The axe falls

by Diane Duane

Little, Brown has canceled Kaavya Viswanathan’s two-book contract, and announced that no revised edition of her first book will be issued.

The Harvard Crimson is now also reporting similarities between passages in How Opal Mehta… and passages in The Princess Diaries.

(sigh) So the noise of this continues to roll ’round the world, with people reacting in all kinds of directions (especially many unsympathetic variations on “How can a kid smart enough to get into Harvard still be so stupid” — sometimes with the added codicil “…as to get caught!”) and decrying everything in sight. (I did actually see one article that said “Society’s to blame!”, but now I can’t remember where I saw it. The best response to this probably remains the Pythonesque one: “Fine, let’s arrest them instead.”)

But the occasional voice can be heard rising from the noise and echoing my own opinion that Kaavya’s not the only one responsible for the contents of the book, or the results of its publication, and should not be left carrying the can…for there are two entities sharing the copyright. From Edward Hower at the Boston Globe:

Lest you think I’m the kind of reviewer who spends his spare time clubbing baby seals to death for sport, let me say up front that Kaavya Viswanathan, the 19-year-old author of ”How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life,” is unlikely to be responsible for all the inanities that abound in this product marketed under her name. The book, which the publisher is now racing to recall because of a plagiarism controversy, reads as if it were assembled by a committee, and, according to many reports, it was.

And here’s a reaction I hadn’t seen before. Under the article title “That Crazy Kaavya Chick Ruins Life For Us Legit Lit Lackeys”, a YA writer wonders if this is going to make us all look bad —

Even with the critical success of novels like Harry Potter and the commercial success of series like Gossip Girl and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (both Alloy projects), young-adult authors already sometimes struggle to be seen as legitimate writers deserving of their ever-increasing space on Barnes & Noble shelves. When a (then) 17-year-old girl is paid a half-million dollars to join those ranks and then plagiarizes, she’s certainly not raising esteem for her craft.

This concerns me particularly because I’m also writing a young-adult novel, to be published next year. Like all the memoirists out there who cringed at the unmasking of James Frey’s fabrications/exaggerations (and at his subsequent public flogging and blank-eyed, half-hearted apologies), or like the journalists who winced at the train wreck that was the short-lived newspaper career of Jayson Blair or the Hollywood-immortalized magazine career of Stephen Glass, as a young-adult writer, I feel the collective, Homeresque “D’oh!” Now, every time I tell someone what it is I do for a living, I find myself bracing for the inevitable question: “What do you think about that Harvard student … ?”

Somehow I doubt this is really going to be that much of a problem in the future. If anything, it’s going to ensure that “real-world” YA stuff is going to be more carefully vetted, and originality will therefore have a better chance of being recognized. (Fantasy YA writers, of course, are these days laboring under a burden that sits at an entirely different end of the spectrum: rather than one writer having a work investigated and found to apparently borrow from others, many of us are now routinely assumed to be borrowing from one particular writer before anybody even cracks a cover to find out otherwise.) (Insert Rueful Grin here.)

But finally, here’s a very interesting thought from a Washington Post article:

In fact, as it emerges from interviews she gave before the plagiarism scandal erupted, Viswanathan’s unpackaged story was better than the processed story she — or her helpers — produced: the maternal grandfather in Madras who bought the 6-year-old Kaavya a copy of “Great Expectations” and made clear that his own expectation involved a doctor granddaughter. (She’s thinking investment banking, actually.) The mother immersed in planning an over-the-top book party. (“They wanted to have a red carpet strewn with rose petals. And I’ve just woken up and I’m still in my pajamas and my mom will call, and she’ll say like, ‘Kaavya, would you prefer pink or white rose petals?'”)

The cutthroat environment of Viswanathan’s science magnet school (“People would ask, ‘Who’s writing your recommendation for Yale?’ And they wouldn’t tell you because it gives you a competitive advantage if people don’t know.”) Viswanathan’s own overwrought Harvard admissions story (the e-mail server on which she was supposed to get her early action notice crashed, three other classmates got in, and Viswanathan, assuming that meant she’d been rejected, “spent the whole night — 13 straight hours — weeping inconsolably and trying to look at life ahead.”)

Life that is, in this case, more engaging, more nuanced and ultimately more disturbing than art.

Now there’s a story I’d gladly have read more of.

Is there possibly — despite all present appearances — still a book that Kaavya might successfully get published? An after-the-fact book about this whole unhappy situation…?

Meta, rather than “Mehta”…

[tags]Kaavya Viswanathan, Opal Mehta, Alloy Entertainment, plagiarism[/tags]

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