I don't understand what's going on with novelists who also happen to be undergraduates at the most famous/infamous universities in America.
Of course there's Kaavya Viswanathan. Viswanathan plagiarized while writing parts of her debut novel, How Opal Mehta [Did Something or Other], a book which would otherwise be of interest only because its cover appears to depict a sort of cat-person traipsing through the rust-colored flames of hell.
Viswanathan, a Harvard sophomore who says she really just wants to be an investment banker, claims she plagiarized by accident. Just about no one believes her, and her publisher pulled the book from stores. However, my interest in immoral women notwithstanding, I don’t really care about the plagiarism story anymore.
I’m more curious about why a supposedly literate, intelligent student at the world’s preeminent university would write a novel that barely even pretended not to be garbage.
It can’t just be that she’s actually stupid. It had to be the money. I’ve been dealing with agents and publishers since I was a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Yale, when an agent (who, I note, currently has a heartwarming bestseller on the charts) read the manuscript of a novel I’d written and told me he might be able to sell it for “a million dollars.” Eighteen months later, after I balked yet again at “toning down” the “dark stuff,” I found myself without an agent. Eventually there was another agent, another novel, and more arguments.
I have a feeling I could have made things a lot easier on myself by simply handing in a manuscript with more pop culture and less rape.
When you’re not yet twenty years old and people who know publishing tell you, “This is how to sell your book,” you really fucking want to believe them. And when what they’re telling you actually means, “Carve up your baby until it looks more like a dog carcass and you could get six figures and a movie deal,” you might actually think about doing it.
The fact that the New York Times says Viswanathan’s original idea was “too dark” for her William Morris handlers makes me feel a little sorry for her. Maybe she had an idea that was actually interesting? (Or maybe, since the Times describes the idea as “in the vein of The Lovely Bones,” she was just going to plagiarize Alice Sebold instead of Megan McCafferty.)
So where are Kaavya’s superior contemporaries? The ones who at least take a stab at producing resonant, lasting fiction? There’s Nathan Sellyn, the talented Princeton alum from Canada who published a story collection with independent Raincoast Books, but as this pre-plagiarism-scandal article from The Crimson notes, the best-known young Ivy novelists apart from Viswanathan are Nick McDonell and Natalie Krinsky—who graduated from Yale a year before I did, and whose novel I did not like at all. McDonell, as Huffington Post contributor Ankush Khardori pointed out to me, may be a unique case because family connections helped him get huge publicity and a movie deal for his debut novel, Twelve, but there’s no denying he tried to write something grave and stylistically distinctive.
But McDonell’s family is publishing world royalty; he didn’t have to fight his way past editorial assistants looking for The Five Da Vincis You Meet in Heaven. The problem is the gatekeepers. They love young Ivy authors, but they want junk like Opal Mehta, and they look for malleable, generically pretty people like Kaavya Viswanathan to produce it—authors who don’t start to see red when they’re told for the tenth time to purge their manuscripts of the “dark stuff.”
Fortunately, not all youthful authors are like that. I met a lot of other fiction writers who are or recently were undergraduates, a few of them stunningly talented and capable of producing strange, unique, sometimes beautiful work; all that I know of are still writing, and none have major book deals yet. They will, though, eventually. Probably around the time Kaavya Viswanathan is beginning her career at Goldman Sachs, I guess. That's the one where they make the real money.