At literary lunches here, a topic that...

At literary lunches here, a topic that comes around at least as often as the breadsticks is, why can’t Americans come up with a show like “Apostrophe?” The French television program about books and publishing has spawned countless proposals for clones on this side of the Atlantic, as well as endless discussion about whether such an effort could work in a land that worships “Entertainment Tonight.”

Lewis Lapham, author and editor of Harper’s, had had that conversation a hundred times when an executive from Bell Atlantic asked him (over lunch, naturally), “Had any good ideas for TV programs lately?” “As a matter of fact,” Lapham replied, “it was a ‘received wisdom’ ” in New York that “there ought to be a book show, dammit.”

Over the weekend, Lapham hammered out a proposal. “Bookmark,” a 26-week series on books and authors, will make its debut on PBS on Jan. 22. (The first show will be seen in Los Angeles Jan. 29 on KCET.) Funding has been provided by Bell Atlantic Corp.

The first show brings Lapham, the regular host, together with the somewhat unlikely menage a trois of Edna O’Brien, Robert Stone and Robert Coles, whose “The Call of Stories” will be the topic of discussion. It eschews the traditional PBS panel show, Lapham said, in favor of a kind of round-table conversation that first analyzes the book, then “rises to the level of the uses of literature.”


In the conventional panel format, “they would probably bring in critics, and then they would probably not even bring in the author,” Lapham said. “Then they would bring in the book as if it were a roast pig, and then the three resident critics would cut it to pieces.”

Instead, Lapham said the author of the book under discussion would be an active participant, deflecting criticism or defending his approach to the topic. Both fiction and nonfiction books will be featured, Lapham said. Only one book per show will be assessed.

Books and television have long had a mutual allergy to one another in this country, and it is difficult to imagine anyone finding an overnight cure for this longstanding antipathy. “First Edition,” another PBS effort, tried and failed. More jazzy concepts also have fizzled.

Will Americans turn their televisions to “Bookmark?”

“I don’t know,” Lapham said. “I’m not a TV person. You’ll have to tell me.”

The approach remains “an experiment,” he added. “It’s evolving.”

WRITE ONE FOR RONA: To express her gratitude to her alma mater, Rona Jaffe, Radcliffe ’51, has established a series of major writing prizes for Radcliffe undergraduates. Ranging from $2,000 to $3,500, the Rona Jaffe-Radcliffe College Prizes in Creative Writing will go to two young women writers each year starting in 1989 and continuing for four years. Jaffe is the author of the mega-best seller, “Class Reunion,” among others.