Friday, April 28, 2006

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.


Shane said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Shane said...

Sorry about the previous comment -- somehow I messed up. Anyway, I think you articulate your point excellently -- but it's strange to me that so few are really making it. I think a kind of cynical faux populism prevents people from saying that it's less worthy to write a bubblegum chicklit novel than to try to write something more meaningful. Of course, it's hard to fault adults who are already knee-deep in the industry and have to make ends meet. If they don't agree to tone down that dark stuff, they'll be out of a job. But Viswanathan's ends, it seems, have no trouble meeting even without the largesse of Little, Brown.

NickAntosca said...

Yeah. Also, I mean, not everybody writes "dark stuff," and that's fine. (This girl said Wodehouse was one of her influences, I dark stuff in Wodehouse, but those books are pretty great. And merely containing disturbing content certainly does not enhance a book's literary merit by itself. It's just that "dark" is is sometimes industry-speak for introspective or hard-to-understand-when-skimming.) I'm definitely not trying to denigrate anything that gets labeled, fairly or unfairly, "chick lit." Just because a female author writes a book involving, say, a young woman's social life doesn't mean it's going to be vapid. It's just that ones in question here happen to be, I feel like.

NickAntosca said...

When I said "anything" in the comment above, I meant "everything."

Tamar said...

I see your point, and I agree. This is a girl who had a great opportunity presented to her, and she was willing to sacrifice whatever it took - including, in this case, her integrity - in order to get it. But I'm not sure that she had such noble prospects to begin with (the material she stole from is fun pop, but not particularly substantial). How high are most 17-year-old's literary aspirations (let alone their abilities)?

That said, when I was 17 I would have been overjoyed to write a novel Like How Opal Blah Blah. Just breaking into the market at all is going to be nearly impossible after graduate school. Getting a foot in the door is huge, and if someone tells you the way to do it is to write drippy crap, well, I'd do it just so I could write a serious, different book 2.

I wouldn't plagiarize from McCafferty, though. What blows my mind is that she thought no one would notice. Didn't she think that the markets for the books were exactly the same, and thus there would be a few other girls out there who had also read Sloppy Firsts when they opened her book?

CA McGee said...

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.

Well, being intelligent and literate and the product of a preeminent unversity doesn't necessarily equate to having taste or artistic integrity (cf. President of the US, 1789-2000).

It's about the money, yes, but it's also about the lifestyle. It takes a tremendous strength of will to tolerate being ignored and irrelevant, which almost certainly the fate of those who ignore the commercial route, even if they do find publication in the midlist or indie publishers.

A little girl's dreams of investment banking aside, I think much of it boils down to the nature of each person's ambition. Many people who set out to pursue a career as a novelist are really aiming for the "career" part more than the "novelist." They may have brilliant ideas, and even plenty of talent, but if they become convinced that their ideas are "too dark" or "too weird," then they're faced with a choice: Tone it down and win cash, profiles in the NYTBR, and martinis on Manhattan terraces. Or stoke the flames in your gut and win four-figure advances and sell-throughs of miniscule print runs.

Having talent as a writer -- even possessing a powerful artistic vision -- doesn't mean that you have the strength of will to see it through if that means having to keep your day job and people snickering at you when you tell them you're "a writer."

(There are also plenty of folks who stay in the underworld who lack integrity and would leap at the chance to sell out, but they're either not marketable or not stylistically adaptable enough.)

This pursuit of lifestyle (and the accompanying ignorance that it is only a reality for a tiny tiny percentage of people) seems to be the same force that manifests in people as the desire to be a writer in the first place -- a romantic notion that they can inherit a life of creativity, respect, and possibly idleness.

I'm certainly not against people having success, or even pursuing success; and there are certainly times when an editor's comment about something being too dark or too weird is right, and not just motivated by profit. There are also dark novels that make the best-seller lists. But being willing to even take chances -- especially against the advice of agents, editors, and other people who supposedly know -- takes guts that most people don't have.

Taking those chances and having confidence that you've done something remarkable is that much harder for a 17-year-old girl who's pretty comfortable with conventional wisdom, and who probably isn't channeling Goethe but instead is writing the immature stuff that even talented people write when they're 17. It's no surprise that she'd follow the advice and choose the gold.

Ian said...

Good points, Nick.

I also thought it curious, and illuminating, that Viswanathan rationalized her transgression by claiming to have a photographic memory. Nevermind that a hundred years worth of cognitive psychology research has demonstrated that the photographic memory -- or "eidetic" memory, as they call it in the business -- does not exist outside of the seriously diseased mind. A few scattered case reports exist of individuals with memories approaching photographic quality, but these poor souls also happen to be burdened with such profound mental clutter as to be rendered thoroughly dysfunctional in day-to-day life. As it turns out, forgetting is an essential component of our ability to confront and adapt to a variety of changing stimuli in our environment. (For example).

That being said, most of us throughout our schooling who possessed any degree of proficiency at the standard memorize-and-regurgitate testing methods have been accused of or have bragged of having a photographic memory. It carries connotations of supreme intelligence, of brilliance without really trying all that hard, which, of course, is cool. Hard work is lame. Effortless genius is badass.

So, of course, someone with an ego like Vishnawathan's would not surprisingly be expected to endorse having a photographic memory. Of course you do, my dear. You also plagiarized the hell out of someone else's creativity when generating your own proved too challenging. Effortless genius -- did it pay off this time?

deepeekay said...

Investment banker, huh ?

With a demonstrated integrity score in the form of a big fat zero, perhaps she ought to consider another line of work?

How about the CIA ?

NickAntosca said...

The CIA loves to recruit from Yale. I know a guy tangentially who went to work for them. Nice guy. He said he falls asleep at his desk every single day, like clockwork.


Yeah, her photographic memory defense is *really* fucking pathetic. Even from my non-scientific perspective, it's just idiotic. Her photographic memory didn't make those strategic changes to the stolen material.


"Well, being intelligent and literate and the product of a preeminent unversity doesn't necessarily equate to having taste or artistic integrity (cf. President of the US, 1789-2000)."

You're absolutely right, and I oversimplified. Still it does seem counterintuitive, doesn't it?

A tangential point that I think is worth making - in many cases, talented writers who actually make decent money as writers are doing so not because of their talent. Their talent is incidental. They break through not because of literary merit but because of near-supernatural networking skills or an instinct for publicity. (I said "many cases," not all, certainly - George Saunders, just to take an offhand example, seems to write pretty much whatever the hell he wants and is pretty lackadaisical about self-promotion. I say this from general observation and also because one of my roommates is assistant publicist at his publisher.) There is nothing wrong with this. Nothing at all. Many great writers did things that might cause us to raise our eyebrows a little. (Like Chekhov allegedly paying his friends for ideas, but that's another story.) And now in particular, if you want your writing to be read, you better be ready to stick up for it, and sometimes you have to hustle, and that's a skill that doesn't necessarily have a whole lot to do with literary craftsmanship. I wish I was better at it.


It isn't hard to imagine how the girl got sucked into this. These people told her she was going to make all this money and get all this attention, and who the fuck wouldn't take that shot? But then she let herself be manipulated, she let someone tell her what she needed to write and give her an outline and characters, and she probably had no fucking idea how to write chick lit. She seems like a smart girl, and reading actual literature doesn't teach you how to write Bridget Jones for teens. So she got desperate and cribbed from these McCafferty books, used them as templates, and went too far. She probably really believed she wasn't stealing since she made those little changes. And then too late, she reads the Crimson article and suddenly realizes she's in serious fucking trouble.

Ian said...

Relating to your last point -- sure, it isn't hard to imagine how she got sucked into it. But that doesn't make it excusable. There's a reason that "sell-out" is a derogatory term. This girl took an opportunity that was handed to her, and in the process grabbed her integrity by the scruff and dragged it through the gutter.

Steve Prefontaine once said, "To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift." This girl took her gifts, however (in)significant they may be, and burned them at the altar of financial reward. If I were a recruiter at Goldman Sachs, I would take one look at her and say, "We hire people who have not only respect for the rules of human commerce, but respect for themselves. No thanks."

Somehow she'll probably utilize the ignominy to her advantage, leveraging it into a successful career in some medium. After all, the public loves mediocrity, and nothing tantalizes like a fantastic failure.

NickAntosca said...

Incidentally, in my day job I actually am an assistant recruiter for one of the largest hedge funds in the world. We're extremely scrupulous about the integrity of the people we hire. Something like this would indeed disqualify a candidate.

NickAntosca said...

And I didn't mean to excuse what she did - not at all. I hope it didn't seem like that.

evaeni said...

Her writing an insiginificant, worthless, and heavily plagarized book has nothing to do with her intelligence. Little, Brown has all but acknowledged the fact that she was told what to write and how to write it. Her book deal was made with Little, Brown and a company known for selling what can only be called pre-fabricated novels.

What is sad is that she at some point willingly sold out her own ideas of right and wrong for a large pay check. She is clearly intelligent and an intelligent person understands when they are using someone else's words to convey an idea.

Pathetic excuses aside, she was dumb enough to sell-out her integrity and arrogant enough to think she could outwit the world.

Just because you stole from books of dubious content doesn't mean people are oblivious to the fact. Sadly, she reflects upon any Ivy student and calls into question the talent and moral fiber of people who are in no way associated or similar to her.

Even worse, she makes Chloe Does Yale seem like a literary tour de force.

reader of depressing books said...

also, the person she plagiarized was a white person, and she did not get a $500,000 advance

this person is indian, or something, so she gets a $500,000 advance

if your chick-lit is indian it is automatically important and you get a profile in the new york times

jennifer weiner, or whoever, gets no profile in the new york times