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Kaavya Viswanathan and the Novel of Doom

Several different online discussion groups I follow have recently glommed onto KaavyaGate, the scandal wherein Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan's first novel has been yanked by publisher Little, Brown in the wake of growing accusations that the novel borrows passages from a number of other books of varying degrees of similarity.

It's a juicy story, to be sure, but my own sense is that the plagiarism charges have distracted the media from the aspect of the case that should be of more interest to authors. Much of the coverage mentions the involvement of 17th Street Productions, a book packaging firm, with the gestation of Ms. Viswanathan's novel -- but a careful look at the apparent sequence of events suggests that "packaging" isn't an accurate description of the role 17th Street (now part of Alloy Entertainment) had in the book's creation.

What actually seems to have happened -- some of the details are a trifle vague -- is this:

Ms. Viswanathan (henceforth Ms. V) showed a novel proposal to the agent she'd snagged at William Morris, but the agent (one Jennifer Walsh) didn't think the proposed book was "commercially viable". She pointed Ms. V at 17th Street, and the teenager followed up the reference; after much discussion and brainstorming, she produced four chapters and an outline of what would become Opal Mehta. (Call this Editorial Round One.)

The partial then went back to Ms. Walsh at William Morris, who worked with Ms. V to further refine the chapters and outline (call this Editorial Round Two), then began shopping the partial around. After an auction, Ms.Walsh sold rights to Opal Mehta plus a second book to Little, Brown for a reported $500,000 (nobody's actually admitted to that number, but it's been widely circulated in the reportage), based on the partial manuscript.

Ms. V, by this time a freshman at Harvard, spent most of the academic year completing Opal Mehta, thereupon turning it in to her editor at Little, Brown, where the full book went through another round of revisions -- Editorial Round Three. (Note that 17th Street is, by now, long out of the editorial loop -- although the published book bore a joint copyright, in which Ms. V and 17th Street shared ownership.)

There are, to say the least, several things wrong with this picture.

Returning for a moment to the plagiarism issues, it seems remarkable that nobody involved with any of the three rounds of editing noted above spotted the numerous cited instances of over-similarity. (We will, for the moment, gloss over the novelty of a first-time author's book getting all this detailed editorial scrutiny when all too many veteran authors' works seem to get little more than a cursory copy-edit, if that.)

But let's consider 17th Street for a moment. Their role in the development of Opal Mehta isn't remotely what we'd normally think of as "packaging". They didn't discover/recruit the writer. They didn't, if the reportage is to be believed, vet the complete manuscript themselves. They apparently didn't broker the publishing contract (despite claiming joint copyright); Ms. Walsh at William Morris is reported as doing that. OTOH, they clearly did help Ms. V conceive and develop the novel -- a project for which they certainly must have been paid. The $500,000 question is: who cut their check, especially considering that at the time they were working with Ms. V., there wasn't a publisher in the picture?

I can't see it being Ms. V's agent. It doesn't seem to have been Little, Brown; the joint copyright presumably would have given 17th Street a share of both the advance and any royalties, but packagers (like novelists) dislike working on spec. [An aside here: given that 17th Street holds half the copyright, one might argue that the company is on the hook for half of any plagiarism that may have occurred, at least for legal purposes. Which could be highly entertaining and fiendishly complicated depending on who, if anyone, eventually files lawsuits.]

That more or less leaves Ms. V. Or, more probably, Ms. V's parents, who'd already paid serious money for the consultant who got Ms. V into Harvard and hooked her up with William Morris.

Only that raises all kinds of red flags -- because if that's how the deal went down, the phrase that describes 17th Street's role in the project is "book doctor", not "packager". And there are supposed to be very strict ethical constraints in publishing circles that preclude reputable agents from referring writers to book doctors, especially when the players are as high up in the publishing food chain as those in the present case.

I have a feeling there's a whole closetful of shoes left to drop before this one's over....


( 9 comments — Agree, disagree, kibitz )
May. 4th, 2006 05:54 am (UTC)
This is some wacky, messed-up stuff.
The more I hear, the wackier it gets.
May. 4th, 2006 06:10 am (UTC)
From the very beginning the story is improbable. Kid submits unpublishable partial and has all these people falling over themselves to help her turn it into a book? That's the slush kid's wet dream. All I can figure is that someone very early on saw her as a commercial property because of her age, looks, and ethnicity, and decided to turn her into a Star. The situation is not "young author copies book and gets in big trouble," it's "cynical marketing strategy turns bad and blows up." It's Milli Vanilli all over again.

I knew we could rely on you for a lucid summary of the story so far. :)
May. 4th, 2006 10:05 am (UTC)
There are points in the larger story that support this view -- Ms. V acquired the William Morris agent in the first place through the (highly paid) college admissions consultant her parents hired to get her into Harvard, who asked to see her short fiction and thought it impressive enough to take to her agent. And it may be significant that we're looking here at William Morris, which is tied into the movie/TV world as well as to publishing. (Only briefly mentioned in most of the coverage is that somewhere in the deal-making process DreamWorks bought movie rights to the first book -- although that deal has apparently unraveled in the wake of the book's withdrawal.)

At the same time, if there was that much starmaking going on, it's a little surprising that her would-be handlers left her mostly unattended at Harvard as long as they did -- and that they apparently interfered as little as they did in the writing process itself.
May. 4th, 2006 06:59 am (UTC)
Personally, I think that 17th Street Productions is (are?) lying through their teeth if they talk about not having had anything to do with the text as finally produced. Because that's not how packagers work, and especially not packagers with a shared copyright.

It would not surprise me at all to learn eventually that somewhere out there (and lying low and saying nothing for fear of being named the designated fall guy) is a scuzzy starving freelancer who produced one or more of the intermediate drafts for a flat fee considerably lower than anything anybody else involved in the affair received.
May. 4th, 2006 10:34 am (UTC)
That's a tempting suspicion, but it seems unlikely to me given the coverage to date. I see four strikes against the theory:

One, 17th Street has evolved into something rather different from a traditional packager in the first place. (It's now part of a "creative think tank" called Alloy Entertainment, and founder Daniel Weiss -- yup, 17th Street used to be Daniel Weiss Associates -- had been bought out of the company well before that.)

Two, there's been no comment of any kind from 17th Street/Alloy on the case at all; the characterization of their involvement has come from statements by Ms. V and her agent.

Three, if there'd actually been a ghost, Ms. V's responses to the plagiarism charges should have been to out 17th Street and said ghost left, right, and sideways. Instead, she's issued apologies and stuck to her version of events.

And fourth, while it might well be in Packager Gulch character for 17th Street to have hired a ghost, I can't see them having hired an incompetent ghost for this kind of project. The kinds of writers who tend to draw packager work may be scuzzy, but they're also usually pretty consistent, and their writing process doesn't lend itself to the kind of Frankenstein-zombie borrowing that apparently happened here.
May. 4th, 2006 02:36 pm (UTC)
One scenario I could actually see is that Viswanathan wrote the chapters (or the whole draft), and 17th Street kept saying, in their packager way--no, no, you need more passages like this until Viswanathan finally took those passages and rewrote them, and 17th Street, not quite noticing (because the passages are not quite as alike as the news coverage makes it seem) or choosing not to notice finally declared the work acceptable.
May. 4th, 2006 03:51 pm (UTC)
While that's definitely a possibility, I've been thinking further about the plagiarism problem, and I keep coming back to one basic paradox.

On one hand, the root motivation for plagiarism is laziness. But the specific nature of the borrowings in Opal Mehta -- a lot of different short snippings-and-recastings from a lot of different sources -- would have been incredibly labor-intensive to import deliberately.

On the third hand -- we've been told that Ms. V has a photographic memory; she's also apparently a voracious reader, and she's a teenager. Now picture Ms. V as a Harvard freshman, working feverishly to complete a contracted novel around her academic schedule.

I find it completely</> believable, in those circumstances, that Ms. V might have built a plot by rearranging and recasting bits and pieces of stories she's previously read and absorbed. It's exactly the sort of thing you'd expect from a teen-aged mind working under pressure -- a composite of stored information, recalled not quite perfectly and rearranged to appear fresh. It would have been dead easy, and done smoothly enough it would be likely to please her editors in exactly the way that the same sort of thing (also done smoothly enough) tends to please teachers grading high volumes of students' written schoolwork.
May. 4th, 2006 02:33 pm (UTC)
I stumbled onto this entry of your LJ through a writers' forum, and I just wanted to commend you on your discussion of the events surrounding Ms. V and the plagiarism. I've read lots of articles and commentary on the events in question, and none of them have been as enlightening as yours.

Thank you.
May. 4th, 2006 03:58 pm (UTC)
Re: Hello!
You're very welcome. Now if the media would only latch onto the murkier parts of this literary soap opera....
( 9 comments — Agree, disagree, kibitz )

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