Awesome Writer Kate Durbin Takes On the Reality TV Machine

In her new book, writer Kate Durbin uses transcribed reality-TV dialogue as fodder for a surprisingly sympathetic look at a medium that everyone loves to hate.
Publish date:
May 18, 2014
books, art, writing, celebrities, Writers, Reality Tv, kate durbin, celebrity culture

Heidi Montag, Kim Kardashian, and all the "Real Housewives" have inspired plenty of writers over the last few years, but the result is usually snarky commentary about how horrible reality TV is. Occasionally we’ll get a less judgey piece, like Hamish Bowles’ fluffy but fun cover story for the March issue of Vogue (um, you might remember it). And then, in its own unique realm, there’s L.A. writer/performance artist Kate Durbin’s new book, E! Entertainment.Out this month, the book is a sort of fictional revamp of classic reality-TV moments (Durbin uses direct transcription of the shows' dialogue), and it features chapter titles like “The Girls Next Door,” “Kim’s Fairytale Wedding,” and “Lindsay’s Necklace Trial.” It’s a little like watching a reality show ... if the show were transcribed by an offbeat poet.

Durbin, creator of the acclaimed Women as Objects Tumblr project, doesn’t so much comment on reality TV as hold it up and hand it back to us in storybook form.

I talked to Durbin -- whose next project is a dystopian "Bachelor"-themed horror novel -- about her reality-show fascination, what Heidi Montag thinks of her book, and what her predictions are for Kimye's upcoming nuptials.Dina Gachman:OK, first things first. Why transcription and why reality TV?Kate Durbin: Reality TV is arguably the most important medium of our time. I’ve been obsessed since I first saw "The Real World: San Francisco" on MTV in junior high. I had to sneak-watch it because my parents thought it was bad. The first time I ever saw a person with AIDS was on that show, actually. What were you trying to do with this book? Usually reality TV is the subject of snarky blog posts, not literature.

Reality TV has completely changed the way we see each other, and ourselves. However, because it’s considered trashy and popular, there ends up being a stigma around writers or artists working with the medium without the express purpose to criticize it. My goal was to immerse myself in reality TV as a phenomenon, without judgment, and to see what I might make from it in the form of literature. I wanted to be open to holding the negative and positive and complicated parts of it: All of it, really. And then to create a book where a reader could experience all of these things in a pleasurable and trippy way. There are so many great details in the book, from Dior-studded bracelets to Kim’s creamy YSL lip gloss. How much of the book is straight transcription, and how much is your imagination with your own added details?I wanted to play up the eye candy on these shows, the fetish for luxury goods. The dialogue, gestures, and visual details are all true to the screen. For example, Kim was actually wearing a stud bracelet and creamy lip gloss in that scene. However, some of the brand names I guessed. Some I knew or could Google. It didn’t matter to me if all of the brands were real, since brands are a kind of collective fantasy anyway, and I wanted the book to play with the real and the fake, just like reality TV does. Another change I made to the source material was to turn Kim Kardashian’s former husband Kris Humphries literally into television static.

I love that. Poor guy.

I felt sad for Kris because he was this pawn in a way. Kim was so dazzling it was hard to notice other people, so I thought I would just turn him into static.I first met you at a reading almost a year ago, where you read part of your Kim’s Fairytale Wedding chapter. It made [all the wedding drama] so surreal -- even more surreal than what we get on TV -- and also subversively funny. When you’re looking at these reality stars, is it humorous to you?One of the things that I noticed when examining these shows closely is how the editing sets up the viewer to mock the people on the screen. I noticed this in particular with the "Housewives" shows. So in a way the medium itself is barbaric -- with echoes of the Roman forum -- and it is especially brutal toward women. I’m not interested in mocking people on reality TV, but I did want to draw attention to the way in which the shows set us up to mock them. One thing you may have noticed is that I didn’t create an authorial voice judging the characters. This was intentional. However ... I do think it can be painfully funny and sad to look at the lengths people will go for fame and ratings. So many people make fun of them.

I see this more as something we all do -- our current cultural condition ... But the shows are definitely funny. I think when you are reading the book it’s hard to know who you are laughing at, and that’s intentional. You may even be laughing at yourself. But it’s OK that you are laughing.

What was your process in writing the book? How much reality TV do you watch? How much gossip and pop culture are you devouring every day?Oh, it’s a lot. I’m not even sure how much. I think I get a lot of it by osmosis at this point. The other day I was at the hair salon getting a bleach and cut and I got through about seven US Weekly [issues]. When I was writing the book I would usually work on it for a few hours a day. It took that long to transcribe about two minutes of screen time. And then when that was done I spent another year just revising.Did you have to deal with any licensing or rights issues with the book? Has anyone at E! contacted you?

Not yet, knock on wood. I think I’m protected by satire laws, even though I don’t consider the book a satire, really. If they do come after me, I might be doomed. I don’t have Richard Prince’s kind of money!Is reality TV bad for us, as so many cultural critics seem to think?I see reality TV as our cultural condition. We live in a surveillance society, where we are constantly performing for one another on screens every day. It’s like we are stuck in an extended loop of Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame. So to say reality TV is bad for us is a complicated criticism, because it’s not as if reality TV is outside of us and we are merely its passive viewers. We are both the actors and the viewers ... I think it’s ideal to look closely at reality TV, learn its mechanisms, and re-write the script from within.

What can we learn from dissecting these shows, these people, and their worlds? You work feels anthropological to me, in a good way.It’s like a messy form of anthropology. One of the things I learned while writing this book is how complicated reality actually is. We act differently when we think we are being watched. We do things to fit in or to make people like us. Sometimes the details of our lives are edited by a force outside of ourselves, and other times we edit them to make them appear more acceptable or enticing. We all do this to some degree. Anyone who says they don’t is not looking very closely at themselves.

I love the Girls Next Door chapter, where you describe each room of the Playboy mansion. Were you watching the show and pausing 15 times to get those details, or did you take liberties?I paused all of these shows so many times I’m surprised I didn’t break my laptop. For The Girls Next Door, I wrote down a million details from the DVDs and gleaned some info from Steven Watts’ biography of Hugh Hefner, Mr. Playboy. I also took a few liberties, although I’d rather not say which details are made up. Let the reader decide! The Playboy mansion is the stuff of legend now -- Hef’s red velvet bathrobes, the spinning bed, the chandelier in his bedroom with women’s underwear hanging on it.

What’s been your favorite discovery while writing about these pop culture figures? Has anything surprised you?Empathy surprised me. I feel connected to all of these people now: Kim Kardashian, Kris Humphries, The "Hills" girls, the housewives, Lindsay Lohan. I can’t know what they were thinking, or feeling, and the book’s lack of interiority into the characters' minds is meant to emphasize that -- how we can’t ever get inside a celebrity, or another person really. That’s why we project onto them. Yet I feel like I shared molecules with them through this process and that’s pretty intimate.Have you met any of the people you’re writing about? I know Heidi Montag wrote a blurb –- have you gotten other feedback or responses?Josie Stevens from "Married to Rock" and Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt from "The Hills" have all read sections of the book. They appreciated that I was taking the medium seriously as an art form in its own right. I told Spencer I think it’s one of the most important art forms of the last century, and that I see him and Heidi as pioneers in that medium. If you had to pick one pop culture icon as your all-time favorite or most inspiring, who would it be and why?Marilyn Monroe is my favorite pop culture icon. She still is one of the most misunderstood and projected-upon women in history, and certainly in all of televised history. She was also a beautiful and brilliant person. I think she still has a lot to teach us about what it means to witness as opposed to just watching another person.What are your hopes for Kim and Kanye’s big wedding? Any predictions?I think they’re going to tone it down because people are still mad over Kim’s last wedding, but they’re Kimye so “toned down” is still going to equal spectacle. I think it’ll be sexy. I’m expecting at least two dresses from Kim, and I don’t think she’ll wear Vera Wang again. I think she’ll go for something edgier. North is going to be really cute. My hope is they’ll televise it, which probably won’t happen, but a girl can dream. How would you define 'celebrity'?A receptacle for our projected collective desires. Or a random human who is famous.What do you hope people get from reading your book?I hope E! might cause people to take a second look at a medium they thought they knew ... and their own role in the spectacle of life in the 21st century. I am also happy with people just enjoying the trip.