Any Idiot Can Write a Book

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. The director interrupts. They are seeking unpublished writers who have completed a novel. You looked really happy, and then really shocked.’
I nod. I hold onto my manuscript so tightly the paper turns furry with sweat. ‘What’s worrying you?’
‘Nothing happens.’
‘What’s worrying you?’
‘Nothing happens.’
By the final take, my distress is genuine. We had to keep you in the dark before and during, obviously, to get your reactions.’
‘Uh-huh.’
‘Which were great, by the way.  
 
This is an excerpt from Nell Steven’s novel Bleaker House, published   by Picador (UK), Doubleday (US) and Knopf (Canada). 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. Their voices are rising. ‘Let me read it again.’ He picks up his pages and starts from the top. ‘You can’t say that.’
‘What?’
‘Fucker.’
‘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. Somehow, despite the praise, I feel unwell. The judge is an eminent literary critic of whom I’ve not heard. 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). ‘What’s worrying you?’
‘Nothing happens in it.’
The director interjects. ‘This is a waste of my time.’ He turns, knocking his chair over behind him, and stamps out of the kitchen. ‘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 mean, it’s all cliché, isn’t it? ‘You can argue and shout,’ the critic snarls, ‘but it won’t make your writing any more palatable.’
Jake is on his feet now. 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. My hands and forehead are sweaty; my throat feels dry. ‘I know you’ve worked hard on these chapters. ‘There is absolutely no future for you on this show, or as a writer in any shape or form. ‘Type what?’ asks Jake. A shout of ‘You’re a fraud!’ is accompanied by a plume of spit that lands between us on the table. ‘You were just right. 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. Applicants should respond with a CV, photo, and description of their writing. 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 found it incredibly predictable. This is her farmhouse. Just as it begins to get dark, we film the judging and elimination scene. And then, ‘But does that mean she didn’t really like my book?’
‘I thought someone had told you afterwards,’ the girl says. ‘Jake? ‘Thank you both,’ the critic says. He loved it.’
My head is feeling thick and fuzzy. Oh – you know that was staged, right? 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. Jake looks a little unhinged; his eyes begin to bulge. We think this could be a segment on Richard & Judy, actually. My face is getting hot; I try to nod seriously. They’ve expressed interest.’
‘Is Jake OK?’ I ask. This information sinks in slowly. It’s one cliché after another.’
‘You haven’t understood the project,’ he says. I am not ready to accept this advice. ‘Great day,’ she says. Each week, a writer will be voted off and sent home. I’ll start with Nell.’
She absolutely loves my chapter. Jake and I sit at the kitchen table opposite the critic, with our novels in front of us. 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. ‘Sorry. ‘What’s wrong?’ a girl with a microphone asks. ‘It doesn’t matter what,’ the director says. You are untalented, unimaginative, offensive and tired.’
I am sitting so tensely in my chair that my shoulders start to cramp. ‘It was staged,’ I repeat. ‘No need, Jake.’ She cuts him off. Jake faces his keyboard and begins to jab at it with his forefingers. ‘That’s not true.’
‘Drug dealers… ‘Can you walk around the garden a bit?’ the director asks me. In my first year as an undergraduate at the University of Warwick, the English Department secretary circulates an ‘opportunity’. The essential issue with the premise of the show is apparent at once: there is nothing remotely interesting about observing people writing. The director says nothing. ‘I have to say, I was really disappointed by your work. I might throw up. We are told to sit at computers and type. ‘We’re not focusing on the screens.’
‘Well then, what are you focusing on?’ Jake responds. ‘I was,’ I say. ‘I’m… 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). An agent has seen it and gently suggested that the story might be better if more things actually happened. 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. The front door is open, because the cameraman is standing there, but I have to pretend to ring the bell and wait. I’ve heard it a hundred times before.’
‘What?’ Jake is half out of his chair. ‘Can you look troubled?’
Meandering between elaborate flower beds of hollyhocks, I try to look both whimsical and perturbed. I’m worried about my novel,’ I try. ‘I’m worried about my novel.’
‘What’s worrying you?’
‘Nothing happens.’
We do this over and over. ‘This is pathetic,’ he says. Jake was totally fine with it. They rehearsed the whole argument. Jake and I are ushered into a barn that has been converted into a large study. I understand by now the ridiculousness of the situation, but still, I’m nervous. It is poignant, and romantic, and sad. ‘Let’s try this one more time.’
‘What’s wrong?’ says the girl. I haven’t seen him since he was eliminated at the kitchen table. They were practising that scene all morning.’ When I look blank, she repeats herself. concrete… ‘It was staged. 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. The show will be modelled on The Apprentice. Image © 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. A production company is looking for contestants to participate in a new TV show. The name of the show is Any Idiot Can Write a Book. 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. ‘Now, Jake.’ The critic turns to him and her face sets into a grimace. Oh, he’s fine.’
‘He seemed pretty upset.’
‘Yes, he was good, wasn’t he?’
‘Good?’
‘Yes, we thought he did really well. 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. My gaze swivels between the two of them as they argue. 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.