Pop Culture
Mar 07, 2008, 03:15AM

Five Foot Three

Reality TV has heightened our appetite for "real" life, and the publishing industry is having trouble keeping up.

Although reality TV has been a staple of American television for years now (MTV's The Real World is headed into its 20th season, Survivor's been around for 16 seasons now, and in a month or so you'll be able to vote for the 7th American Idol), the lengthy Hollywood writers' strike made way for a slew of new and even more over-the-top reality programming over the past several months. From two-bit, often unrecognizable celebrities battling it out for Donald Trump's approval, to masochistic middle-Americans fighting their way past juiced-up gladiators, TV has been all about what's real, or at least unscripted.

Perhaps the greatest success of the recent reality wave, though, is the inexplicably popular show The Moment of Truth. The show offers contestants little more than the opportunity to ruin their lives in exchange for several thousand dollars, but it amply satisfies the audience’s desire to hear firsthand the tragic tales of other people's lives, to watch as their personal sufferings and human failings unfold before our very eyes and reveal the truth that we’re all desperate for: we are better than these people, our lives are not such a pathetic mess.

While scripted programming often makes for more heartfelt, nuanced television, it is far more entertaining to watch a young woman rack up the big bucks by admitting to cheating on her husband and wishing she were married to someone else, only to see her lose it all when she fails to truthfully answer the question "Do you think you are a good person?" You can't make up that kind of television, and even if you could, who cares? The fact of the matter is, no matter how much we might love shows like The Office, House and CSI, real human suffering and foibles are far more poignant and intriguing.
It should come as no surprise then that false memoirs are popping up all over the publishing world like reality programs on network TV. In a trend first noted for the works of James Frey and Augusten Burroughs, the (at least partially) fabricated memoir has moved from the personal realms of addiction and adolescent development to the socially and historically complex phenomena of Margaret B. Jones and Misha Defonseca's respective explorations of gang violence and the Holocaust. While book publishing has become increasingly competitive for fiction writers, the autobiographical market seems wide open for the taking. Even Posh Spice has been published! And you can just bet a new Britney Spears memoir is right around the corner. You don't have to be a fantastic writer to sell the story of your life, so long as your life is worth reading. People like a hard-luck story, a tale of grit and bootstraps. We sympathize with people's hardships; we root for them to overcome their struggles. But the problem is that for most of us, our lives don't make for very interesting reads.  For the most part, we grow up pretty average citizens and lead pretty average lives.  It's not the stuff of great fiction and it is by no means the makings of a successful memoir.

So a number of writers have turned to lying. They take instances in their lives, interesting people, places and experiences they've encountered and expand on them, sensationalizing them and creating new and more exciting life histories. The trouble here is that memoirs rely on truth. It’s the facts behind the telling that set this genre apart from fiction. It would be far less interesting that the cheating wife lost all her money on such an easily answered question if you learned later that she'd just made the whole thing up and she was actually a model of fidelity. Just like a tale of drug-running and gang wars is more intriguing if you think you're getting a firsthand account of what goes on in our inner cities, rather than a fictional narrative pieced together from diligently gathered research.

It's not that the writers shouldn't be blamed for misrepresenting their own lives and abusing a line of work that relies solely on the honest and immensely open sharing of one's own difficult past. Nor should the publishing companies be let off the hook for failing to properly fact-check information before they market it to the general public. But this problem seems to stem from a greater cultural basis: exceptional reality garners more attention than exceptional fiction. It is not enough anymore to simply imagine and recreate a life that is more exciting or harrowing than that of the average reader. Writers must now live more intriguing lives, have more exhilarating pasts. That's what makes for a great memoir. But you know what? It makes for pretty good fiction too.

  • How "real" can reality tv be anyway? Every season each show abides by a formula that ensures proper amounts of tension, drama and sexual chemistry. I can't imagine much success for a show where "six boring white guys talking about politics live in a house..." Wait a minute--CNN, MSNBC, FoxNews--I'm thinking cash cow! I'd rather watch an actual show with an interesting plot than half the crap that the reality networks promote (except for the biggest loser--that's just good tv!)

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  • Reality is just more fun. Even the reality of James Frey’s lie was fantastic because it pissed Oprah off. If Augusten Burroughs memoir was a lie, I really wouldn’t care about that either. I’m just mad that I didn’t think to build a masterbatorium in my house first… But hell, he did give me the idea, so he should be commended for that. I will continue to support reality television, as well as books that are deemed fake memoirs as long as I can continue to believe it is entertaining. If I had your job I would be watching reality tv right now for research purposes.

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