors?
The days of not knowing or caring what authors looked or sounded like are disappearing, and it's now no longer all about the book, or the (fiction) writing - there's a pressure to be 'performers' of some description as well, to be a 'personality', to tweet and blog (yikes!) just in order to keep up with the game, to compete with the celebrities (Katie Price, Madonna) who sell more books than Booker prize-winners.
And while it may not yet matter how sweet your granny is, or which football team you support, whether you're a dog-person or cat-person, will that always be true? How long before we have little VTs on our ebooks - Meg Cabot appears in her new book trailer - is this the logical next step...?
But celebrity is fickle. Stars fade. Talent remains, and they're the ones who will have the careers - those runners-up who quietly built a career out of the spotlight, those writers whose work remains in print and beloved generations down the line, not because of who they were or even what cover they had - usually various - but because their books are simply wonderful. It's a marathon, not a sprint, as my drama teacher used to say, and fluff without substance doesn't (usually) succeed for long (who won the first X Factor, again? What was Jordan's book called?) but the writing endures - that's what we should focus on, and work at, and polish till we have Mr. Sheen coming out of our ears. And while we can pray for the dazzling cover and the mega marketing campaign, and the movies, and the action figures, the writing is the only bit we can really control - the most important part of all.
Though it always helps if you can sing :)