Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Case of Immaturity and Irresponsibility

Since the story of Kaavya Viswanathan, her coming-of-age novel, and the alleged (perhaps unintentional) plaigarizing of several novels by Megan McCafferty, I've been wondering if Ms Viswanathan is as calculating as James Frey or if something else is going on here...

So, I listened this a.m. to her appearance on the Today Show. I didn't watch--as watching a very pretty, very young woman get choked up an try to bail herself out of a very bad situation might elicit two responses from me (as well as the rest of the public.) We could either 1)be sympathetic and forgive her outright or 2)get seriously pissed and want to excoriate the kid.

Listening only, I thought " oh geeze! this is just a kid! the world thinks because she's smart enough to go to Harvard, and pretty enough to look like a grown woman, that she's got the mind and sophistication to author a novel."

I concluded that Ms. Viswanathan's only crime is being very young--and not being who publishers promoted and projected her to be.

The problem, then, is not with her, but with a publshing house--Little Brown-- assumed a young person to be someone that she is not--mature enough to pen a spotless novel. The publisher rushed someone to press who should possibly have knocked around a bit, publishing in small presses, going to college, reading her stuff to peers.

That rush, perhaps, comes from a need for money--not a concern for quality work nor for the reputation or life of a young person. They saw a very marketable commodity--young, Asian-Indian, Harvard, pretty. The didn't see a young person who may have needed time to learn.

It seems, too, that Little Brown--and probably a lot of publishers--are unfamiliar with what makes a writer. They are unfamiliar with the process of writing. Many of us who write, when we are young, will do riffs or variations on themes. We read voraciously, internalize what we read, and say to ourselves "I want to write X genre of novel!" We set about doing it. Our efforts might be really fantastic, but most of us don't have access to publishers, or aren't nervy enough, to submit our ramblings for review.

And we kind of know, deep down, that our stuff needs work--that we need maturity.

Historically, the best writers are writers who have lived lives. They've gone out and done things, experienced life, met people, have observed others and themselves. For the longest time there has been a philosophy that writing, unlike mathematics, is something that gets better as a person gets older because of these factors. The facility with language as well as the knowledge of life, combine to create an individual, who, if they've been practicing their particular process, can write novels, short stories, etc.

This is not to say that there aren't those prodigies--or that coming-of age novels can't be written by young people. Yet even in that genre, the best coming-of-age novels have been written by someone beyond that particular age range : Judy Blume, who wrote "Are You There God, It's Me Margaret" when she was 40-something.

Prodigies are few, and, perhaps, aren't necessarily attending Harvard. The perception that a 19-year old attending Harvard is somehow not capable of plagiarizing may also have been part of the publisher's myopia. We are often judged by our social class, and a young person who goes to Harvard might have a better chance of getting his/her draft novel in the hands of a publisher moreso than someone who attends a County College or State University. That's a consequence of social class and social connection--it sucks, but unfortunately, that's The World.

So, I feel a bit of compassion for Ms. Vishwanathan--even though she'll eventually, I'm sure, emerge from all this pretty much spotless. I look at her and I see a young person who was rushed to maturity when she may have been better off growing up at the same rate as her peers.

Update Dan Gillmor offers a link to several passages from Kaavya Viswanathan's book for comparison. it does not look good and could call into question her previous academic work. makes me wonder if she had plagiarized in the past.

Update: Author Megan McCafferty responds: Apology Not Accepted--and I don't blame her. She is not obligated to accept the apology and her publisher has every right to seek restitution from Little Brown. That's the consequences LB will have to take.

Final Note: When we see people as brands, compaines (publishers included) look for the prettiest and most salable of human commodities. Ms. Vishwanathan was a wonderful commodity for Little Brown and looked--both literally and figuratively--to make them a nice bundle. Had they taken a few moments to see her as a person, rather than as a marketable brand, they might have read her work a bit more carefully, compared it to others in the genre, and found the plagiarized passages sooner. Remember, Little Brown are the adults in this situation as much as they are the business entity, and even if she was crafty enough to pass off the someone else's work as her own, they should have been able to call her on it. If checking for plagiarism isn't part of a book publisher's job, perhaps it should be as much as it should be for a newspaper.


janesway said...

good job tish, you nailed it, its about commodification. i posted a link.

Tish Grier said...

thanks jane!

with the media crush around us, we're losing sight of the fact that we are people, not products. right now, media only knows products. how we can change that is something that few people are thinking about and what ends up hurting some of us more than others.

Tish Grier said...

to douglass--

your comment was not meant to engage conversation. it demonstrated your inability to understand my point about commodification--your only interest was in showing how smart you are, and I'm not interested in smart-assery. that's not the point here. if you have such a burning desire to demonstrate to an audience how smart you are, feel free to start your own blog.

Anonymous said...


I'm surprised you think I am smart. (I'm an idiot).

I don't mean to insult.

I thought you were addicted to snark and would enjoy a zesty comment.

My point was that we, as individuals, commodify ourselves. Nobody forces us to do it, but we need money, so we do it anyways.

I'm talking about the voluntary commoditization of the individual, (dressing professionally, acting professionally, being 'professional')

Tish Grier said...

hi douglass....
thanks for coming back...and you make good points on two fronts...

1) In your original post, I got that you were bringing up the notion that when we go to our various jobs, we are, technically, commodifying ourselves. However, there's a larger issue of commodification here--that has to do with picking individuals based on their visual marketability rather than on their maturity (or talent, for that matter.)

From some additional articles I've been reading, K.V's ethnic background and her age played a role in her selection to write those books. The company went for the "style over substance" factor. too bad for everyone involved.

2) I should change the name of the blog. I occasionally like hurling a barb or two, but overall I'm not all that snarky. I've been chided about being smart rather than snark, and I'm seeing where the blog name could be working to my dis-advantage.

Anonymous said...


You are (and were) talking about commoditization from the perspective of the corporation.

I try to remember that like most businesses, publishing houses are not charities. They need to turn a profit in order to ensure survival.

The publishing house in question needs to do a better job of editing.

Also, it is interesting that the target audience of the publishing house you speak of is being so oversensitive about race. (They want to hear from an Asian over another race why?)

Tish Grier said...

yep...that's what I'm talking about....

I like that you bring up the whole "trendy race" thing. At various points in American history, showing one race as more trendy than another has sometimes had to do with quelling racist sentiment (the founding of Columbus Day was, in part, to better integrate Italian immigrants into our society.)

and over the past 40 years, various races/sexual prefereces have been trendy at different times. In the '70's it was trendy to be black. In the late 70's and early '80's it was, in some circles, trendy to be gay (and usually suffering--remember Joy Division, Erasure,etc.) Nowadays, it's trendy to be Asian of some sort--think about *all* the stuff we hear about how Asians of one stripe or another are far smarter than the rest of us (insert facetious tone here).

Further, since the 90's there's been a huge influx of Asian immigrants--primarily Chinese and Indian--due to the changes in the tech industry. And where I come from in Central N.J., Indian restaurants are now as ubiquitous in strip malls as Italian and Chinese restaurants.....

so, it would make sense that a publishing house would want to cash in on this new group of immigrants and publish a book written by a young Asian Indian woman that would be something of a coming-of-age in American kind of thing...

All well and good if they'd gotten someone who was mature enough to fully understand her contractural responsibilities (don't plagiarize)...and if the editors knew the genre just a bit better...