It started with a late-night e-mail from a friend and fellow journalist: “Have you seen this?” I clicked on the link and got an article on what has become the latest scandal to send the New York publishing world into paroxysms: novelist Kaavya Viswanathan’s admitted theft of language and passages from another young-adult writer, Megan McCafferty. Turns out that many parts of the Harvard student’s heralded novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, were simply McCafferty remixed with an Indian-American backbeat.
I’ll admit I have not read the book (and now that the publisher has pulled it from shelves until a revised version is printed, it will be considerably harder to get my hands on), but last week, it slowly took over my life. This was just the first of several e-mails I’d receive, and though I’d like to think my friends are just infinitely interested in my personal opinion on current events, that’s not why they were singling me out.
Last winter, looking for a part-time job to supplement my measly writer’s income, I almost applied for a position with Alloy Entertainment (formerly 17th Street Productions, the now-notorious book packager that worked with Ms. Viswanathan). I can thank my lucky stars (and a few friends in the business who advised me against the move) that I didn’t, as its name, warranted or not, is now synonymous in the press with manuscript tinkering and plagiarism.
Instead, I took a job with Sideshow Media, a small book producer (“packager” and “producer” are interchangeable in the industry lingo) that does mostly illustrated coffee-table books and collected works. My new boss, it just so happens, is also the president of the American Book Producers Association. The breaking Opal Mehta scandal was the opener for his speech at the ABPA’s 25th anniversary party on Wednesday, April 26.
He has never been so popular. All week, I fielded calls from papers like The New York Times, the New York Post, the Los Angeles Times, even The Bergen Record. We joked that he only needed The Wall Street Journal to round out the list. Less than 10 minutes later, we got a call from the ABPA administrator: A Wall Street Journal reporter would be contacting him soon.
As word circulated about the role of 17th Street in the development of the novel, I heard my boss on multiple phone interviews, trying to keep his cool as reporters mercilessly pushed him to admit that book producers really are the shady underbelly of publishing, not legitimate players in a struggling industry that wouldn’t publish a lot of books if at least part of their production process couldn’t be outsourced.
But the most interesting part of the scandal for me has been whether or not it will affect the reading public’s view of young-adult literature. Despite the book’s being published by Little, Brown’s adult division and marketed as plain chick lit, the involvement of the teen-oriented 17th Street shows that Opal is, at heart, really a young-adult novel, as were the two books Ms. Viswanathan is accused of plagiarizing, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings.
Has a 19-year-old, college-application-coach-hiring, Range Rover–driving, $500,000-advance-getting (I almost threw up in my mouth when I read that tidbit) Harvard student cast a pall over the whole genre? Has one bad apple tainted it for the rest of us keyboard pounders in, or trying to break into, the business? Even with the critical success of novels like Harry Potter and the commercial success of series like Gossip Girl and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (both Alloy projects), young-adult authors already sometimes struggle to be seen as legitimate writers deserving of their ever-increasing space on Barnes & Noble shelves. When a (then) 17-year-old girl is paid a half-million dollars to join those ranks and then plagiarizes, she’s certainly not raising esteem for her craft.
This concerns me particularly because I’m also writing a young-adult novel, to be published next year. Like all the memoirists out there who cringed at the unmasking of James Frey’s fabrications/exaggerations (and at his subsequent public flogging and blank-eyed, half-hearted apologies), or like the journalists who winced at the train wreck that was the short-lived newspaper career of Jayson Blair or the Hollywood-immortalized magazine career of Stephen Glass, as a young-adult writer, I feel the collective, Homeresque “D’oh!” Now, every time I tell someone what it is I do for a living, I find myself bracing for the inevitable question: “What do you think about that Harvard student … ?”
I’m not without sympathy for the girl. At 19, she’s just a couple years older than the characters she writes about and the audience for which she writes. That she herself was a young adult was, no doubt, one of the major factors that had her agent and her publishers seeing dollar signs. Nineteen-year-olds are allowed mistakes. (Full disclosure: I’m 25, and I still make them.) In fact, the plots of many young-adult novels on the best-seller lists hinge on that very societal understanding.
Unfortunately, when Ms. Viswanathan (intentionally or unintentionally) borrowed from Megan McCafferty’s work, she wasn’t operating in the sphere of young adulthood, and her mistake will have consequences that reach much farther than a wicked hangover, a case of crabs or a high car-insurance premium.
Whether or not she deserves it, it’s too easy to pick on Ms. Viswanathan. The book’s title practically begs to be made into a cheeky headline, and it has been, ad nauseam. I was actually heartened to read a recent article interviewing a fellow Harvard student who claimed that no one at the school was taking pleasure in the fallen golden child’s pain. (Although, at a university where students will pay $20,000 for coaches to get in and would just as soon slit a classmate’s throat as see her get the internship they themselves applied for, I doubt such a feeling of camaraderie always prevails.)
I just hope her pain doesn’t become the genre’s. For every compromised writer, there are countless others, established and aspiring, who have put their blood, sweat and tears into books they didn’t take shortcuts with: people like Megan McCafferty, who has handled this whole debacle with admirable grace, and—I’ll say it!—people like me.
Revisions on my book are due as I write this. (Note to my editor: Don’t worry, they’re almost done.) Procrastination is a habit of mine—or, as I like to say, I work better on deadline. Plagiarism, however, is not. As the clock ticks away, the Red Bull wears off, and it gets easier and easier to just pull a book from the shelf and borrow a word here, a sentence, there, I won’t—not just out of a sense that it’s morally wrong, or for fear of getting caught, but out of respect for the work. When something like this happens, it’s not just the name on the cover that stands to lose.