Aspiring novelists writhed in agony late last month when Jersey Shore's Snooki announced that she's writing a book to be called, of course, A Shore Thing. "What is this world coming to? I'm serious—how does something like this happen?" a horrified blogger wept. Not so long ago, Snooki, who will surely find it difficult to translate into prose the foghorn whine she uses to express amusement, excitement, and displeasure alike, told the New York Times that the only books she has ever finished are Twilight and Dear John.
If she's going to take this writing thing seriously—I'm not terribly optimistic about it, since other projects she's blathered about, like a clothing line, a fragrance, and a reality show called Snookin' for Love, haven't come to fruition—the artist formerly known as Nicole Polizzi had best add a fellow reality-TV star to her reading list: Lauren Conrad.
Earlier this month, the 24-year-old alumna of The Hills released two books on the same day: a fashion guide and the final installment of her young-adult trilogy, which follows a Conrad-esque protagonist who suddenly finds herself starring in a smash-hit reality show. The first two novels, L.A. Candy and Sweet Little Lies, each sat on the New York Times children's book best-seller lists for weeks; her new works, Sugar and Spice and Style, will likely make it there, too. Though the L.A. Candy trilogy is now complete, a spinoff series is on the way.
If you've ever dreamed of the words "New York Times best-selling author" preceding your name, Conrad's literary achievements—that she landed a book deal at all—may make you want to tear off your fingernails. But the books themselves are entertaining looks at the pitfalls of Hollywood and the distortions of reality TV. While on The Hills Conrad seemed congenitally dull, her fictional voice is sharp and critical of everyone involved: her naive protagonist; the manipulative but not quite evil producers behind the show; and the hangers-on and industry that feed on low-level stars. The series should be required reading for anyone who answers reality-show casting calls in hopes of making it to the D-list.
L.A. Candy, Sweet Little Lies, and Sugar and Spice cover territory familiar to anyone who ever found herself watching the now-concluded MTV ratings juggernaut The Hills. Orange County girl Jane and her best friend move to L.A. post-high-school graduation to check out Hollywood, go to school, intern, party, and fall in love. After a fluke meeting with a TV producer, they find themselves starring, with two other hot young things they've never met before, in a reality show about four girlfriends navigating life and love in Los Angeles.
It's a hit. Jane's the breakout star. And then life gets complicated: Producers set up situations, friends and classmates fame-whore, paparazzi start following them, an evil co-star shit-stirs for more screen time, rumors fly. (In these semi-autobiographical books, our heroine wasn't warmed up by a high-school reality show called Laguna Beach.)
Perhaps the most confusing part of The Hills' success was Lauren Conrad herself, a seemingly vacant girl, not prone to wit or scandalous behavior or even amusing acts of idiocy. On-screen, she was largely a bore: complaining when friends ditched her to hang out with guys, going on boring dates, screwing up and achieving in minor ways at her cushy internships. The Hills managed to make Hollywood's hottest clubs, where Conrad and her crew often taped gossipy booze sessions, seem no more interesting than my typical night out in D.C. The really compelling parts of Conrad's life—a boyfriend's struggle with addiction, a rumor about a sex tape, her entrée to elite young-Hollywood status—took place off-screen, carefully edited out by MTV.
In her books, Conrad demonstrates a surprising self-awareness through Jane, who is baffled by her popularity. She's not entirely convinced by producers' explanations that audiences just like her very normalness, even plainness: The other three girls are just too hot, or too smart, or too fake to resonate with the average viewer who daydreams about a Hollywood life.
Other criticisms lobbed at The Hills are confirmed by the L.A. Candy books, too: The girls and sometimes their romantic interests are thrown together; their work lives are manipulated to make things more interesting; scenes are retaped; accidental run-ins are planned; conversations are conducted largely by meaningful glances. Conrad is using her books to criticize the machine that made her a star. And she doesn't let herself—or, at least, her main character—escape criticism. Jane gets carried away by celebrity at certain points and finds herself manipulated into story lines. Sure, Conrad had a valuable partner in her "collaborator," Nancy Ohlin, who previously wrote kids' books about Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. But Conrad is still signing on to these observations and critiques. Perhaps her legions of teen and preteen readers will digest them and be more skeptical of what they see on MTV and in gossip magazines.
Reality shows have for two decades now been churning out young, good-looking people hungry for fame. Many of them say they want to use the platform to launch a legitimate career, usually in acting or music. How many have achieved this aim? A couple of Real World veterans have worked steadily, like Jacinda Barrett and Jamie Chung, but apart from the lucky stars of American Idol, no one has really succeeded in leaping from reality TV to the Hollywood A-list. * Conrad may have established a new career path for the reality star. She and her handlers are using her background as a reality star in a shrewd way. The L.A. Candy books have been optioned for either a movie or TV show, with Conrad as executive producer. If that works, Conrad may be able to continue working in the entertainment industry even after her fans have outgrown MTV.