Katie barely made it through preliminaries. At the infamous prop desk she wrote a few anemic lines about her childhood, but then hit pay dirt when the weary judges asked her to switch gears from “nostalgic prose” to “political poetry.” Somehow she pulled an amusing limerick about Kaiser Wilhelm completely out of her ass, and so the judges sent her on to the next round with one of those golden bookmarks. She was going to Hollywood, baby. Along with a few hundred other writers who were most likely better than her.
But on the plane from Newark, Katie began to reconsider her impulsive decision to try out for Literary Idol. In some ways auditioning made sense. She self-identified as “Writer.” She aspired to publish a novel, and the show was in its ninth season of launching authors’ careers with guaranteed, six-figure book contracts. But those in the winner’s circle weren’t always the brightest bulbs on the studio lot. Often the judges seemed to be influenced by looks and personality more than originality and syntax. This was unfortunate because Katie lacked a personality altogether. She wondered sometimes if she remained intentionally boring so that people would only judge her by her soul. Personality was just how good you were at parties.
That morning she’d read about a social experiment where a famous chef cooked two identical-looking dishes, but Dish A was made with gourmet ingredients and Dish B was made with expired chicken bouillon. When the chef brought the dishes to the table, he told his diners a heartwarming story about the care that he’d taken with Dish B and how he’d modernized an old family recipe with saffron and dragon’s blood, etc. Because of the celebrity narrative, the diners preferred the taste of Dish B over Dish A ninety percent of the time, even though Dish B tasted like the Passaic River. The top chef’s charisma was enough to alter the diners’ sense perception. Katie assumed that the Lit Idol judges were just as desperate and stupid.
But when you subtracted personality from Katie’s author profile, all that was left was forty excess pounds and some writing talent. And what did that talent signify, anyway? That she could string sentences together? That she also vomited words into the void? She’d only been published once, in a regional lit journal called the Garden State Review of Letters, and that was just because her roommate Greg was a copy editor there and he’d withheld Wii privileges until she submitted a short story. He’d told her she was going to do awesome on the show. “You’re going to do awesome on the show!” he’d said.
When Katie walked into the Hollywood hotel that had been appointed to lodge the Idol contestants, she was greeted by at least thirty pens working aggressively at bistro tables in the lobby. She rolled her suitcase toward the concierge and tried not to be intimidated by all the leather-bound journals. The atmosphere comprised coffee, brooding, expensive haircuts, jubilation, despair, emotional support animals, bonding strategies, envy, other elements to be recorded later. Attractive people in their early twenties held bold and clever conversations under artificial palm trees while they internally congratulated themselves on the quality of their discourse. Generally, Katie was too self-conscious to speak aloud wherever anyone might hear her. She took her phone calls in the bathroom even when her roommate wasn’t home. She knew she’d never be a public intellectual. But would she ever be anything?
This was a terrible time to doubt herself. Hollywood Week began tomorrow. She’d bought a new pair of stirrup leggings. The Literary Idol judges had seen something in her writing, and she’d just have to trust them even though they expected great books to wear top hats and dance around for them. She checked in at the front desk and proceeded briskly to her room to draft a 500-word essay about her mounting anxiety. Then she opened her gift bag from the network. She appreciated the thought behind it, but she would never deign to use a dictionary made by Coca-Cola.
The caravan of black buses came for them at 6 the next morning. Katie and her rivals were then delivered to the historic Paramount Library, where F. Scott Fitzgerald used to write his screenplays and a young Jennifer Lopez used to read back issues of Vogue. For a week Idol would have exclusive use of the library. Katie imagined the tantrums of all the children who would be turned away for storytime.
The contestants waited introvertly in the stacks while a camera crew circulated, looking for b-roll footage: complacent dude chewing on pencil, nervous chick reviewing her creative affirmations. Luke Patterson, the long-time host of Literary Idol, arrived in their midst at 9am like a snort of cocaine laced with baby laxatives. Katie watched as he flitted about the bookcases, seeking interviews with the most promising writers. It was as though he’d memorized a script beforehand that said things in the margins like, “Keep it playful!” and “Corporate softball game!” and “Flirty, but NO blow jobs!”
Patterson had been writing two GLBTQ murder mystery novels a year for the past twelve years. The man was hugely popular before he launched Idol’s American version, and his fame had only increased thanks to his ten weekly hours of airtime. Katie wondered how it made him feel that no genre writer had ever won the show. A romance writer once made it to the final round, but she had a strong back story. Something about a dead mom. Or maybe a dog.
Patterson did not approach Katie in her Cer- section of the stacks. That was okay. She’d prefer to meet the ghostwriter who was actually responsible for his books.
Katie’s time slot wasn’t until late afternoon, but that morning she was able to watch the round’s live feed on the big-screen TV that had been wheeled into the room as a psychological torture device. She’d already seen two people bomb at the desk. One guy who seemed to think he was Samuel Beckett took the prompt to “rewrite Disney’s Cinderella from the point of view of an ugly stepsister,” and was undone by his own pretension. Sentence fragments do not a fairy tale make. One girl had clearly memorized a sample of her erotic flash fiction beforehand, which made it all the more embarrassing that her piece was so bad. Nipples definitely did not prance as she alleged. Plus the prompt had been “You’re the captain of a submarine. You look at your Motorola Moto 360 watch and realize that if you don’t get your crew to the ocean surface within two minutes, everyone will die. And then the lights go out. What do you do?” According to this girl, sex is what you do.
Katie tried not to revel in the creative implosion of her rivals, and instead attempted to read the judges. Theodore Pincho was the main one she’d need to impress to avoid being eliminated. Pincho had written one novel, a critically-acclaimed first-person narrative that honed closely, if not exactly, to the writer’s real life, but was considered an intellectual tour de force and not a 200,00-word entry in his domestic diary because the literary establishment deemed him a Serious Male Writer. Pincho had subsequently also made a name for himself as a frequent contributor to online debates about the impact that social media was having on literature. His eyes rolled with abandon. He was invited to all the New Yorker holiday parties.
Though Katie found his writing overrated, she knew that Pincho at least deserved his reputation as the resident asshole on the judge’s panel. He loved dismissing writers as hackneyed, derivative, neuro-impoverished, and—worst of all—cute. Contestants’ tears made his dick spring out of his khakis. And his gravelly tone carried so much authority that the opinions of the two other judges seemed unduly influenced by his critical reactions. Katie wondered if Pincho sometimes hated on good writing and raved about bad writing just to test the impressionability of his peers. She found him to be humorless and unapologetically full of shit. Recently she read that he was working on a “richly imagined” and “astonishingly original” novel about a brilliant celebrity judge on a hit writing reality show.
Katie wasn’t scared of Sally Delacroix, who wrote bestselling police procedurals structured around brutal sex crimes and was universally known as a softie. If writers managed to sneak in a reference to birds or hearts, they usually got her full approval.
Cecil B. was the wild card. He wrote obscure, experimental fiction that everyone respected but few people read. He liked to use his time at the mic to monologue about things that concerned him. Certain adverbs. The death of culture. Sobriety. The IKEA catalog. He would use some poor contestant’s love sonnet as an excuse to think aloud about sewer drownings. He took copious notes on his own ideas. He strenuously pretended not to be stoned.
And these were the gatekeepers to America’s love and lifelong readership. Not that Katie expected America to like her either.
That morning all three judges seemed immediately besotted with A, a uniquely beautiful young woman whose initial-only name was very on-trend for people as well as fictional characters. A’s glasses and lab coat seemed calculated to remind the judges that she was also a scientist. “I write about the body,” she said when asked about her craft, as if “the body” was some new element on the periodic table. All of this combined to dupe the judges into attributing a wealth of allusive meaning to A’s shitty second-person stream of consciousness about Dove Body Wash. “Wow,” they said after she left the desk in graceful triumph. “Stunning.” Katie didn’t know if they were referring to A’s beauty or to her extemporaneous writing, or if they’d somehow conflated the two.
“Her background as a scientist infuses her line about the ‘cognizant bubble of her womb’ with breathtaking authenticity,” said Pincho.
“She’s a genius,” said Delacroix. “Did you see the Harvard emblem on her lab coat?”
“What this national stage could really use,” said Cecil B., “is a brain surgeon. Those suckers can really write.” Katie wondered if she should have established a satellite career for herself as well so her fiction would be more marketable. But only traditionally masculine job titles like mathematician and lawyer seemed to wield this positive effect on the literati’s hive mind. Her plan would surely backfire if she told readers that her oeuvre was informed by her previous career as a preschool teacher or a stay-at-home mom.
Katie liked one writer’s performance immensely, probably because the young man didn’t officially consider himself a writer and apparently she loathed herself and her own community. Ben was a Division-1 lacrosse player who’d recently discovered the works of Stephen King. “I just wanted a challenge,” he said, when asked why he’d first auditioned for the show. “Coach told everybody to try something new this fall to keep our brains from atrophising in the off-season or whatever.” He got a lob—”a 300-word freewrite about 9/11″—but shortly after starting out strong with an image of a burned Xerox machine, his thoughts veered back to athletics, and he ended up composing a story about a locker-room brawl that Katie found mesmerizing. The judges reprimanded him for breaking the rules, but Katie could tell he’d charmed them. After Ben left the set, the judges made a big show of looking up “atrophising” in their Coca-Cola dictionaries.
Finally it was Katie’s turn. A production assistant with an air of illiteracy escorted her into the library’s main reading room where the three judges sat behind their reference desk. Before they saw her, Katie registered the look of annihilating apathy in their eyes. They were all writers themselves, and she assumed that they’d never be in love with anyone else’s work the way they were with their own. She felt as if she were about to give a reading at a venue where everyone in the audience was a writer who resented that she was the one giving the reading.
“Just, whatever you do,” she told herself, “don’t be trite.” No one could come back from trite. Katie didn’t need to win the contest, but she wanted to be able to hold her head high when she returned to her apartment. If Greg still let her play Mario Kart on his Wii from time to time when he wasn’t using it, she will have been a success.
Her three executioners watched as Katie took a seat at the prop desk and picked up the stylus that said “Wacom Intuos” in shiny letters. She thought about telling the judges a story about how she used to be a terrible writer, then her grandfather who’d always believed in her had bequeathed his magical stylus to her right before he died, and she could suddenly write beautifully, but then one day the stylus was crushed under the wheels of a taxi cab and she thought that she would never write anything good again, but then her dead grandfather came to her in a dream and said that the stylus had never been magical. “It’s been you all along,” he whispered. And then they hugged. And then she woke up.
Katie did not tell this story. Instead she accidentally sneezed on the digital tablet she was supposed to write on, wiped off the spittle with the sleeve of her shirt, and awaited her writing prompt.
“You have cancer,” said Pincho. The panel hated small talk. “The only person who can save your life is the alien warlord who raped and impregnated you as a teen. There’s a spaceship parked in your backyard (fertilized with Scotts Turf Builder). What do you do?”
“The,” wrote Katie. Then she stopped. Most of the prompt’s ingredients seemed to indicate that she should write a sci-fi piece, but the presence of cancer made Katie wonder if the judges expected her to write something lyrical about sickness. Like have a girl with leukemia observe a tree through a hospital window and personify the movement of its branches in a way that indicates she trusts in the will of God and has resigned herself to death.
Katie erased “The” and thought hard for a moment. “The,” she wrote again. She would never get used to seeing her digital handwriting blown up on the overhead monitor. She thought about writing the word “penis.” Anxiety tended to make her regress to a vulgar degree. Penis penis penis. Maybe Delacroix expected her to focus more on the rape, and all those feelings, because of her sex crime fixation. Maybe the judges wanted to know what happened to the alien love child. Could the baby be all grown up and willing to be used as an interstellar bargaining chip to save his mother’s life? And then exact revenge on his father?
“Two more minutes,” said Cecil B. He was fanning himself with an Advance Auto Parts flyer, barely interested in Katie’s mortal struggle with her ego at the desk. She was even too boring for the world’s most boring reality show. Her grandfather was very much alive and only emotionally invested in matters occurring within the sports pages, but if he were a sage ghost visiting her from another realm, he would probably tell her that great writing stems from the soul and souls can’t be celebrities. And she would tell him, “Easy for you to say when you’re dead and no longer have a bank account.”
What was the point of having so many writers? So many portholes into so many brains? Why did Katie’s alien warlord matter more than Ben’s alien warlord? Why did Katie’s white blood cell count matter more than A’s? She wasn’t having any fun writing for the public. She preferred to write in a vacuum, taking frequent breaks to ride the Mario Kart.
Even if she did write something amazing for the judges, chances were it would be discounted because she was just a trifling, unfashionable girl. For instance, she couldn’t foresee Pincho ascribing any intentionality to her work. These days art required the full backing of science. Though literature was supposed to be responsible for developing empathy, the selective dissemination of books and authors was controlled by a literary-industrial complex wherein empathy seemed glaringly absent. “…hell with you,” she wanted to write. “I’m going to audition for The Voice instead.”
How would Henry James handle himself on this national stage? What would Tyler Durden do?
The judges were all on their phones, probably deriding her on Twitter. Katie didn’t want to join their club anymore. Could she still be an outsider after her fleeting appearance on Idol? Could the outside actually be the inside? It was time for Katie to return to her regularly scheduled programming.
“…end,” she wrote, and put down her stylus.