An illustration of a television on a yellow and blue background with a rubber ring and a man checking his phone

He's got a text! Image: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

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.

Identity Crisis by Ben Elton (2019)

Ben Elton’s razer-sharp satire takes a pop at a range of modern phenomena – identity politics and social media among them. But reality television gets its fair share, too: the producers of Love Island are among the suspects for a string of seemingly random murders, and a judge from The Great British Bake Off fears for their safety after marking down a hazelnut meringue roulade. Identity Crisis is unlikely to scratch the itch generated by the finale of a series, but it will make you think differently about what you’re watching.

The Famoux Series by Kassandra Tate (2021)

If Black Mirror sits side-by-side with Selling Sunset on your Netflix account, then we strongly recommend you check out The Famoux, Kassandra Tate’s series of books that imagines a whole new kind of celebrity in an entire new world. In this dystopian near-future, entertainment comes in the form of the Fishbowl – Big Brother, but with more climate catastrophe. Inside the Fishbowl live the Famoux, beautiful reality TV stars that offer a blissful escape from the realities outside. What happens when a wistful teenager accepts and invitation to join them is more dangerous than anyone expected.

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.

The Idea of You by Robinne Lee (2021)

While you won't directly find reality television in Robinne Lee's spectacular sleeper hit, plenty of Noughties pop culture has filtered into this modern romance. A British boy band, hoardes of international fans and winking references from the past five years make The Idea of You a pleasingly familiar touchstone. The reasons why you won't be able to put it down, though, are far more enduring: forbidden love, unimaginable luxury and big, devastating secrets that could come out at any moment. 

Warcross by Marie Lu (2018)

Millions of people watch reality television, but for the contestants in front of the camera it’s all to play for. From the love of your life to an instant career promoting things on Instagram, there’s something to win – and lose – for those on the small screen. This is the crux of Warcross, a game that becomes a way of life and a risky route to success for teen hacker Emika Chen. She just wants to work as a bounty hunter, but then gets lured into Warcross’s inside. The thriller that unfolds is as addictive as a “next on” trailer.

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?

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan (2020)

I mean, it’s right there in the title: the essence of reality television boiled down to two great vices. Kevin Kwan’s follow-up to Crazy Rich Asians takes the classic love triangle narrative and throws in millionaires, Capri, the Hamptons and a comedy of manners. Kwan was inspired by E.M Forster's A Room with a View for this globe-trotting tour de force but the very best elements of reality entertainment are there: gorgeous people, impressive views and falling for the people you're not meant to. A brilliantly binge-able book.

Kill ’Em All by John Niven (2019)

A few years on and 2017 feels like a more halcyon time. John Niven’s brilliantly satirical thriller reminds us of its pitfalls, though, with a plot centered around a ruthless A&R man who made millions with a hit reality TV show. Grimy celebrities, murky pasts and the threat of it all becoming public knowledge motivates this entertaining read that skewers the worst bits of being famous.

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.

Everything You Ever Wanted by Luiza Sauma (2020)

Maybe Richard Branson's recent trip to space was actually him auditioning for Life on Nyx, the interstellar reality show at the heart of Luiza Sauma's 2019-published novel, Everything You Ever Wanted. The Florence Welch book club pick is an acute and endlessly entertaining satire of social media, workplace anxiety, and the extremes we are willing to take to escape contemporary life. It’s basically Big Brother, except being evicted means you wander lonely through space for the rest of eternity, rather than star in a four-page spread in Heat magazine.

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