Was it Kimye or was it Rilke who predicted that someday, here at the crossroads of the death of print and the resurrection of Polaroid instant film, the moment would come when low-brow would look high-brow in the eye with the entitled, moneyed pride that only market share can bestow? Gone are the days in which The Great Gatsby, or even The Big Lebowski, trumped Big Brother in dinner-party conversations, not just in Portland but in Paris; these days all units of cultural currency are measured by the least common denominator. Nowhere is this more apparent than on television, nowhere is television at its boundary-breaking best than in reality television, and nowhere, but one European country, would dare to combine the upscale pretentions of a few aspiring writers of literature with the deluxe apartment in the televised sky itself, an American Idol-style competition with judges. And the country that has pulled it off, answering a publicist’s prayers and a purist’s nightmares, is Italy.
A new study lists Italian as the fourth most studied language of the world after English, French and Spanish. What’s its secret? It’s native to barely 60 million people, occupying a land mass roughly the size of Arizona, with economic and political problems the size of all of history. Hardly an imitable prospect. Linguists point to diffuse answers: 600 years after il Sommo Poeta Dante and 400 years after the invention of opera, Italy’s cuisine will never go out of style, the musicality of the language rivals any other, and Italy still boasts contemporary novelists, poets and essayists that the world envies.
Interestingly, if depressingly, this positive, passionate international perception of Italy-as-cultural-mecca does not extend to Italian citizens themselves, whose cultural consumption has been on a measurable decline since at least 2011. According to the latest National Report on Reading and Book Buying Habits, only 43% of the country read a book last year and of those, only 37% bought the book they read. The average annual expenditure on reading is now less than the price of a pizza at a restaurant, bringing every major player in Italian book publishing into serious crisis, including bookstores, publishers, printers, distributors, and writers. Minister of Economy and Finance Giulio Tremonti declared flatly that “one cannot eat off culture” while slashing funding for the arts in 2012. It was time for new ideas. Desperate to bring people back to buying and reading books, the powers in place thought about two crucial factors: what Italians did do, and what they didn’t do. Even if Italians weren’t consuming, they were still enterprising: Italy is full of singers and soccer coaches. And even if they weren’t reading, they all write. Thus the idea of a talent show was hatched.
The plan began as something in between The X Factor and Masterchef. Three cool judges, some posh intellectual guests, a futuristic studio set and quirky borderline-aspiring writers as competitors. And when Rai 3 (Italian Public Television), FreemantleMedia Italia (producer of The X Factor) and RCS Libri (one of the biggest Italian publishing conglomerates) publicized the concept behind Masterpiece, the world’s first writing talent show, 5,000 manuscripts promptly landed on the desks of the ill-prepared slush readers and producers. Novels that had been waiting patiently in drawers for years to see the shining light of national (and, who knew, international) fame. The first episode aired November 17, 2013, capturing a 5.14 share, which equals 700,000 viewers. While impressive for a Sunday late-evening slot, this turned out to be the best rating for the series, which stabilized at a 3.5 share, or 500,000 viewers.
In the preliminary round, aspirants read a portion of their novels in front of three judges, with moral, editorial, and presumably performative support from “Coach” Massimo Coppola, a young, smart independent publisher and former MTV host. The jury consisted of three well-known writers: Giancarlo De Cataldo, Andrea De Carlo and the British-African author Taiye Selasi—this last to give the show a touch of international authority, as the British-Lebanese performer Mika did for the Italian X Factor. Selasi told The New York Times that she had misgivings about appearing on Italian television—notorious for featuring women only when they were naked, dancing, and dumb—but she loved the idea of turning the convention on its head by connecting women to literary fiction through the mass media.
To enter the second round, each brave literary gunner had to obtain at least two of three thumbs-ups from the judges–just like in any proper talent contest. Round Two of Masterpiece focused on the Elevator Pitch, in which, after a 30-minute writing session, the remaining competitors had to pitch their work to a literary celebrity inside the elevator of the Mole Antonelliana building in Turin, which takes exactly 59 seconds to reach the top. A terrific combination, a metaphor for all of modern life itself: suspense and self-promotion in a time crunch. The final round of the show was entirely live, in which candidates underwent four tests: practical writing, storytelling, speed writing and finally an original short story.
The winner of the first season of Masterpiece turned out to be Nikola Savic, a tall Serbian, aged 36. Bompiani published his book in May, announcing a print run of 100,000 copies, foolhardy for a seasoned performer, unheard of for a debut novelist in any market, and yet another taste-annihilating measure of confidence in the power of the mass media to fix any and all cultural illnesses. As it happened, the book sold less than 10,000 copies–again, not bad for a literary debut, but nothing like the results that the producer-publishers had so desperately anticipated. Score one for the Italian reading audience-indolents, zero for the literary talent show-vulgars–a reminder that in some races, you just don’t know whom to root for. It is certain that Savic attained a level of publicity that very few novelists achieve over a lifetime, and even if this show does not revolutionize the Italian publishing scene, it was certainly an interesting attempt to renovate it, not to mention a new way to unite pretention with ambition, aspiration with execution, and high brow and low, for the dinner-chair and the armchair pundits alike. For the moment, the verdict is still out on what it takes to “succeed.”
Additional Reporting by Amber Qureshi.