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Archives: April 2006

The Return of the Hotties

solow-tophat.jpgJennifer Solow was so happy to see herself in last week’s roundup of hottie literati that she sent us another photo to press her case that much further. And it comes on the very day that Janet Maslin, in another of her semi-regular roundups of light fiction, praises Solow (at least we think it’s praise) for “bring[ing] something new” to chick lit with The Booster: “pathology.” But in a good way (really!).

Meanwhile, one of our gorgeous samples of manhood passed along some anonymous suggestions. First, he selected Arundhati Roy (“you foxy lefty thing, you”), then, on a whimsical note, knowing full well dead writers don’t shop, he described the Marxist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky as “rather the bomb.” Talk about a slap in the face of public taste!

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Viswanathan Coverage Echoing Itself?

Back in our very first post on CopyKaavya, I mentioned the historical example of Jacob Epstein, who got caught plagiarizing from Martin Amis when Little, Brown published his debut novel back in 1980. Now, I don’t think it’s swiping when press accounts like this morning’s NYT report and the AP wrapup invoke Epstein—it’s a historical fact, and nobody needs to cite me for reminding them of it anymore than I needed to cite Thomas Mallon for writing about it years ago in Stolen Words (which is, if you want to know about plagiarism, the book to read) and making it stick in my head. But I am mildly amused by stuff like this:

AP: “And Viswanathan’s fall is not necessarily fatal. In 1980, debut author Jacob Epstein acknowledged plagiarizing Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers for his novel, Wild Oats. Epstein moved on to Hollywood and eventual forgiveness, his writing credits including Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law.”

Boston Globe: “Viswanathan’s fall is stunning, but not necessarily fatal. In 1980, debut author Jacob Epstein acknowledged plagiarizing Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers for his novel Wild Oats. Epstein moved on to Hollywood and was forgiven quickly. His writing credits including Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law.”

The Globe does, however, at least concede that “information from the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press was also used” in creating Mehegan’s report. It’s true: From a scientific viewpoint, exact phrasing counts as information!

(Richard Grayson wrote to share his own memories of Jacob Epstein: “My first book and Epstein’s came out about the same time in 1979, so of course I was quite envious of him and felt the kind of schadenfreude a lot of people seem to have regarding Viswanathan.  But I remember the more generous reaction of a friend who had also published his first book around then with no media attention: ‘He must have been under terrible pressure to have done that and he must have been scared shitless when he got away with it that eventually someone would expose him.’” And he was considerably older than 19 when it happened…something to think about, at any rate.)

Miss Teen Wordpower’s Film Deal Evaporates

When PW Daily came out this morning, its coverage of the Opal Mehta recall came with a new twist: citing Variety, they revealed that Dreamworks is pulling the plug on its plans to film Kaavya Viswanathan’s novel. (Interestingly, and it almost makes me wish I had a Variety sub to get past the firewall and confirm, PW seems to be suggesting that one possible solution being negotiated was for Dreamworks to buy Megan McCafferty’s film rights as well.)

In the same flurry of dispatches, PW head Sara Nelson weighs in, looking past Viswanathan’s transgressions to “what this says about the publishing process, and about how and why books get bought and sold.” This leads to more discussion on the insidiousness with which book packagers have gotten their fingers into nearly every slice of the publishing pie. The whole mishegoss, she concludes, “suggests that even the most well-bred publishing houses are not as desperate to find promising writers and great novels as they are to find attractive authors (preferably with interesting backstories) with whom they can match up test-marketed, packaged stories.”

CopyKaavya: Recall reactions all over the place

At the Edgar Awards last night, the news of OPAL MEHTA being recalled became “the text message heard round the ballroom.” And while the official word from Little, Brown — who took up two tables at the banquet to fete Best Novel nominees Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos — was a firm no comment, one source within the publishing group did acknowledge that it had been a very difficult week for all involved — understandably so.

The Washington Post’s piece concentrates on why the recall is seen as such a surprise move. “They must have a very good case . . . if Little, Brown and Company is going to such extremes,” said Lorraine Shanley, a principal at Market Partners International, a consulting firm in New York. “In the book industry . . . this is really fairly unheard of,” said Jon Schallert, a retail marketing consultant based in Florida.

Meanwhile, one bookseller told the Harvard Crimson that the scandal had not significantly increased sales of the book. Harvard Bookstore supervisor Ben Newcomer also added that (as of last night) he hadn’t yet received any word of the recall. And Jenny Fry, a publicist for Time Warner UK, Viswanathan’s UK publisher, confirmed to the Guardian that the author’s book tour had been cancelled in that country.

And Reuters, in their piece on the recall, comments that “Viswanathan is the latest writer to face accusations of ethical impropriety that have shaken the publishing industry.” Though it’s difficult to tell if such a blanket statement is actually true – even in the aftermath of James Frey – it does fall in line with what Crown editor Jason Pinter (whose debut thriller THE MARK appears in stores next summer) said on his blog earlier this week. “‘It’s an isolated incident,’ I used to say. Now about six isolated incidents later, I’ve come to the realization that maybe we should police ourselves better. Maybe we get away with too much….Sometimes shit happens, but if our hearts are in the right place that’s what matters. But there are others whose hearts don’t quite line up in the margin, and the rest of us have to justify them.”

Read more

CopyKaavya: advice for teen writers with big book deals

In the First Post, Nicholas Clee asks one of many questions that are swirling around Kaavya Viswanathan and the recall of her book: why did she garner such a huge advance, and why take such a risk? “The answer is the book industry is in thrall to the new,” says Clee. “The increasing domination of a handful of giant publishers and retailers has led to a concentration on titles that will sell in big quantities; many of those titles, particularly in fiction, are the works of young and glamorous authors.” And so, he concludes, the book industry is becoming ever closer to the movies, and a cycle where “future flops are inevitable, providing us cynics with a reliable supply of sour satisfactions.”

But for those who really want to take the time to learn the craft and not be tempted – or turned away – by the aftermath of CopyKaavya, John Scalzi has this to say along with 10 pieces of advice: “You’ve got the time to do it. Take it.” (That way, Ron notes, you’re less likely to face withering skepticism from the likes of Nick Antosca, who wants to know “why a supposedly literate, intelligent student at the world’s preeminent university would write a novel that barely even pretended not to be garbage.” But then, Antosca managed to fight off the literary agents who wanted him to lighten up his writing while he was at Yale, and is about to publish his first novel later this year.)

The Codebreakers have it

Not even 48 hours after reports about the so-called secret code contained within the judgement of the Da Vinci Code infringement trial broke, eager puzzlers have discovered what it is: a simple phrase, an homage to Admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher, known as Jackie, credited with modernizing the British Navy in the early 20th century. The phrase, confirmed by the judge, was: “Jackie Fisher who are you Dreadnought.”

“If the judge’s motive was to draw attention to a long-lost war hero, then he’s done it very effectively,” said a lawyer with the Olswang firm, one of several code-breakers to come up with the solution.

Interestingly, Judge Smith said via email to the New York Times’ Sarah Lyall that he is not especially interested in codes. “I hate crosswords,” he wrote, “and do not do Sudoku as I do not have the patience.” But he does like to have a bit of fun…

Today in Wottakar’s: future plans for Waterstone’s

The Guardian profiles Tim Waterstone, the bookstore chain’s founder who’s looking to buy back in for the second time. Will he succeed? It all depends on who you ask. Says Caroline Dawnay of the literary agency PFD, “He’s like a sort of humanist vicar who believes that godliness and good learning go well together. If he were to succeed, good authors would sleep easier in their beds.”

But others keep their reactions more tempered. One bestselling author said: “I sadly fear that Tim’s venture is quixotic … with supermarkets at one end and the internet at the other, the high-street chains are being crushed in a terrifying fashion.”

Meanwhile, Publishing News has more on Waterstone’s partner in his quest to regain his old company, equity buyer Anthony Forbes Watson. Though reluctant to disclose details, he did tell PN the following: “In the simplest sense, we want to recreate the great experience that was obtainable from Waterstone’s in the past – but in today’s market. We think we can improve the experience of shopping in Waterstone’s.” And further noted that “range and presentation and passion are magical things in bookselling…It’s an infectious experience being in a store that can offer them that. Waterstone’s doesn’t at the moment…The trick is to pull that off and fight effectively against competitive channels.”

S&S: No, we’re not for sale

As soon as Lagardere bought out Time Warner Book Group, many (us included) began to chirp that Simon & Schuster might be next on the conglomerate’s acquisition list. Not so, says S&S CEO Jack Romanos to Publishing News. “Did you ever meet the rumour you couldn’t kill?” he asks. “It’s been around for a decade, and it’s amusing at some level, but it’s totally unfair on the people who work here. At the moment, we’re not for sale.”

Which isn’t to say that last year wasn’t difficult for the company, as Romanos is first to admit. “It’s been a humbling experience for us not to have the same position in the London publishing community as we have in the US. We’ve had some missteps but now we’re back on track.”

How Opal Mehta Got Pulled from Bookstores

Motoko Rich and Dinitia Smith share the byline on the NYT announcement of Little, Brown’s decision to recall How Opal Mehta… Got a Life, the Kaavya Viswanathan novel that contained numerous turns of phrase that mirrored the writings of Megan McCafferty. A Thursday afternoon statement from Little, Brown publishers calls upon retailers “to stop selling copies of the book and to return unsold inventory to the publisher for full credit.” It was the first statement from Viswanathan’s publisher in over a day, presumably since both sides had lawyered up. A few hours later, McCafferty announced that she wouldn’t be seeking restitution, which may indicate that the pullout isn’t a prelude to a “corrected” edition coming out in a few months but a complete obliteration of the book. How ironic, then, that it should occur just as Janet Maslin got around to reviewing Opal Mehta: “a blender-made mishmash of every teenage movie hit from Mean Girls to Legally Blonde.” (Quite the range you’re working there, Janet!)

In line with everything Sarah and I have been curious about all week, here’s an interesting tidbit from the report:

“Ms. Viswanathan’s parents sent her to a private college counselor, Katherine Cohen of IvyWise, who is also the author of a book on writing college applications. Ms. Cohen showed some of Ms. Viswanathan’s writing to Suzanne Gluck, her agent at the William Morris Agency. Ms. Viswanathan said that she had written a piece in the vein of The Lovely Bones…but that Ms. Gluck thought that it was too dark…No one at Alloy suggested she read Ms. McCafferty or any other author’s work, Ms. Viswanathan said.

The summer after graduating from high school, she wrote four chapters and a synopsis of what became Opal, and sent them in an e-mailed message to Alloy. After some minor editing, Alloy said it would get back to her. In October of her freshman year at Harvard, she received a call from Ms. [Jennifer Rudolph] Walsh, also an agent at William Morris, who told her she was going to start shopping the manuscript around.”

Now, the connections between Alloy and William Morris (and Walsh in particular) are extensive—see, for example, the deal Walsh made for Sara Shephard’s Pretty Little Liars at Harper, Sarah Miller’s Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn at St. Martin’s, or Zoey Dean’s A-List series for the children’s wing of Little, Brown—and, come to think of it, did they ever see the Opal Mehta manuscript? (We hear they did!) Anyway, how Kaavya got shuffled from Gluck to Walsh and ended up with Alloy is just one facet of the story we’ll look forward to seeing the Harvard press uncover, since (as others have noted) they’ve been doing such a bang-up job all week long. They’ve already started by looking into Cohen’s role in Viswanathan’s rise.

CopyKaavya Should Read More Widely

Here’s another passage from Kaavya Viswanathan’s NYT spin session that caught my eye, as the young author attempts to explain why her plotline was still authentically hers even though it so closely mirrored Megan McCafferty’s:

“‘It’s my plot, my characters,’ Ms. Viswanathan insisted. ‘I’ve never read a novel with an Indian-American protagonist,’ she said. ‘The plot points are reflections of my own experience. I’m an Indian-American. I got good grades.’”

sonia-singh.jpgBut Viswanathan isn’t the first Indian-American woman to get a book deal, not even the first Indian-American chick-lit writer, so I called Bollywood Confidential author Sonia Singh (left) to see whether she found that story plausible. “When I was in high school,” Singh recalled, “I would scour the libraries looking for books by Indian and Indian-American writers, or even just with an Indian character. I remember when Chitra Divakaruni’s Mistress of Spices came out; it was a huge deal for me and all my friends. And then there’s Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies… I just can’t believe she wouldn’t have read stuff like this.” (She might have gotten distracted rereading Sloppy Firsts that third time, I guess…)

Singh has been watching the story unfold with some amusement. “It started out as such an Indian achievement story,” she observes, “and everything was so exaggerated, and now it’s all gone downhill so fast. And she’s not a very good liar, is she?” Singh also spotted some mistakes in Opal Mehta that only other Indian-Americans would be likely to pick up on, like the heroine’s cousin, Kali. “Nobody would ever name their daughter that,” Singh insists, “not even if they were Kali worshippers.”

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