Reality TV has earned something of a sniffy reputation over the decades that it’s dominated our small screens, but its persistence and longevity speaks to an irrefutable fact: we can’t stop watching it. Whether it’s the stalwarts of I’m A Celeb..., Made in Chelsea and Love Island or rogue newcomers Below Deck and Too Hot to Handle, the combination of real people interacting with one another in vaguely stressful situations remains compulsive viewing.
If, though, you’re keen to swap some of that screen time for page time, the best elements of reality TV – plot, people and unpredictability – can be found in books. And we’ve rounded up the best of them.
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino (2019)
Jia Tolentino made her name with her delectable insights into internet culture’s murkier corners – e-cigarettes, Instagram face, the gig economy – and in 2019 her collection of essays explored the impact of living our lives online has had. Trick Mirror, therefore, makes an interesting reflection on a number of themes thrown up by reality TV but also includes Tolentino’s own story of being on a reality television show herself. It makes for an artful behind the scenes.
Music for Wartime by Rachel Makkai (2015)
Makkai’s short story collection is well worth a read in any case, but reality TV purists will want to turn to The November Story. A producer of a reality show narrates Makkai’s piercing tale: in which desperate artists are pitted against one another in competition for a large grant. The last creative standing gets the cash. It also happens to be a comment on late-stage capitalism, but what reality TV show isn’t?
The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins (2008)
Yes, after the rip-roaring success of the blockbuster film adaptation, it might be difficult to read The Hunger Games without imagining Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Dean. But Suzanne Dean’s dark and brooding trilogy was a bestseller with good reason, and casts a deliciously dystopian pall over reality TV culture.