Two American Idol tell-all books, two works of fiction

After 12 seasons, American Idol may not be the insanely popular television phenomenon it once was, but it still draws attention and interest in its behind-the-scenes machinations, enough to generate two new tell-all books. But there’s a catch: Both books are about the Fox reality show, but both hide their stories and revelations under a blanket of fiction. And that makes them easy to dismiss.

“Uberstar: The Search for America’s Next Hollywood Superstar” is trying to raise $30,000 on Kickstarter to fund publicity for its publication. Its writer, Vaughn Alaine-Marshall, describes it as:

“…the book former American Idol contestants, producers and insiders have broken their silence to tell. I have taken their stories and given you a virtual American Idol experience. I will take you from the first round of auditions, to the callbacks, to Hollywood Week and then through to the semifinals. From then, you will just have to see what happens…”

That sounds great, except he adds this oddly worded pair of sentences:

“I have written real accounts as fiction. I have changed everything about my sources names except their stories.”

This may seem obvious, but turning a true story into fiction makes it no longer a true story, and thus we must question its veracity. The project’s business plan just flatly calls it a “novel [that] documents the story of Veronica, a 16 year old girl and her mother as they
experience the reality of America’s hit show, ‘Uberstar’.” A novel can explore truth of the human experience and even true events, as historical fiction does, but it’s not nonfiction.

Journalism that uses anonymous sources is always problematic. You need to trust the writer or reporter enough to trust that they’ve vetted the source carefully for ulterior motives, conflicts of interest, and accuracy. Of course, there are many situations when it makes sense to use an anonymous source, and using them is a constant source of debate.

That said, there is no excuse for the increasingly lazy and obnoxious use of anonymous sources by media organizations that are just allowing publicists and others with agendas to promote or defend themselves without having to provide any evidence or verifiable facts. How about: if you want to defend your client, show, candidate, or thing, or you want to criticize, accuse, or reveal things about others, you go on the record. And if you’re a journalist, you risk your access to people and places by insisting people go on the record, and by writing about what you really see and observe, rather than what your subjects want you to write.

I know: I’m delusional.

Earlier this year, Amazon published Elimination Night written by an anonymous person that didn’t use the phrase “American Idol,” but it’s obviously about the Fox series, as the title font, the obvious caricature of executive producer Nigel Lythgoe that appears on page one, and the story of a rival show, X Factor, all make clear. But the story is blanketed in heavy, obvious satire:

“Meet Sasha King, a down-to-earth young writer who finds herself working inside a world that both repels and fascinates her: Project Icon, the once-mighty TV talent show that’s taken a hit in the ratings. In an attempt to get back on top, the show has recently hired two new celebrity judges…”

The book description insists “[t]he details of their inner workings are so accurate that the book had to be written anonymously,” but why is accuracy so defiantly linked to anonymity? Amazon identifies the writer only by saying this: “For reasons of confidentiality, however, the publisher can confirm only that the writer has deep inside knowledge of a hit reality TV talent competition.” What’s “deep inside knowledge”? The writer had behind-the-scenes access to the show somehow? Or the writer knows someone who insisted they had behind-the-scenes knowledge? We don’t know.

Again, we’re asked to trust the writer on multiple levels, since it’s satire and fiction–but this time, it’s written by someone who’s not even willing to use their own name. Is the person a coward or a hero? Or both?

For me, they’re just wasting their time: Hollywood has many people who want to plant metaphoric axes in the heads of people who’ve scorned them but don’t because they’re desperate for work, fame, and/or approval from those same people, and I don’t care what one of them has to say via poorly written fiction.

Two years ago, journalist Richard Rushfield, then working for The Daily Beast, wrote American Idol: The Untold Story, using actual interviews with some former cast members and Simon Cowell. It wasn’t played as fiction or satire, and people were quoted by name. But it didn’t really break news or offer big surprises.

Maybe American Idol is just too big to expose–or there’s just nothing really there to expose that we don’t already know.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.