A Viswanathan By Any Other Name

It's been a month since my last post--I've been treating writing very gingerly, saving it all up for revisions of The Devil Inside Her. (What? Not done, you ask? I'll save that for another post).

What has gotten me motivated to write is yet another publishing scandal, a teen-chick-lit Indian-American coming of age thing. God knows it's a hot market, but does any unknown first time Indian-American author deserve half a million dollars for two books?

That's what Kaavya Viswanathan got from Little, Brown & Company almost exactly one year ago. Her $500,000 advance for two teen novels got the national media's attention for many reasons. First, it's unheard of that a first-time novelist get that kind of advance. It happens, rarely, spectacularly, and the publisher almost never earns it back.

Second, Kaavya Viswanathan, at the time of her deal, was a 17-year old Indian-American girl from New Jersey, about to go to Harvard to become (god help us) an investment banker. Big money for young novelists rarely pays off--and by young, I mean teenage. Even if they go slutty and make Page Six, like Bad Girl by Abigail Vona, they rarely make back a big advance, mostly because very few 17-year olds know anything about the craft of putting a novel together, and the writing usually sucks. But Kaavya Viswanathan's first book, with its unwieldy cutesy title of "How How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got In, was different. It supposedly was well-written, well-plotted, and just tailor-made for the millions of Indian-American teenage girls looking for someone to identify with. A...role model, perhaps? This was all big news, a nation-wide story, but it got my attention a different reason.

You see, the twit has my last name.

Yes, the first Viswanathan with a ridiculous fiction book advance is not a struggling lawyerwriter, but an Ivy League overachiever who got her book published through an Ivy League admissions consultant who knew the right people. Viswanathan is actually a common South Indian name--I know at least six Viswanathans myself--but this is the first Viswanathan who has made an ass out of herself in my profession.

And not through hard work, either I'm not against college consulting--I do it myself--but when a respected, flashy, high profile agent like Suzanne Gluck gets involved, you know the big bucks are about clout, not manuscript. The actual agent is someone else, but the mere fact that William Morris took on a 17-year old author put this deal on another level. This was a handshake-behind closed doors deal, with everybody's eye on the almighty, oh-so-literary, South Asian teen market. Nobody was talking about the writing.

(Anyway, folks, this is the way to get a literary agent. Connections. Stop sending slush out now and start inviting people out to drinks. I'm not kidding).

So little Kaavya gets all sorts of attention, from the Harvard Crimson, to Dreamworks pictures, already envisioning another Bend It Like Beckham, only more American. The book is published, gets decent reviews, is put on a co-op tables--the tables in front of the bookstore--and does fine. For the record, I found the story familiar, to the point of cliche. But then again, I hate teen lit.

Since young Kaavya and I write for very different markets, I wish her no ill will, except she says the most ridiculous post-adolesence nonsense, and they keep quoting her as Ms. Viswanathan: (Example: "Opal Mehta has no sense of fashion. But I love shopping. I take pride in my collection of high heels and short skirts." Listen, you my lightheaded auteuress, I was Ms. Viswanathan before you learned your cursive lettering, and I will be a Viswanathan long after your arranged marriage takes place).

And then writer--an adult--named Mega McCafferty reads the book and realizes that it has HUGE similarities to two of her books (the unfortunately titled Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings). Estimates are that 30-40 passages from Kaavya's book are virtually identical to McCafferty's work. She, in the all-American tradition of a legal suit, alleges that Kaavya, in the all-Bollywood tradition of lifting plots off of American movies, neglected to write her own work and instead ripped off an existing Western novel. In fact, she just colored the characters brown. That's the part that annoys me the most--the sheer lazy cliche of it all.

So today she has admitted the following carefully public-relationed 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. While the central stories of my book and hers are completely different, I wasn't aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty's words. I am a huge fan of her work and can honestly say that any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious. My publisher and I plan to revise my novel for future printings to eliminate any inappropriate similarities." More here.

Lovely, darling. All this is code for "you got caught." But before we gather the lynch mob, let's not lose our heads.

A teenage writer of any color, gender or nationality is a sponge. I remember absorbing Jackie Collins and Jack Kerouac, Nabokov and Katherine Chopin, Raymond Chandler and John Grisham indiscriminately, along regular doses J.D. Salinger, Isak Dinesen and Agatha Christie. That's what you're supposed to do in your teenage years--write like all your idols until suddenly it changes, becomes your own voice. These writings are meant for private notebooks, self-indulgent book clubs, and girl-bonding sleepovers. These are NOT meant for publication in trade paperback. Those who walk around saying "this girl has no conscience" should probably take a deep look at what they would have done for half a million dollars when they were 17. This girl was told she was a great writer, worth more than twenty put together, better than all the adults she knew. She was given a ridiculous sum of money for her private scribblings, cobbled from fantasies created from her favorite books. If they were unknown books--so much the better. Is it wrong? Of course. Should she have known it? Absolutely. Do teens like to cheat? Without a doubt.

By the time I graduated college, I had indulged, at least once in all sorts of vices, from minor league drug abuse to dating bad boys to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day to cheating on pop quizzes. It was easy. More importantly, it was fun. There wasn't material enough to hold my attention, and I liked to see what I got away with. No adults encouraged me. No one told me to go further. No one gave me money. Eventually, all my efforts at bad behavior--the rebelling, the conning, the living-by-the-skin-of-my-teeth--seemed pointless. So, like every other rebellious teen, I grew up.

And that's when I became a writer. Because in between the smoking and the hangovers, I learned the craft of writing. I had to read authors I hated, and learned to enjoy their quirkiness. I fell in love with literary criticism. I had a lot of poorly formed opinions that I was forced to back up. I had to write, and rewrite, and be judged, constantly. For my senior thesis I wrote an unfinished gothic novel. My grading professor said it was more like Jane Austen than anything he'd ever seen. That went to my head pretty quickly, but that wasn't enough for me to send it to publishers. I knew better. I knew what really good, really publishable, really classic writing was supposed to be, and I didn't want my words to be judged any less.

So this is How Kaavya Got Published, and Got Caught. But who cares? The only child of two doctors, with access to private Ivy League consultants and a Harvard business degree awaiting, she can put the money in the bank and toddle off. Because she's underage when she wrote the book, it'll be pretty hard to sue her for libel or slander. Only the truly vengeful--or, alternatively, Ms. McCafferty--should care enough to do so. As for the editors/agents/adults? Indian journalist Nilanja (yes, that sounds like my name too) S. Roy notes in The Business Standard that "Kaavya’s editors were comfortable admitting that Opal Mehta needed more work and more “inputs” than most manuscripts, though they gave her credit for an “original” idea" and that the public "did have a fair idea of the many processes that went into the manufacture of this book, complete with the advance, the hype, the deal."

The truth is, this is solely at the feet of the publishing industry, thinking that writing is some sort of game that anyone can play, if they get enough high-powered advance press on their side. Writing, even in this age of publishing, should be for writers--trained, experienced, accomplished writers who understand the business of publishing. (I hope to be one). Throwing a half million dollars at a kid with only her own judgement to guide her is irresponsible, offensive to those who work at our craft, and just plain dumb in terms of business. Kaavya's agent agrees with me 100% arguing--in her defense no less, that "teenagers tend to adopt each other's language" and "as a former teenager myself, I recall that spongelike ability to take popular culture and incorporate it into your own lexicon." Great. I applaud your emphathy, baby, but why are you paying a book packager to "massage" the plot? Why encourage a clever, ambitious, apparent highly absorbent teenager to work with a company, only to come out with a ripoff she could have done herself in her sleep? She's seventeen--you can't even sue her! You don't trust her to walk into a bar to drink or vote for the President--but a six figure advance for a fiction novel when you know that "teenagers adopt each other's language?" Sure. And you'll get exactly what you deserve.

Maybe Kaavya will write another book in a decade or so, but I can't see how she would dare. Still, a good book is a good book, so if she can grow and evolve enough to write one, more power to her. I don't hold grudges when it comes to good writing. We (fellow authors) were all jealous of her advance--admit it, you phonies--and now she has some schadenfraude to deal with.

Just one word of caution to the young authoress: if you do write another book, change your last name. Viswanathan is taken.