A Week in Books: Literature gets a TV makeover

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The Independent Culture

When Karl Marx suggested that "History always repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, and the second time as farce", he was referring to the absurd Louis Bonaparte's bid to emulate his great relative, Napoleon. Now, for the original Bonaparte, think Simon "Mr Nasty" Cowell and the Pop Idol shows that brought vast celebrity to Messrs Young and Gates. (A tragedy for music-lovers, perhaps.) For the rivalrous relation, imagine a brother who wishes to be known as "Mr Sarcastic". The farcical re-run will involve Tony Cowell's presentation, during a prime-time ITV show, of a "Book Idol" slot that aims to find a bestselling new author from the ranks of literary wannabes. You probably suppose that I'm making this up to fill the silly-season space. I wish I were.

The good (or at least hopeful) news is that the popularising feats of Richard & Judy and The Big Read have tempted ITV to commission a mid-evening book series. Between the Covers looks likely to begin its run this autumn. Surprisingly, the high-octane agent Jonny Geller (from Curtis Brown) has been flagged as a probable co-host. Geller has blown welcome blasts of fresh air through an often stuffy trade. But he must surely consider the conflict-of-interest issues raised by an active agent's presence in this sort of gig.

News of Between the Covers arrived with the usual PR cant about how dull and dated it would be simply to have people who love books talking about them on TV. Well, the popularity of the Richard & Judy book-club slots (now boosting the sales of Ben Richards' ambitious novel about Chilean politics, The Mermaid and the Drunks) turns on a fairly traditional model of debate and disagreement among the studio guests. The sole distinction is that it now takes place at a decent hour, not buried in a post-graveyard slot - the apologetic role of most literary shows on TV.

"Book Idol" sounds magnificently gruesome, and promises a bonanza for the satirists ("'I have just returned from a visit to my landlord'; 'As if we cared, Emily'; 'It is a truth universally acknowledged...'; 'Just get on with it, Jane'"). Yet behind the idea lurks the untruth, universally acknowledged by TV executives, that books on the small screen must mean boredom. Therefore all literary programmes ought to be rammed into a mould that fits glitzier forms of entertainment.

Make books resemble movies; force authors to mimic pop stars; whatever you do, try to hide the democratic communion of reader and writer. This craven doctrine took root in a medium that, in its sports coverage, pushes the frontiers of tedium to an extreme that Andy Warhol might admire. Compared to the endless Olympic yawn about to fill our screens, the most abstruse clash of talking-heads would feel like a final episode of 24.

Books and their making should aspire to the condition of reality TV - or rather, "ordeal TV". So runs the thinking behind "Book Idol". Oddly, I have just encountered a shrewd account of surviving that sort of media madness. It comes from Dean O'Loughlin, a housemate from the second, 2001 series of Big Brother (he came third) who now has a product-development firm. Although his chronicle-cum-analysis of the BB circus rambles and digresses too much, nothing else available captures the mood of this weirdest of British cults with such a clear eye and a cool head. Did Dean O'Loughlin feed his ideas into a TV show, a website, a celeb weekly? No. He wrote a book - a serious, sensitive, hype-free, unauthorised-by-Channel 4 memoir. It's called Living in the Box: an adventure in reality TV, and you can obtain it (£4.99 plus £2.50 p&p) from The Gameford Files at PO Box 11053, Halesowen B62 9XR. Books will still speak to us while idols crumble into dust.