In my first year as an undergraduate at the University of Warwick, the English Department secretary circulates an ‘opportunity’. A production company is looking for contestants to participate in a new TV show. They are seeking unpublished writers who have completed a novel. The show will be modelled on The Apprentice. Each week, a writer will be voted off and sent home. At the end of the series, the winner will be given a ‘financial prize’ (amount not stated) and their novel will be published (publisher unspecified). Applicants should respond with a CV, photo, and description of their writing. The name of the show is Any Idiot Can Write a Book.
I have just finished my gap-year novel: a tortured romance about a young woman in Northern India who falls in love with a Tibetan refugee. An agent has seen it and gently suggested that the story might be better if more things actually happened. I am not ready to accept this advice. Instead, I write a synopsis of a book in which nothing happens, set against a backdrop of glistening Himalayas, and send it off to the people behind Any Idiot Can Write a Book.
Two weeks later, I am taken in a taxi to a farmhouse on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon, where I am filmed over several takes getting out of the car and walking up the garden path. The front door is open, because the cameraman is standing there, but I have to pretend to ring the bell and wait.
If I had any suspicions that the premise behind Any Idiot Can Write a Book was flawed before I arrived, these are confirmed once we start the work of filming the show – which in fact is not a show at all, but a pilot that may or may not be developed and which we will shoot over the course of a single day. Aside from me, there is only one other contestant: a skinny Liverpudlian called Jake, who has a shakily drawn snake tattoo winding around his neck in the shape of a noose. The judge is an eminent literary critic of whom I’ve not heard. This is her farmhouse.
Jake and I are ushered into a barn that has been converted into a large study. We are told to sit at computers and type.
‘Type what?’ asks Jake.
‘It doesn’t matter what,’ the director says. ‘We’re not focusing on the screens.’
‘Well then, what are you focusing on?’ Jake responds.
The director says nothing.
Jake faces his keyboard and begins to jab at it with his forefingers. I turn to mine and pretend as best as I can to be hard at work on the novel I have already finished, but beyond frowning at my screen as I type nonsense into Word, it’s unclear how exactly I should dramatize the moment. The essential issue with the premise of the show is apparent at once: there is nothing remotely interesting about observing people writing.
‘Can you walk around the garden a bit?’ the director asks me. ‘Can you look troubled?’
Meandering between elaborate flower beds of hollyhocks, I try to look both whimsical and perturbed.
‘What’s wrong?’ a girl with a microphone asks.
‘I’m . . . I’m worried about my novel,’ I try.
‘What’s worrying you?’
‘Nothing happens in it.’
The director interjects. ‘Let’s try this one more time.’
‘What’s wrong?’ says the girl.
‘I’m worried about my novel.’
‘What’s worrying you?’
We do this over and over.
‘What’s worrying you?’
‘What’s worrying you?’
By the final take, my distress is genuine.
In the afternoon, I read the opening scene of my novel in a recording booth; my voice will play over footage of my dramatic typing. After that, I sit on a bench under an umbrella in the drizzle answering questions about how much I want to be a writer (very much) and what it would mean to me to get through to the next round of Any Idiot Can Write a Book (as the day wears on, less and less). Just as it begins to get dark, we film the judging and elimination scene. Jake and I sit at the kitchen table opposite the critic, with our novels in front of us. I understand by now the ridiculousness of the situation, but still, I’m nervous. My hands and forehead are sweaty; my throat feels dry.
I read a scene from my book in which the two lovers meet for the first time, in a temple in Dharamsala, surrounded by flickering candles and stray dogs. I try to keep my voice steady and expressive, but as I go on, it becomes increasingly raspy. I look up at the director to see if he wants me to start again from the top, but he is whispering something to the microphone girl and doesn’t appear to have noticed.
Next, Jake reads a chapter of his novel, which is called Bad Splatter and follows the adventures of a happy-go-lucky drug dealer called Rad the Fucker.
The director interrupts. ‘You can’t say that.’
‘But that’s his name.’
‘Give him a new one.’
Jake looks troubled, but eventually begins again and gets through his scene, in which Rad the Bastard drowns an adversary in liquid concrete on a building site.
‘Thank you both,’ the critic says. ‘I know you’ve worked hard on these chapters. I’ll start with Nell.’
She absolutely loves my chapter. It is poignant, and romantic, and sad. The characters are robust and sensitively drawn, and the whole section is full of potential, suggestive of all the many things that might, at some point, start to happen. My face is getting hot; I try to nod seriously. Somehow, despite the praise, I feel unwell. I hold onto my manuscript so tightly the paper turns furry with sweat.
‘Now, Jake.’ The critic turns to him and her face sets into a grimace. ‘I have to say, I was really disappointed by your work. I found it incredibly predictable. I’ve heard it a hundred times before.’
‘What?’ Jake is half out of his chair. ‘That’s not true.’
‘Drug dealers . . . concrete . . . I mean, it’s all cliché, isn’t it? It’s one cliché after another.’
‘You haven’t understood the project,’ he says. ‘Let me read it again.’ He picks up his pages and starts from the top.
‘No need, Jake.’ She cuts him off. ‘There is absolutely no future for you on this show, or as a writer in any shape or form. You are untalented, unimaginative, offensive and tired.’
I am sitting so tensely in my chair that my shoulders start to cramp. My gaze swivels between the two of them as they argue. Their voices are rising. Jake looks a little unhinged; his eyes begin to bulge. A shout of ‘You’re a fraud!’ is accompanied by a plume of spit that lands between us on the table. I might throw up.
‘You can argue and shout,’ the critic snarls, ‘but it won’t make your writing any more palatable.’
Jake is on his feet now. ‘This is pathetic,’ he says. ‘This is a waste of my time.’ He turns, knocking his chair over behind him, and stamps out of the kitchen.
In the aftermath, the room is silent, and then the microphone girl says, ‘I think that was really good.’
When everything is wrapped up, the microphone girl walks me to my taxi.
‘Great day,’ she says. ‘You were just right. We think this could be a segment on Richard & Judy, actually. They’ve expressed interest.’
‘Is Jake OK?’ I ask. I haven’t seen him since he was eliminated at the kitchen table.
‘Jake? Oh, he’s fine.’
‘He seemed pretty upset.’
‘Yes, he was good, wasn’t he?’
‘Yes, we thought he did really well. Oh – you know that was staged, right? They were practising that scene all morning.’ When I look blank, she repeats herself. ‘It was staged. They rehearsed the whole argument. Jake was totally fine with it. He loved it.’
My head is feeling thick and fuzzy. This information sinks in slowly. ‘It was staged,’ I repeat. And then, ‘But does that mean she didn’t really like my book?’
‘I thought someone had told you afterwards,’ the girl says. ‘Sorry. We had to keep you in the dark before and during, obviously, to get your reactions.’
‘Which were great, by the way. You looked really happy, and then really shocked.’
I nod. ‘I was,’ I say. ‘I was really shocked.’
I sink into the taxi seat, ready to head back to Warwick and what turns out to be a severe bout of tonsillitis. I will be bedridden for a week and lose a tenth of my body weight, and by the end of it, I will have arrived, somehow, at the conclusion that it is important for things to happen in a novel.
This is an excerpt from Nell Stevens’ novel Bleaker House, published by Picador (UK), Doubleday (US) and Knopf (Canada).