New Italian TV show is 'American Idol' for authors

'Masterpiece,' which fuses reality TV with the intimate art of writing, may come to other markets if it succeeds in Italy.

Former judge and legal thriller writer Giancarlo De Cataldo will be one of the judges of 'Masterpiece,' Italy's new reality TV show featuring aspiring authors.

How to revive a floundering publishing industry? Oddly enough, in Italy the answer is a reality TV show.

This Sunday is the premiere of “Masterpiece,” an Italian talent show competition that pits aspiring writers against one another to win a book deal.

That’s right, it’s “American Idol” for authors.

“Italy is a country where people read less and less – they’re publishing more books and selling fewer,” novelist and “Masterpiece” judge Giancarlo De Cataldo told The New York Times. “The book is dying, and we must do everything we can to save it. Even a talent show.”

The creators of “Masterpiece” hope to bring the same attention to books that shows like “American Idol,” “China’s Got Talent,” and “X Factor Indonesia” have brought to music, and, as NPR put it, to “create a new class of literary stars.”

At stake is a book deal with Italian imprint Bompiani, a massive initial print run of 100,000 copies – and the sort of attention and fame most writers could only dream of.

Here’s how the talent competition works: Prospective contestants submit a manuscript of an unpublished novel – nearly 5,000 flooded the offices of “Masterpiece” when the call went out, according to the NYT. Readers select a dozen contestants for each of six episodes, which judges then winnow down to four hopefuls per show.

Each of the four contestants participates in some sort of event that is designed to inform his or her writing (for example, watching a wedding or spending a day with the blind), then return to the studio for the main event: a tension-fraught writing assignment. Writers sit at keyboards facing judges and tap out prose with their words projected on screens for the audience to see as a clock counts down. Time allotted for this assignment? A pressure-filled 30 minutes.

They then read their written assignments aloud to judges, who deliberate and dismiss two writers. The final competition is a 59-second elevator pitch to literary celebrities. A winner is chosen from each of six episodes, then finalists are gathered together for a final competition to determine who wins a book deal – and a good deal of celebrity.

The show, of course, has drawn controversy. Some say it reduces the art of writing to a crass competition and stage act, even farce.

But for some, the appeal of this idea lies in its utter unexpectedness, the jarring juxtaposition of writing – typically a reflective act done in solitude – and reality TV – by its very definition an attention-grabbing forum. And, as the Times points out, this is no-holds-barred entertainment: “All the conventions of the TV talent show are present: the tantalizing possibility of fame, excruciating exposure, an expert panel delivering life-changing verdicts.”

The 49-year-old Roman lawyer and “Masterpiece” contestant Alessandro Ligi spoke to the peculiar juxtaposition created by the show when he said, “There’s nothing more intimate than writing. It’s something I do alone and I don’t tolerate anyone even peeking at my computer.”

But as novelist and judge Taiye Selasi said, “Shy or not shy you’re going to have to – if you want to be a published writer – expose yourself in some way.”

And if viewers think it’s just a bizarre Italian experiment, think again: If “Masterpiece” is a hit, producers will be eyeing other markets.

“Masterpiece: America,” anyone?

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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