Fourth Fiction: (Yet) Another Literary Reality Show

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a small obsession with so-called literary reality shows. (Amazed that such things could even exist? See this recent post for a recap.) To date, seven of these suckers have surfaced. Five never got past the planning and announcement stages. The jury’s still out on the sixth (I’m not holding my breath), and the seventh is still embryonic (not holding my breath there either).

Now, however, there’s a literary reality show that might actually happen.

Fourth Night, a blog maintained by writer Constantine Markides, will launch FourthFiction, “the first blog-based literary reality show,” on July 4. Twelve writers will write original novels, which they’ll post in tri-monthly installments, according to literary guidelines provided by Mr. Markides. Readers will vote to eliminate one contestant per round. On December 4, the single survivor of all twelve rounds will be announced.

What does he or she win? Well, maybe nothing, apart from the sense of achievement in having completed a novel in five months. But maybe a small-press publishing contract. Mr. Markides says that he approached several small presses at BEA to discuss the possibility of funding limited publication of the winner’s novel. (Writer Beware-ly caveat: some small publishers are no prize, and a number of really bad ones were at BEA. I hope Mr. Markides has thoroughly checked them out.)

The writers are anonymous–and some, apparently, have never written fiction before. They’ll be tweeting at will during the month of July, as a way of warming up and letting readers get to know their styles. The contest proper will begin on August 4.

In my opinion, this is really the only way a literary reality show is possible. The writing process simply is not interesting to observe (nor are writers–or if they are, it’s generally not because of their writing), nor is it easy to come up with telegenic challenges involving authoring (“Writers, give us 5,000 words on love and death while sitting at a sticky table in a noisy Starbucks with a latte that isn’t hot enough, using only one hand! You’ve got two hours–now go!”). Attempting a televised literary reality show is a recipe for failure (as Tony Cowell, Simon Cowell’s brother seems to have discovered) or ridiculousness (as demonstrated by announced plans for The Ultimate Author, in which contestants were to vie hotly for supremacy in such vital authorial areas as spelling and arranging a room attractively for a book club gathering).

By putting all the emphasis on the writing, and cutting image and identity out of the picture entirely, Fourth Night has come up with a literary reality show concept that actually seems workable.

You can participate, or just observe, by subscribing to free email updates or Fourth Fiction’s RSS feed.

UPDATE 2/20/10: Unlike every other author reality show I’ve covered, FourthFiction went all the way, with a winner declared last December (congratulated by Stephen Fry, no less). You can see the complete “season”, with links to all the novellas, here.


  1. I agree with you Victoria that the Fourth Fiction concept is the only possible manner in which a literary based "reality contest" would be able to work.

    As many of the contestants are new to twittering and to writing it will be interesting to see how it all pans out.

    I know Constantine hand picked the contestants for the synergy they would bring to the competition but it waits to be seen whether personality will be able to triumph over no previous writing experience.

    Perhaps future Fourth Fiction competitions will have emerging writers pitting their skills against each other.

    You can read my review of the concept here

  2. I'm embarrassed to say I only came across this today. I actually read your original post on literary reality shows several weeks ago and meant to email you about Fourth Fiction but it appears you found it before I got a chance to contact you.

    I enjoyed your overview and ideas. While some writers may live outrageous and flamboyant lives, the vast bulk would probably not make for scintillating reality show material. That's one reason I decided to approach the competition from a purely text-based perspective.

    Thanks for the Writer Beware caveat regarding the small publishers at BEA. I'll keep that in mind. As for the 12 contestants, they started tweeting as of yesterday at @FourthFiction.

  3. Interesting idea – it sounds more like it's a blog show than a TV show, and when you get down to it, that makes a lot more sense. Blogs are potentially one of the better media for covering writing in progress. The act of writing isn't all that telegenic, and displaying the work itself on a TV screen is definitely the wrong medium.

  4. Victoria,
    I agree. This seems to be the only sane, workable way to have a legitimate "author competition/reality show". I may have to tune in & read some of this. I like that the personality factor has been removed. Writing readable material has nothing to do with a personal popularity contest.

  5. I heard of a podcast about a group of writers were they talk about the struggles, hopes, fears, etc. I forgot who was talking about it though.

  6. I think the main problem with these shows is that the people making them seem to be under the impression that they need to follow the "Survivor" vein of reality shows, turning it more into a gameshow than anything else.

    If they want a reality show based on novel writing so badly, then they should try for more of the story-centric style. Don't have it be based on prizes or staged rivalries – just follow one or two real-life aspiring writers trying to make it big in the business. No gimmicks.

    I can't say for certain how well something like that would do, but I can certainly say that it'd at least do marginally better than what producers have been trying lately.

    That, and I would totally audition. 😀

  7. …"as demonstrated by announced plans for The Ultimate Author, in which contestants were to vie hotly for supremacy in such vital authorial areas as spelling and arranging a room attractively for a book club gathering".

    I'd love to see a TV show about arranging rooms for readings because I have to admit that that's what my whole career (such as it is) has hinged on.

    No wonder that show never got off the ground.

    Writing is not a spectator sport, and even bad writing has a limited voyeuristic appeal (trust me, I know: I've been in charge of a slush-pile, and after the first hour the excitement wore pretty thin). I'd love to see a big, prime-time TV show all about writers and writing, much like the X-Factor: but even I can't see it working. Now, I could see a writer-based TV reality show working if it followed a very successful writer through publication and included plenty of the whole odd-fan-stalker thing; or if it followed various books through the publication process: but these context-based ideas? Nope. They aren't going to work.

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