Tuesday, April 25, 2006
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My questions about the latest plagiarism scandal
I'm late to the party on the Kaavya Viswanathan scandal now unfolding at Harvard. Long story short -- a Harvard student who published a teen chick lit book -- How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life -- has been discovered to have cribbed from another chick lit writer, Megan McCafferty. Click here for examples of the plagiarism.
Viswanathan has now copped to the "unconscious" plagiarism. However, if this Newark Star-Ledger story by Vicki Hyman is accurate, Viswanathan must have been really unconscious when writing her book:
In a statement issued by her publicist yesterday, Viswanathan said she read and loved McCafferty's novels "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings," but said she was "very surprised and upset" to learn about the similarities between the two works and her debut.And, naturally, there's been some bizarre quasi-blogging behavior on this point as well.
While all of this makes for dishy reading, the fact that both my lovely wife and I focused on was the fact that Viswanathan got a two-book, $500,000 contract while she was in high school."
Here's my question about this scandal: why, exactly, would Little, Brown throw that much money at a young, unpublished author? Why would any publisher do that? I know the teen and chick lit markets are booming, but dear me, that seems like a lot of money to throw around.posted by Dan on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM
As Amy Tan and numerous wannabes have shown, the major publishing houses have an unlimited budget for novels about Asian women finding liberation and salvation in the arms of white men.posted by: Eric on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
Breaking News: A high school student with a $500,000 writing contract is still a high school student, complete with little understanding of plagarism.
*Gasp!*posted by: BBC on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
$500,000 would seem to be a rounding error for a large company.
Besides, thikn of the movie rights. I'm sure $500,000 is not a significant investment for this woman.
A better question: based on the trite passaeges alleged to have been plagiarized, why is such writing worth $500,000? Should be an easy industry to do well in.posted by: Dave on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
A better question:
Wouldn's $500k be sufficient budget to CREATE a teen writer persona?
Probabyl better bang/buck that way.
I have been thinking back to the Martin Amis-Jacob Epstein case from years back when Amis wrote that 50-odd bits were lifted from his novel The Rachel Papers and plugged in to Epstein's debut, Wild Oats.
"The psychology of plagiarism is fascinatingly perverse," wrote Martin Amis, a British novelist. "Epstein said he had made some notes, but it's clear that he didn't just have notes, and instead literally had my book folded open at his desk when he was writing his."
It's evident Viswanathan has done the same.
Amis also added: "I'm not the victim -- he is the victim. Jacob Epstein is the victim of plagiarism."
I'd say the theme is true in this case. Mcafferty isn't the victim. Kaavya Viswanathan is the victim -- of her own perverse ambitions ... among other things.posted by: Leon DeLeon on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
The really interesting (speculative) reports about the whole fiasco can be found at the Harvard Independent:
If the intrepid reporters are correct then we have a (kind of) answer to Dan's question: they bought her persona, not her writing.
The Crimson, meanwhile, runs an op-ed arguing against referring to the case to the "Ad Board" (Advisory Board):posted by: Dan Nexon on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
Maybe I am simply getting old, but it seems to me that not only is honesty becoming something of an anachronism but that blatant lying and deception is becoming, well, to be expected.posted by: Pete on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
Oops -- didn't check DD's links. I find it interesting that he calls this "bizarre quasi-blogging," however. It reads like proto-investigative journalism. Which, I suppose, is quasi-blogging :-). But bizarre? I dunno -- maybe DD hasn't spent enough time around big, non-academic publishers enough.
it's obvious that kaavya was inspired by another harvard author, doris kearns.posted by: david on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
Why would anyone publish a book titled "Sloppy Firsts," and why would anyone plagarize it?
I guess I am too old to comprehend chick lit.
If I remember correctly Doris Kearns was accused of plagarism after writing a book with 900 footnotes. "Sloppy Editing"
Does any publisher have a market for books by middle-aged grandpas? I could write for that market.posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
To me, as a student (who was rejected from an Ivy Leagye school) I find this part most troubling:
"Viswanathan's literary career began in her high-school years. A student at the Bergen County Academy for the Advancement of Science and Technology, a public magnet school in Hackensack, New Jersey, she faced intense scholastic competition from her peers. "I was surrounded by the stereotype of high-pressure Asian and Indian families trying to get their children into Ivy League schools," she told the New York Times on April 6. Seeking a leg up — especially because, as she told the New York Sun, her parents, both doctors who have not lived in India since Viswanathan was three, "felt unfamiliar with the college-application process in America" — Viswanathan enlisted the help of a professional college-counselling firm, IvyWise. Such assistance didn't come cheap — according to the Times, it cost $10,000 to $20,000 spread over two years — but Viswanathan's family could apparently afford it. The median income within a one-mile radius of Viswanathan's Franklin Lakes, N.J., home is $122,244, according to census data compiled by AnalyGIS, a mapping-technology firm.
At IvyWise, Viswanathan met Katherine Cohen, the company's founder and CEO. Viswanathan, a longtime writer, let slip the fact that she was working on a novel in her spare hours; Cohen, wondering whether her young client should play up her literary ambitions in her college applications, asked to see the work in progress. Impressed, she quickly contacted her representative at the famed William Morris talent agency. (Cohen has written two books, 2002's The Truth about Getting In and 2003's Rock Hard Apps: How to Write a Killer College Application.) Soon Viswanathan had her own literary agent, and she was on the road to the best-seller lists."
It seems more and more that thick wallets equal thick envelopes.posted by: Chris Albon on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
A $500,000 advance is great press. It buys not only an author, but publicity (for the amount of the advance). (There was a lot of coverage of this author before the plagiarism story broke.) Along those lines, sometimes these advances are, well, not reported 100% correctly by the publishers.posted by: Anon on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
Eric says "As Amy Tan and numerous wannabes have shown, the major publishing houses have an unlimited budget for novels about Asian women finding liberation and salvation in the arms of white men.
I find Eric's comments completely bizarre. I don't remember The Joy Luck Club even having any major male white characters. The whole book was primarily about Asian women.
As for why Viswanathan got such a large contract, I can only assume that her writing fit in a lucrative market, and Little, Brown thought it was worth the investment. If Sloppy Firsts sold really well, and Opal Mehta fit that mold (too well, in fact), then it would make sense. Look how well Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants did as a book and a movie.
As for 'chick lit', it's not hard to comprehend at all. Read Pride and Prejudice, and you'll see what it's all about.posted by: bee on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
Who is surprised? "Recording Artists" that can't sing our play an instrument....they just need to look the part and have the "attitude" The music can then be matched and "created by number" by pros. Why should pop lit. be any different?posted by: centrist on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
"it's obvious that kaavya was inspired by another harvard author, doris kearns"
Tip of the iceberg. Let's just say that Harvard's got "issues" with ghostwriting and plagirism.posted by: Dan Nexon on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
Come on, here we have a great immigrant (or child of immigrants) success story. Plagarizing chick lit; a job Americans just won't do.
This is a pathetic story. This girl is, well, a girl. She should never have been put in this position. And yes, she was "put" there. Parents, teachers, admissions consultants, publishers, etc. -- they're all just as responsible as she is. Did she deserve half-a-million? Of course not. But to the same degree, she doesn't deserve the brand "plagiarist."posted by: Andrew Steele on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
Maybe I was brainwashed in high school and college, but shouldn't plagerism be academic/literary career ending, full stop? Why are we having this discussion? Why does she still have any contracts with publishers? Why is she still at Harvard?posted by: wml on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
"I find Eric's comments completely bizarre. I don't remember The Joy Luck Club even having any major male white characters. The whole book was primarily about Asian women. "
Yes, Joy Luck Club was primarily about Asian women, but one of the main characters escapes an oppressive marriage to an Asian man and then marries a white guy.
Another comment about this whole book writing thing: Books sell on the author's personal appeal. If the author has a great personal story, then that is often enough to make the book sell.
If you go into any bookstore, you'll see what I mean - "the author is a recovering alcoholic," "the author is only 12 years old," "the author was impeached by the US Senate."
Most readers aren't into the fine points of writing. They want an emotional experience and the author's personna is a big part of that. Consider all the aspects of Viswanathan's story and you'll see how the book could easily sell thousands of copies. Harvard sells. Girls gone wild sells. Stories about immigrants making it sell.
Add in movie options and you can see how she landed such a big advance.posted by: Fabio Rojas on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
Re: If I remember correctly Doris Kearns was accused of plagarism after writing a book with 900 footnotes. "Sloppy Editing"
"And yet none of them were for the stuff she stole. If she was merely guilty of sloppy editing, why did she pay hush money to the victim of her plagiarism, and not admit her "error" until exposed in public?"
I think the 900 footnotes speaks to intent, I never thought she intended to plagarize, that wouldn't make sense in such a heavily referenced book.
As far as the payoffs, I see business people everyday do really dumb things, she is no exception.posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
Anon has it right. The $500K advance was not based on any special merit on Viswanathan's part, it is a publicity ploy. Give a young author a ridiculous advance and you're guaranteed a spate of newspaper and magazine articles on the "wunderkind author who got the great advance." Which of course is exactly what happened. The "advance" is really just another form of advertising. If any naive high school students think they can get advances like this by improving their writing skills they are sadly deluded, the lesson here is to be good-looking, well spoken, media friendly and a member of the flavor of the month non-threatening ethnic group.posted by: vanya_6724 on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
A teenager on the make trying to 'get a leg up' writes a novel about getting a leg over. And runs into 'copying issues'. Oops.
When Harvard fires Kearns and Tribe for doing the same thing I might begin to take them seriously......posted by: Don S on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
Chicklit, clitlick, it's all too pornographic to me. The plagiarism thing is just a decoy for the real duck that is the emerging business of kiddie pub. Agents scour high schools like coaches and pimps for tweenage talent. When Irish catholic girl doesn't heat crotches enough for a movie deal, they try a little southeast asian flavor. The Bollywood demographic is a bird in the bag. girls and geezers both fantasize themselves as seen by the other. Never mind that she's barely literate and merely looking to beef up her extracurriculars. The prospects of an exotic new author lights fire to imaginations, and the inside joke spun out into mainstream news. her parents should have made her use a latex lawyer.
I feel sorry for Kaavya. Blame lies with every one including her parents. I got the impression that Kaavya thought she is still writing a high school term paper using cut and paste approach to get good grade! Even then one has to give references.She could have requested other author to review and make suggestions! Any way,it is all over. Good luck to Kaavya. Hope she can get back to her life. There is more to life than Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford etc., etc.,posted by: Dev on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
Being the father of a teenager, I have a feeling that Kaavya's literary career began in her earlier academic years ( Elemenatry thru High Scool years) with some flaws. No one corrected it or these flaws went unnoticed up until now. She is paying the price. Kaavya is smart.I hope she can recover from this setback/weakness and get to life ahead of her. At this time, she needs loving /caring guidance. If you are good, you could be good at any school. It does not have to be Harvard/Stanford/Yale etc., etc.,posted by: Rathi on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
Please. It's all very simple. Kaavya received the contract in the first place because she's non-white. Period. Cohen was only interested because Kaavya is non-white. Period. The reason this hasn't been a bigger deal in the media is because Kaavya is non-white. Period. Be honest, stop tip toeing around the obvious. Everyone is so busy showing how tolerant they are, how much they realize only white people are bad, right? The only people who would deny these facts are racists. The racists that deem any honest remarks and criticisms of non-whites to be racist. Look at the people running publishing houses these days. Hypocrites and racists. Self deceptive hypocrites and racists in some cases, but they fit the bill nonetheless.posted by: T. Morrow on 04.25.06 at 11:35 PM [permalink]
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