Tuesday, May 02, 2006

How Kaavya Got Desperate, Got Busted and Got Scapegoated

When the news broke that Kaavya Viswanathan, the 19-year old Harvard sophomore who wrote the bestselling debut teen chick lit novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, had been accused of plagiarizing two novels by Megan McCafferty, I had no idea that two years earlier at the age of seventeen, her publisher Little, Brown and Company had paid her a half-million dollar advance for two novels of which How Opal Mehta was one.

So when I learned this bit of backstory, the last thing on my mind was whether Ms. Viswanathan was guilty or innocent of the allegations against her. Odd but true. The first thing I wondered was where the hell was I when news of this blockbuster deal broke? Then I realized that I was probably in the throes of writing one of my own novels. I know. . . that sounds pretty righteous even though I don't mean it to (still it probably sounds just like what it is.)

The more I read stories about the allegations, the more I learned about the book deal. You have to understand that these unusual figures are what makes this news story so big. This is not to say that if Ms. Viswanathan had been a few years older and offered a lot less dollars, the plagiarism accusation would not be an issue. But the only reason why the general public knows about these accusations now is because the book deal was such major news then.

So this past Wednesday I'm in my hotel room in Anaheim, California where I'm promoting my third novel (and the first to be published under my real name and in the chick lit genre... the same as How Opal Mehta), reading articles on the internet about the case as I wait for Katie Couric to interview Kaavya Viswanathan herself on that morning's show.

At one point in my research, I stop to check email, and there's one from a friend who asks, "Sofia, did she really get .5?" See, in the past I had told this friend that sometimes when it's reported that an author received a high-figure advance, it's not always true. Sometimes the figure includes other things as film options and foreign language rights although it reads like the amount is paid solely for the book. I told him that some of the spin doctors hired by new "authors" (because those who attempt to mislead booklovers this way are not often genuine writers as much as they are celebrities in another realm who landed book deals because of their celebrity) plant rumors of seven-figure deals that are just not true to generate publicity. Hell, some of these people don't even write "their" own book, at least not without the assistance of a ghost writer who may or may not be acknowledged (usually not.)
After first reading some of the passages under suspicion and Ms. Viswanathan's official response, I write back to my friend that while as much as I wanted to believe this young woman (yeah, I was thinking, "I don't want a sista to be guilty of this shit let alone one who's so young!"), I just couldn't buy that she unintentionally borrowed or "internalized" Ms. McCafferty's words. There were just too many passages, and they were just too similiar.

As I wait for the interview, I come across more articles about the matter -- new and old -- and my resentment starts to grow. There are times when I've bitched to my agent, "Give me a half-million dollar advance for haiku written on toilet paper and see if I don't end up on the bestseller list!" In more rational moments, I recognize that that's a gross exaggeration of the role advances play in ultimate sales. But there's more than a grain of truth to my contention.
Shit, there's a whole bowl of rice.

When a house gives an author -- especially a debut novelist who has not amassed any fame in another field -- such a large advance, it makes news. Big news. And that kind of publicity generates sales. The tome becomes top priority for reviewers who want to see if the hype is warranted (and, yes, some are foaming at the mouth in the hopes that it isn't.) That ensures more publicity when the book finally hits shelves. And no matter what these reviewers say, readers will plunk down their money to determine for themselves if the latest literary "it" guy or gal is the genuine article (can't say that's a bad thing, but obviously I'm biased.) It actually becomes irrelevant whether the writer in question actually has chops. Much more often than not, the hype generates sales regardless of whether it is warranted which is why in my cynical moments (and, OK, during those rare bouts of laziness), I'll whine that all I need to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of my book the in first weeks is for some publishing house to offer me five hundred Gs for my latest novel like they did So-and-So. Why not? I've proven that I can write (and in multiple genres), and check it, I'll even promise to spend a good chunk of my own advance on promoting the novel myself even though I know after such a hefty investment, the smart and lucky house will throw thousands more into the same to ensure they turn a profit. You know, you gotta spend money to make money and alla that. Well, spend it on me.

Seriously, I'm blessed to be make a living writing books and today to be in a position to say, dammit, there are some things about publishing that makes my blood boil. At the top of the list is the penchant for giving book deals (never mind six-figures) to nonwriters simply because they're famous and certainly not for any evident literary prowess. In the case of people like Karrine Steffans and Paris Hilton, they're infamous for scandalous behavior. Some are even famous -- as in the case of Paris's ugly chihuahua Tinkerbell -- just for being famous. In the halls of publishing, this is considered "having a platform." Even proven writers (e.g. journalists) who are attempting to sell their first book-length work or trying to move from one genre to another are pressed to not only quantify the existence of their audience but also to prove that said audience will consume their latest offering. In its worst application, the insistence on a platform in publishing is fueled by the same thinking behind casting singers and rappers in films whether or not they have proven they can act and giving record deals to actors and athlete who have not demonstrated the ability to sing or rhyme. This phenomenon at its worst exposes the publishing industry -- which by the cerebral nature of its product is supposed to be more intelligent -- as trying too hard to compete with its more flashier yet less substantive cousins in the field of entertainment.

So I start to wonder, "Well, what's Kaavya's platform?" Not because I buy into this thinking as much as I begrudgingly accept it (and my severely limited power to change it.) The question devolves into a rant when I read on the Internet that she landed the book deal without having completed the novel. See, it's virtually impossible for a debut novelist to land a book deal without having first completed the manuscript. Especially, as I argued above, if said novelist is not already famous in some other vain or at least published in another medium. If the rules of the game were being consistently applied, then Ms. Viswanathan would not have landed a book deal -- never mind a half-million dollar advance -- unless (1) she was already, like, a pop singer or something of that nature or (2) she first had completed a full novel that demonstrated amazing writing acumen.

Not only was there no evidence that either of these two factors existed prior to the deal, I come across another article that says that Miss Viswanathan collaborated with 17th Street Productions (now known as Alloy Entertainment.) According to the article, 17th Street, "a book packager that specializes in teen narratives," helped her develop the story. In other words, while writing How Opal Mehta Got Kissed. . ., Kaavya Viswanathan got help. Where do all the aspiring writers I meet sign up for that? Hell, I've written four books and a quarter, and I'd like a piece of that! Still Little, Brown and Company was quick to say that she wrote every word of the novel herself so that her collaboration with 17th Street Productions could not be blamed for the offending passages.

By the time Ms. Viswanathan appears live with Katie Couric, I'm furious. The kid's not a phenom nor was she famous before this, I'm thinking, so who the hell did she know? 'Cause that's the only way she could've gotten the deal at all never mind six-figures and all the publicity it brings. This is so fucked up, man!

And as I listen to Kaavya apologize profusely yet stop short of admitting to plagiarism, I discover just how fucked up it truly is. It hits me that the girl couldn't confess even if she wanted to. As she fidgets under Katie Couric's gentle yet insistent questioning as to how unbelievable her "explanation" is, I realize that the only way her publishing house will stand by her is if she does not admit that she plagiarized Megan McCafferty's novels. In the wake of the Jame's Frey scandal, to do that would mean that they dropped the ball and would have to take some responsibility for Kaavya's decision to commit literary theft. Yes, there's a possibility that Kaavya herself refuses to confess to her own house, but that's irrelevant. Surely, these folks know she commited plagiarism no matter what she says, yet they are eager to spin her denial to cover their own failure.

I watch Kaavya twist and, whether I want to believe her or not, I see a guilty young woman. But I also see an ambitious seventeen-year old girl who was given by even more ambitious adults a major opportunity she did not earn then to be saddled with a tremendous responsibility that she does not deserve now. Kaavya did not have the maturity to resist the money and fame dangled before her never mind the foresight to recognize that she was way in over her head (note: I'm not saying that said immaturity should absolve her.) That came later when despite the assistance from the book packager hired to help her, Kaavya realized that she could not deliver on the house's hype of her preternatural talent. So she became desperate and resorted to extreme actions. In a naivete -- and perhaps even a little bit of hubris not unusual for someone of any age who has been bestowed with more praise and rewards than she has earned -- she gambled and thought she would never be found out.

But then Kaavya was found out. And now the same people who set her up for their own ends won't make her or allow her to come clean. I don't believe that Little, Brown knew from the start that she had committed plagiarism, but I have no doubt that someone over there failed to do his or her job. In the most generous scenario, somebody at that house doesn't think it's important to stay on top of the genre in which they publish. If she or he had, they would've spotted the similarities between How Opal Mehta and Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings from the first draft. But then again, should we expect differently from a house that doles out a half-million dollars to an unproven writer based on nothing more than a concept (a concept, I might add, that save for its ethnic spin, is itself too reminiscent of many existing coming-of-age novels and teen flicks.)

But the fact that Kaavya's publishers stand by her "unintentional borrowing" excuse and intend to put the book back on shelves after the offending passages have been removed doesn't strike me as loyalty. On the contrary, it seems to me that they just don't care. Certainly not about what's best for Kaavya. Rather they thrust her into the public eye to answer for what she has done while they continue to maneuver ways to capitalize upon her mistake. She takes the heat, and they make the money.

Whether out of hubris or desperation or both, Kaavya Viswanathan willfully committed an immoral act and for that she should be held accountable. But the mistake is not wholly hers alone so she should not be the only one made to pay. Her lapse in integrity for the sake of money and fame was modeled for her long before she began to type. For reasons we can only speculate, Little, Brown gave Kaavya a deal that she had not earned, and that should make us question their character as much as we do hers. Somehow they saw a great deal of money to be made from this young woman, and they weren't wrong . . . until she got caught. But while people understandably knock the discredited author for being greedy, arrogant and disingenuous, her house scrambles to get a revised edition of How Opal Mehta sans plagiarized passages back on the shelves. Too few are questioning this effort to turn controversy into profit at the expense of a 19-year old in desperate need of a moral lesson laced with a modicum of compassion for the factors and circumstances that contributed to her lapse in judgement.

Today, a second charge of plagiarism was made against Kaavya Viswanathan. Just like how Megan McCafferty's fans found the similarities and reported them to her, readers of Sophie Kinsella have come forward with several passages that Miss Viswanathan apparently lifted from the author of the popular Shopaholic chick lit series. Will these latest allegations finally compel Little, Brown and Company to take some responsibility, do the right thing and stop trying to make money off this fiasco at the cost of Kaavya Viswanathan's soul?

Come to think of it, perhaps the entire publishing industry, in its effort to emulate some of the questionable practices of the film and music industry, should take a little blame for this tragedy as well.

1 comment:

leslie said...

LOVE your word choices.

This is the second time in recent memory that this sort of literary scandal has occurred--kind of makes me wonder how many people have yet to get caught.

Original writing that doesn't imitate a previously successful formula is definitely hard to find, whether specific words and passages (or overarching themes) have been "borrowed” . . . The question is, when will these “mistakes” cease to be rewarded?