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Pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap

Written by: on February 2, 2010

Earlier this month saw the release of _The TV Book Club_ – the brand new slice of Sunday tea-time viewing from ‘Richard and Judy Book Club’ mastermind Amanda Ross. The show presents a panel of celebrity misfits reviewing a novel each week with the help of another slightly flailing celebrity who is present, in a fairly transparent way, to attempt to sell his/her most recent book. The panel consists of make-over TV star Gok Wan, that guy who played Inspector Linley (Nathanial Barker), that woman from _Strictly Come Dancing_, (Leila Rouess), token comedian-with-a-regional-accent, Dave Spikey, and comedian Jo Brand.

The 60 per cent of viewers who chose the sonorous tones of Nathanial Barker bigging-up some book he doesn’t care about over _Antiques Roadshow_ would have found (heads drooping, jaws slackening) their cups of PG tips dangling dangerously from flaccid fingertips. For herein lies the problem of trying to make an ‘accessible’ TV show about books to ‘get people reading’. It is dull. It is dry. And the chummy, ‘best friends around a coffee table’ set-up is unconvincing and uninspiring.

_The TV Book Club_ airs on Monday lunchtimes, and Sunday evenings, thus potentially catering to a wide demographic – families, housewives/husbands, the aged, prison inmates, and the unemployed. The books featured are unsuitable for young readers, and the second novel, Blacklands contained topics of a fairly distressing nature, which I cannot envisage appealing to my grandparents. Thus, the programme limits itself to a demographic of middle-aged home keepers, which surely isn’t a primary pocket of society which needs to ‘get reading’? Forcing myself to put aside the saccharine opening in which each of the panellists introduced each other, words dripping with sycophantic epithets, I did find myself enjoying the discussion. In a conversation with guest Chris Evans about his recent autobiography, Gok Wan made a perceptive backhanded comment about celebrity biographies which “often feel quite contrived…people writing because they have a big cheque at the end”, and later on tries to initiate a discussion about Queer Literature.

Faced though, with a panel of past-it actors and TV presenters, his intellectual provocations fall flat. Jo Brand is the other star in a fairly bleak line of faces. The other panellists revel in the dark, disturbing content of the week’s novel which, from their descriptions, seems to follow a recent trend of story which engages readers through tales of abuse and misery. Perfectly on time, Jo cuts through the empty gratuity with a refreshing frankness: “It is not entertainment for me, to read about a paedophile serial killer”.

Warm, wicked, but insightful, Brand punctuates the discussion with her notorious contradictory banter, but again, the other panellists fail to take the bait. Talking of the book under review, Gok Wan concludes that, “It does split minds…for me that makes a good writer”. Wan unknowingly reveals what lacks in this show, which other programmes have in abundance: panellists who are vocal and argumentative about the texts under consideration.

Shows such as _Newsnight Review_ do not perhaps cater to audiences of ‘light-entertainment’ television which _The TV Book Club_ reaches out to, but the passionate animation of the guests makes for exhilarating viewing, and surely an intention of Ross’s book club is to get viewers excited about reading? Simply, this is not an achievable goal with placid celebrities chosen for their popular appeal, rather than an ability to discuss novels in a stimulating way, steering the critical ship.

The show is broken up by a light-hearted section in which a token long-haired youth interacts with the public to explore recently released non-fiction texts, such as _The Completely Superior People’s Book of Words_. We are also shown short documentary sections which interview authors who have found financial success through the vehicle of such book clubs. This is in an interesting angle; allowing readers to also connect to the novels from an oblique position, but it raises a fairly ugly point.

Perhaps _The TV Book Club_ is less about getting people reading books, and more about getting people buying books. The authors talk about their success in a way which foregrounds the book as a product, a commodity. Writing a review of the program for _The Observer_, Robert McCrum suggests that, with bookshops closing and publishers feeling the pinch, “good news” such as TV shows raising books sales is warmly received by the industry. The show’s website is splashed with adverts such as “Buy all 10 books from the show: only £34.99”, and I can’t shake the feeling that Ross’s new project is just yet another move which relocates the book-selling industry from the hands of dedicated bibliophiles, to the clammy palms of the fat cat corporate companies, as was observed in the relatively small Ottakars bookshop takeover by the huge, faceless HMV Group in 2006.

In my opinion, the first episode sets a fairly high standard which the second installation fails to maintain. In the first episode, the club discusses elements of Gothicism in Sarah Waters’ text in a very accessible way, later referring to her episodic style as ‘Dickensian’. However, in the most recent programme, the celebrities somewhat lose momentum. Gok Wan describes the novel being reviewed as “One of those great books you can pick up and put down”. It is difficult to critique such a subjective artform, but surely the definition of a great popular novel should be one which compels the reader to read on, ignoring the multiple distractions of modern life? Alas not. McCrum writes of Ross that, “Whatever you think of her taste, there’s no denying [the book club’s] mass appeal”; unavoidably solidifying the real impetus of the programme here: selling books, and selling a subdued experience of reading to a mass audience.

The association of ‘literature’ and ‘mass appeal’ leaves a bad taste in my mouth; equating what is ‘good’ to read with what is ‘easy’ and ‘fast’ to both read and digest. By ‘dumbing down’ its content, the show patronises its audience, and alienates potential viewers. After watching 15 minutes of the show, third year psychology student Joey McTavish sighed a sigh heavy with the weight of lower earning potential, and returned to his essay murmuring about a breed of ‘Stupid Television’. _The TV Book Club_ takes strides to engage a spectrum of viewers, but in sacrificing itself to celebrity culture, ends up a dull show vitally lacking enthusiasm.

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