by Raywat Deonandan
May 1, 2006
I’m going to tell you a story. You’ve probably already heard it. It’s about a teenaged upper middle class Indo-American girl named Kaavya Viswanathan, who was typical of other Indo-American girls of her socio-economic status: smart, pretty, a bit privileged, and under a great deal of pressure from successful professional parents to also become a successful professional. Her parents hired an “academic advisor” from a private firm that helps rich kids get into Ivy League schools; and the advisor, impressed by samples of Kaavya’s writing, arranged for her to be represented by a big-time New York literary agent, who remarkably wrangled a 2-book deal for Kaavya, worth half a million dollars.
At that point, Kaavya had never written a book before, and probably didn’t even have an idea for a novel. But that’s how pop-lit books are created these days: a potential author is found for her marketability, a “book packager” works with the author to develop a marketable story which complements the author’s innate marketability (in this case, the angle was “pretty young ethnic girl with conservative family pressures wants to be cool and get into Harvard”), and a piece of digestible pop-lit is produced.
Kaavya’s “book packager” was the Alloy Entertainment corporation. The book that the team created was How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got A Life, a best-seller in its genre. The film option was quickly sold to Dreamworks, one of Hollywood’s most glittery production houses.
Schadenfreude is a difficult sentiment to dodge in artistic industries, where fluff is so often perceived to be valued above hard work and meaningful content. Thus this past week’s news, broken by the Harvard Crimson, that Kaavya’s opus may have been plagiarized from two novels by “real author” Megan McCafferty, was received with some guilty glee by some of us in the less glamourous wing of the South Asian author community. After all, there is no shortage of genuinely talented brown-skinned writers struggling to get their manicured manuscripts into print. Their problem, of course, is that their work hasn’t been massaged by a marketing team and parsed into the digestible literary formulae most easily sold to big-time publishers and movie producers. Genuine, original and serious literary fiction, South Asian or otherwise, is rarely noticed beyond specialized circles and almost never commands a Kaavya-esque payday.
So Kaavya’s fall from grace has been as meteoric as her climb, propelled by salivating bloggers and scandal sheets. But in between bouts of finger pointing has come some appreciation for the unique stress Kaavya must have been under. Indeed, “Opal-gate” has sparked long overdue discussions on both the inappropriateness of the demands some parents place on their Ivy-bound children, and on the process by which pop-lit books are created. Really, though, it should be of no surprise to anyone that such books are created in much the same way that boy bands are assembled, with the marketing plan preceding both the content and the artist, and with the artist seemingly having very little to do with the finished product.
But there is something of this scandal that sifts down to the shifting foundations of our very society. Increasingly, cobbled together references to existing works are being accepted as innovative in their own right. Call it the “bloggification” of society, wherein a work is considered complete and original even if it only succeeds in referencing other material. The trend is seen in high school and university essays, which, many teachers and professors will contend, are increasingly unoriginal; in online news portals, which gather articles from other sources and re-brands them accordingly; and in pop music, where sampling and re-mixing old songs successfully masquerades as new composition. While employers and educators talk a good game, the penalty for plagiarism is often negligible. And indeed, the definition of plagiarism is a complex and evolving one, especially in this digital era. Thus, it’s not surprising that a teenager used to writing high school research papers would produce a meta-work of similar unoriginality.
See, writing a novel is a very difficult thing. That’s why so few people can do it well. Yet, there is a false impression that anyone who can write a high school essay can also create a novel-length work of fiction. A novel requires months and sometimes years of disciplined work. In terms of specialized ability and focus, experienced authors are no less professonals than are engineers, lawyers and doctors. This is perhaps the most important reason that so many authors are offended by this particular scandal. It’s not so much that Kaavya was plucked from obscurity and hand-fed on her way to literary stardom; and it’s not that she (and her handlers) created a best-seller seemingly by stealing bits from another writer’s books. Rather, it’s because a corporate interest felt that it could arrogantly manufacture literature in absence of a singular artistic passion, and by means of committee.
Kaavya Viswanathan hasn’t even entered her twenties. She is clearly quite intelligent and hard working. But while everyone may indeed have a novel inside of himself, not everyone is capable of actually spinning that internal story into a book. Kaavya is likely one of that majority, and only discovered this fact after her publishing contract had already been signed. But, like her heroine, she made it into Harvard and wishes to become an investment banker. If she succeeds, she can buy and sell all the starving novelists she wants.
Raywat Deonandan is the author of Divine Elemental and Sweet Like Saltwater, winner of the 2000 national book award of Guyana.