Any Idiot Can Write a Book

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