Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Kaavya Viswanathan Has Some 'Splaining To Do

So it's all over the Internet that Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan's debut novel (for which she received a reported $500,000 advance and a two book deal) has striking similarities to the already published "Sloppy Firsts" by Megan McCafferty.

Viswanathan initially denied the charges. A day later she coughed up the following statement:

"Recently, I was very surprised and upset to learn that there are similarities between some passages in my novel, 'How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life,' and passages in these books," she said.

Calling herself a "huge fan" of Ms. McCafferty's work, Ms. Viswanathan added, "I wasn't aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty's words." She also apologized to Ms. McCafferty and said that future printings of the novel would be revised to "eliminate any inappropriate similarities." (NYT)
Viswanathan has also stated that future printings will include an acknowledgement to McCafferty (I wonder how that'll go: hey Megan, thanks for the half mil?). The next edition of the book will be edited to remove the offending duplications, now estimated at 40.

Random House issued a response yesterday. They ain't buying what she's selling.

In an climate where becoming - and staying published - is getting more and more challenging, I always find it peculiar when newcomers like Viswanathan get $500,000 advances for their work. (Of course, it makes a certain kind of sense that they'd give her, in particular, the big bucks. I guess that second time around really is a charm.)

But seriously, why do some writers get that $500K and others the industry standard $5-20K? Where do all those delicious zeros come from? In this case, I'd assume that the hook was that the writer was a 17 year old wunderkind who was destined for Harvard herself (which mirrors the plotline of the book). It worked; the book debuted on the New York Times Bestseller list at 32 in March. Film rights have been sold to Dreamworks. But that's not all to the story.

While working on her opus, Viswanathan engaged a 'book packager', 17th Street Productions, to help her "conceptualize and plot the book." Just what the fark is a 'book packager' anyways? The Harvard Independant does an interesting write-up about the service. In it, they report the claim of a former editor at 17th Street that; "(a) packager basically serves as both the writer and editor of a book...” Of course, this implies that the work has been ghostwritten. If that's the case, it leads to yet another interesting question. Are 17th Street actually the ones responsible for the lit theft? (For the record, everyone involved is saying that Viswanathan penned the novel herself, to a non-mathematical certainty of 1000%, no less.)

This is another case where I'd like to read the book in question and see what the deal is. (I still haven't bought Frey's A Million Little Pieces, but I do have a friend who's going to lend it to me after he's done.) In this particular case, I'd have no problem giving my money to McCafferty, but there's no way that Viswanathan is going to get her hands on any of my filthy lucre. So I decided to read through an excerpt of her work. It doesn't do much for me, but I didn't like teen-girl lit even when I was a teen.

This morning, Viswanathan went on the Today Show and gave her side. (Search for "Teen Author Denies Accidental Copying.") If you get a second, check it out. If she's really sorry, I'm really a tunafish named Bob.

I'm very curious as to what's going to happen next. Will the book get pulled? Will her two book deal get revoked? Will she get her arse sued off by Random House? I just don't see how her "oops, sorry" defence is going to fly, particularly from a Harvard student who's supposed to be all kinds of smart. On the other hand, one can only assume that the latest publicity will bump sales further, as has been the case with Frey's work.

On a much brighter literary note, last night BHJ and I went to the book launch of Hamilton writer Rachael Preston. Her latest is The Wind Seller and looks to be a great read. Pick it up if you get a chance.

On less bright note, I'm still embroiled in third draft anguish. Perhaps I should call a 'book packager' and have them finish it for me.



jamie ford said...

You know who's really angry about the whole Kaavya Viswanathan thing? James Frey. Up until she showed up he was the front runner for the Milli Vanili Publishing Award. Now he's got some tough competition.

Maia said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Maia said...

Heh :)

Of course, Frey's book is still on the List,and he's raking in the big bucks. Kaavya is now bookless.

How's the third draft going?