This year Seth Kaufman released The War on Boredom, a collection of short stories, and Nuns with Guns, a social satire on America’s unhealthy gun obsession. I talked with Seth about reality TV, nuns and guns, and the power of network television.
Can reality TV be a source for good?
That is something I try and explore in Nuns with Guns, which is activist TV. Instead of competing to survive a race or make the best meals or lose the most weight, what if it was about a show where people vie to install the most solar panels in New Hampshire. Or grow the most food in the desert or plant the most trees? Or, say, collect guns? I do think some reality TV is good. Or some elements of some shows are positive. The Nanny probably really did help some couples learn how to communicate with out-of-control kids. Project Runway does allow creative design to flourish, and give talented people exposure.
You titled your recent short story collection, The War on Boredom. Are we winning The War on Boredom?
That’s a very personal war, not just for me, but for everyone. Boredom sucks. I worry about the passive, on-demand nature of entertainment these days. I think many people see entertainment as the opposite of boredom. But for me, it’s about being engaged. Is the entertainment making me think? Laugh? Does it inspire me? If the answer is no, that’s more a loss than a win.
Why guns? Why nuns?
Why guns? Because 30,000 people in the U.S. die each year. Because guns are killing machines that do things like slaughter innocent little kids in Sandy Hook, and because, on average, once a day in America, a gun is used in a mass murder. Because America’s relationship to guns is pure insanity and the NRA is profiteering organization masquerading as a civil rights organization. All of this is sickening to me. I started writing Nuns with Guns as soon as it became apparent that semi-automatic weapons would not be banned even after the New Town massacre. Let’s hope they will be after Orlando, but don’t count on it. As for nuns, they struck me as ideal and unassailable soldiers in the war on guns and the war on fear. They have faith. They have moral rectitude. They have God on their side. Plus, I’m a big Sound of Music fan.
What can activist groups, regardless of the cause, learn from the entertainment industry?
I think in these days of shifting media and messaging, everyone is fighting for attention. What the activist groups should explore is getting more money. The entertainment industry has a lot more money to invest. I guess fund raising is a new art form these days.
With all the viewing choices out there – multiple streaming services, etc. – is network TV still relevant? What’s the use of Old Media these days?
It’s funny, I just saw an interview with Simon Cowell of American Idol fame. He was saying that nothing can compete with network TV. And Rick Salter says the exact same thing in Nuns with Guns. New media has yet to beat out old media. You know the number one thing people tweet about? TV. And I bet it’s a dominant subject on Facebook, too.
Has American civilization finally jumped the shark?
I tell myself the age of Trump and the Kardashians isn’t really the end of civilization. But you have to wonder. They do seem to be the end of sincerity, however, and that may be the biggest sin of reality TV: the fact that reality is so often a misnomer — that it’s fake, staged, stoked and provoked. Then it’s edited, marketed and hyped. Some laugh at it, some laugh with it, and producers laugh, too — all the way to the bank.
People don’t take reality TV very seriously — even now, when, without a doubt, it has helped launch a candidate for the U.S. presidency. But we should. It flirts with disaster and is not healthy.
People may think I’m being alarmist, but look at the young woman from The Voice who was just shot to death. Did her appearance lead to a deranged fan fixating on her?
Any future projects you can tell us about? Will there be further misadventures with Rick “The Prick” Salter?
I want to write a historical novel about one of my personal bible heroes. I’m trying to find a publisher for a wacky crime novel I wrote about a bookie. And yes, I have a third Rick Salter book in the works. But I don’t want to give away any details yet. Sorry!