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Original Essays

On Giving Up the Great American Novel for Reality TV

by Erik Barmack
  1. The Virgin
    $1.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    The Virgin

    Erik Barmack
    "If Nathanael West and Brett Easton Ellis had a child, he might be Erik Barmack... The Virgin is quirkily, compulsively original." Tama Janowitz, author of Slaves of New York
Last year, after engaging in an extended period of self-loathing, I decided to buck up. I told myself, "Okay, E., this is it. You're ready to write the next Great American Novel." My book would be a massive, sweeping satire — the story of a man who wakes up one day deep in debt and he doesn't know why. You see, I was ready to make a statement.

So this is what happened next. I sat down at my desk, rifled off a few lines, scratched them out, recorded a few more thoughts, and promptly erased them. Then I did what I always do when I'm frustrated: I lumbered over to my couch, sighed, mashed my hair down, and thought, What the hell. Then I turned on my television. I felt its glow. Let the warm blue light wash over me.

I should tell you something. I'm not a quitter. Or at least I didn't always quit so easily. And I certainly didn't used to be this lazy. In the late nineties, when I was in graduate school, I'd tried (and failed) to write another Great American Novel. That one was about Silicon Valley, and it contained four-page paragraphs on the ceaseless buzzing of technology. Though I liked the writing, there was a minor problem — I had no plot.

What I mean specifically is this: Nothing happened.

Now, working on my debt story, I faced the same predicament. I was more or less plotless. Yes, this debtor was in trouble, but I had no idea how to tell his story. None. I was clueless. So I did the only sensible thing I could under these circumstances — I kept watching television. And soon, I found myself drawn to reality dating shows, especially The Bachelor. Because there was a Darwinian winnowing of characters that forced a story. Because each week, every episode, something definitive happened.

I became addicted to the genre. I started watching twenty to thirty hours per week. Who Wants to Marry My Dad. Average Joe. For Love or Money. I tracked them all. Sometimes friends would come over and mock me. And I'd have to tell them to shut up. "Stuff it," I'd say, "the rose ceremony is about to begin." I needed to see who was getting axed. And sometimes they'd ask me — derisively, I might add — what had become of my Great American Novel, and I'd point ambiguously to the screen, and say, "Look, I'm researching plot, okay?"

My girlfriend was embarrassed. She'd whisper, "He takes his rose ceremonies very seriously." Which was true. I did.

But really, reality-based television was all I had. I'm being honest with you now. There was this bachelor choosing between three women. The women were, in order — stupid, slutty, and annoying. At the end of each episode, he had to eliminate one. It seemed like he could have eliminated them all. The bachelor stretched the moment until it could be stretched no further. He inhaled through his teeth. Sighed. Tousled his hair. He didn't think it could ever be so difficult! He felt a special connection with all of them.

My friends chuckled. My girlfriend rolled her eyes.

And I'll tell you what happened next — I started laughing uncontrollably. I can't tell you exactly what my emotional state was, but perhaps it bordered on relief. Relief that I didn't need to return to writing the Great American Novel. Relief that the bachelor could make a decision. Relief that he could reinvent himself as a sensitive guy. Relief that romance could be found in the most farcical of situations.

The bachelor was handing out his final rose. My throat was closing up. I could hardly breathe. He was discussing his feelings, and the tears streaming down the women's overly prepared faces were more dramatic than his original words, and I remember thinking to myself — finally, finally I have a story.


A few months later, my girlfriend broke up with me. So, okay, I deserved it. I can't say that I blame her. She said that I cared more about reality TV than her, which was probably true. She said that she was willing to tolerate dating a failed writer, but not one who adored Trista Rehn. She said that watching Elimidate together was not quality time. As she told me these things, she stared at me, apparently dumbfounded, arms akimbo.

I didn't defend myself.

Instead, I went into my study and began writing about a guy who lies his way onto a reality show in which a twenty-six-year-old woman is giving away her virginity. I started introducing other absurd plot twists, but as I made things up, they kept happening on television. Apparently I could not outrun the poor taste of major media companies. But meanwhile, I had managed to find my story — it was about a guy who wanted to change his identity in public.

Over the next couple of months, my interest in reality TV intensified. I studied the unique smirking ability of Roger Lodge (for the uninformed, he's the host of Blind Date). I memorized snippets of dialogue from Temptation Island. I even watched My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé. Then I interviewed a half-dozen reality-TV contestants and producers. And as I started to flesh out a plot — a plot! — I became less interested in my friends, family, and co-workers and more engrossed in television. My life became unreal; dating shows were all that mattered.

This, I think, was when I knew that I was either a very, very pathetic person, or that I was going to finish my novel, or both.

And the point that I want to make, I suppose, is this. Being a writer is a little bit like being a stalker. Not that I'd know what being a stalker is like. But if I had to guess, I'd say that you can't choose who you want to follow, your obsession. And it may take you years, even, to understand what piqued your interest. When I finished the rough draft of my novel, I had no idea how my story had come to me, or why. Not really, anyway. I can only tell you that I was consumed by it, and after I'd finished the revisions and sent everything off to my agent, there was nothing left but the dull buzzing of my television set.

I was alone. And I felt spent, slightly confused, empty. spacer

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