Thursday, April 27, 2006


Okay, so Kaavya Viswanathan, author of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild And Got A Life, may have lifted a few passages from somebody else's books. Okay, more than a few passages.

So? We're not talking deathless literature here. The author of one chick-lit book for the younger set is accused of appropriating the work of another author of similar material--but both Viswanathan's book and the novels she borrowed from both employed the same editor. So this particular genre of fiction, with its cookie-cutter plots and lookalike covers, may not be totally on the up-and-up?

This stunning revelation ranks up there with discovering that celebrity autobiographies are ghost-written. I think we were all shocked to discover Kathie lee Gifford needed help expressing the unfathomable depths of her soul on the page. Or else we just noticed the cover, with its prominent credit for a co-author.

Same with Viswanathan. The copyright notice in her book is awarded to her and Alloy Publishing, the book packager that helped her write--oh, I'm sorry, "assemble"--her novel.

Given the apparently incestuous nature of this section of the publishing world, it seems hard to believe no one ever noticed Viswanathan was offering up someone else's work as her own. Yet the author seems to have been left on her own to twist in the wind, making apologetic comments on The Today Show.

One gets the horrible feeling there's something unsavory at work here. Chick-lit is certainly one of the most formulaic forms in publishing today. Innovations in plot, character and form are not much in evidence here. Why treat Viswanathan as a pariah?

Could it be racism? While there are successful African-American purveyors of this literary brand, there hasn't been one of Indian descent. Viswanathan's youth and reported six-figure advance suggest the possibility of envy as well.

But I think the most likely reason this story is getting so much coverage in the mainstream press is simply because the whole James Frey imbroglio had blown over, and the media needed a new author to crucify. Neither Frey nor Viswanathan are now or ever likely to be writers of real merit, but the coverage of their stories implies that the literary world should be viewed with suspicion, that you should never take anything you read at face value.

Which is true, as far as it goes. But why should you believe the person telling you not to believe?