Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Gang That Couldn't Write Straight

"There was more shaping to this book than we generally do."
-- Asya Muchnick, Little Brown editor
It's only been one week since the Harvard Crimson disclosed there were many suspiciously familiar passages in Kaavya Viswanathan's newly released teen-age chick-book, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life."

For Ms. Viswanathan, who is now a 19 year old college sophomore, it probably seems like a lifetime ago.

In the short span of just seven days she has been hailed as the youngest best-paid novelist in American history; accused of plagiarism; and heard her publisher unexpectedly promise to bring out a "new edition". She's been attacked by fellow students as a "cheater"; she was humiliated late Thursday when Little Brown circulated a book recall around the world; and the week ended with her publisher calling her "disingenuous," which is a polite word for "liar."

Sadly, the past week may turn out to be one of the better ones Ms. Viswanathan will experience for a long while to come. A Dream Works movie based on the book, which was already scripted and in pre-production, almost surely will be canceled next week. Because her impending success in negotiating a two-book contract seemingly played a large role in her admission to Harvard, Viswanathan's college career now looks to be in jeopardy, too.

Then, there's the matter of just who actually received the $500,000 book advance and how Little Brown is going to retrieve it; and who is first in line to reimburse Dream Works for its advance on the movie rights and production expenses to date.

Already, you can see flocks of lawyers circling high in the sky overhead.

If you're planning to join the Schedenfreude Brigade to condemn Viswanathan's plagiarism, be sure to save at least a little blame for her co-conspirators. The evidence is mounting that one or more corporations were in on the caper as "co-author."

The Gang That Couldn't Write Straight includes the once-venerable Little Brown, now reduced to a hapless subsidiary of Time Warner, Inc.; the William Morris Agency, large parts of which movie producer Jane Hamsher (now of Firedog Lake) more or less describes in her book "Killer Instinct" as ethically challenged; and a "packaging agent" by the name of 17th Street Productions, a wholly owned subsidiary of Alloy Entertainment, Inc.

For most news outlets the story is just another titillating tale of Good-Girl-Gone-Bad. But a handful of enterprising investigative reporters at the Boston Globe, the Harvard Crimson, and the New York Times sagaciously see it in a larger, more important context. They've been digging around to find out just how much Madison Avenue corporate conglomerates have corrupted the book publishing industry. What they've found suggests that, at least when it comes to the teenage book market, things have reached the point where book publishing looks more like a Three Card Monty game than an honest enterprise.

Two months ago, David Mehegan of the Boston Globe was the first to sense there was a larger story in what was then a feel-good feature about a new author. In "How Kaavya Viswanathan Got Noticed, Got An Agent, and Got A Monster Two-Novel Contract" he reported that Viswanathan exhibited interest and some skill at creative writing from an early age. But she hadn't written so much as a single sentence in a full-length novel when the geniuses at Little Brown (aka Time Warner) signed the 17-year old to a two-book half million dollar contract.

Back in February, Mehegan also uncovered evidence that casts doubt -- especially given last week's events -- over how much of Opal Metha Viswanathan actually wrote herself after the book deal was signed. Well before the scandal broke, the Globe reporter was pointing out that Viswanathan's book appeared to be largely the product of a corporate marketing team:
"She showed her short stories to Katherine Cohen... who was herself an author ... represented by New York agent Suzanne Gluck of the William Morris Agency. Cohen showed the samples to Gluck, who was impressed. Eventually the young writer was referred to Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, another Morris agent.

"Walsh said she knew right away that Viswanathan had the talent. What she didn't have was a ''commercially viable' work. Viswanathan's original idea for a novel was much darker than ''Opal.' The agency referred her to 17th Street Productions, a so-called book packager that specializes in developing projects in young-adult and middle-grade fiction. The editors there proposed that Viswanathan put her mind to something lighter, something closer to her own background.

''After lots of discussions about 'finding my voice,' " Viswanathan said, 'I sat down and wrote them a fun, chatty e-mail about myself, which is where the voice and idea for Opal came from.' She worked with 17th Street to flesh out the concept.

'''They sent it to me, and I flipped over it,' Walsh said. ''We all recognized that Kaavya had the craftsmanship, she's beautiful and charming, she just needed to find the right novel that would speak to her generation and to people beyond her years as well. We worked on it some more and sold it for oodles and boodles of money.'
An email message made them "flip" so high they sat down and wrote out a check for half million dollars? Samuel Beckett should have been so lucky.

If you'll notice, there are a lot of plural "we's" and "they's" involving the marketing corporations that "worked" on the book's voice, outline, plot, and narrative. It may seem unkind to say so, but based on the Globe article there were grounds for worry that Viswanathan contributed only two things to the project for certain: her 'beauty' and her 'charm.'

This past week, the New York Times lifted one corner of the fig leaf covering the book industry slightly higher. In an article aptly titled, "First, Plot and Character. Then, Find an Author" two other reporters explain that while the book is attributed to Viswanathan, "on the copyright page and the contracts there's an additional name: Alloy Entertainment."

Alloy, which owns 17th Street Productions, is described as "a behind-the-scenes creator of some of the hottest books in young-adult publishing." Alloy relies on writer's agents and groups of anonymous freelancers willing to ghost-write teenage girl books under someone else's name.

As the Times reporters correctly say --
"at the very least, the incident opens a window onto a powerful company with lucrative, if tangled, relationships within the publishing industry that might take fans of series like 'The It Girl' by surprise.

"In many cases, editors at Alloy known as a 'book packager' craft proposals for publishers and create plotlines and characters before handing them over to a writer (or a string of writers).

"The relationships between Alloy and the publishers are so intertwined that the same editor, Claudia Gabel, is thanked on the acknowledgments pages of both Ms. McCafferty's books and Ms. Viswanathan's 'How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.' Ms. Gabel had been an editorial assistant at Crown Publishing Group, then moved to Alloy, where she helped develop the idea for Ms. Viswanathan's book. She has recently become an editor at Knopf Delacorte Dell Young Readers Group, a sister imprint to Crown."
What tangled web does this incestuous practice weave? Here's one way of describing it:
"'In a way it's kind of like working on a television show,' said Cindy Eagan, editorial director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, a sister imprint of Ms. Viswanathan's publisher, and the publisher of the 'Clique,' 'A-List' and 'Gossip Girl' series. 'We all work together in shaping each novel.'"
Writing a book is like "working on a television show?" Oh, great. Just great. Television corrupts everything it touches, from football's "TV timeouts" and the designated hitter rule to all those congressional windbags who speechify on C-SPAN. And, now we learn Little Brown has adopted the methods and ethics of the television industry?

Here's the money quote from the Times: ''There was more shaping to this book than we generally do," said Asya Muchnick, senior editor at Little, Brown."

To this point, it appears the corporations who helped engineer the Opal Mehta caper are content to let Viswanathan take the plagiarism wrap all by herself. In fact, they're insisting on it:
"Little, Brown, for one, was not blaming Alloy. 'Our understanding is that Kaavya wrote the book herself, so any problems are entirely the result of her writing and not the result of the packager's involvement in the book,' said Michael Pietsch, the publisher."
As with other conspiracies, that could change. Especially if Viswanathan grows up fast, sheds her naivete, and realizes she's been used by three of the most experienced book marketing, editing, fact-checking, and publishing companies on the planet.

As the Harvard Independent newspaper was asking at week's end --
"If someone plagiarized Megan McCafferty's books, was it Viswanathan herself or was it one of 17th Street's unnamed freelancers, cracking under the pressure of six-week deadlines and reaching into the work of a successful competitor for a paragraph here and there?"
Now, that is a question that could inspire a new teenager novel: "How Opal Mehta Got Screwed, Got Smart, and Then Saved Her Life."

Dept. of Amplification
ADDED 4/30 pm

John Liu, writing for the estimable Harvard Independent, also is exploring the striking similarities between "packaging" a teenager book before an author-to-be has been found and "packaging" a teen who's applying for admission to an Ivy League school. Both are true to the root meaning of "plagiarism" which comes from the Greek word plagion, as identified by the OED: "a kidnapping."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I bet if Kaavya had been overweight and unattractive, regardless of her ethnic background, somehow they wouldn't judge her writing "talented" much less give her "oodles and boodles of money."

They'd politely hand her a rejection slip like nine out of ten writers get when peddling their books.

Beauty is skin deep, but talent endures. Tell that to book publishers though. And beauty doesn't mean someone has morals.