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A dose of reality for literary events


Should literary promoters take a leaf out of Simon Cowell's book?

With authors grumbling about giving their time for free and television executives becoming increasingly suspicious of the value of traditional books broadcasting, literary events in the UK are moving steadily into the edgier territory of bookslams and literary death matches. But belly-achers beware: if developments in Italy and Peru are anything to go by, the future looks much more extreme.

On Sunday, the Italian channel Rai3 will launch Masterpiece, a virtual reality show in which aspiring authors will compete in literary challenges for a major book deal.

The series was developed with FremantleMedia, best known for shows such as American Idol and China's Got Talent, so humiliation is bound to be just a keystroke away for at least one of four contestants picked from a host of hopeful applicants to speed-write on a subject of the programme-maker's choice – their efforts beamed on to a screen above their heads.

A different sort of humiliation is on offer for wannabe writers in Peru, who have to undergo much the same sort of torture in fancy dress. Their challenge is to write a short story in five minutes from three random words, with the loser obliged to unmask at the end of the session. Again they do their stuff on laptops hooked up to a gigantic screen. And again, the prize is a book contract.

Literature as spectator sport is hardly new. The Arab world's answer to Pop Idol is so successful that the biennial seasons of weekly, live, three-hour programmes – made in Abu Dhabi – are said to have a multinational audience of 17 million. The participants are not pop stars but poets, who have to be experts in Nabati, the "people's poetry" of the Arab peninsula. Fame and fortune are guaranteed for the winners for Poet of Millions, though sadly Nabati experts in search of celebrity will have to wait another two years if they haven't yet enrolled, as entries for the sixth series have just closed.

Public verse-speaking and composing are all very well, but surely it's only a matter of time before some Japanese TV producer persuades aspiring writers to compose in a coffin full of maggots. So ask yourself. Have you got what it takes to become the next Murakami?

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