Strange Brouhaha

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

In Praise Of Megan McCafferty

I haven't read either of Megan McCafferty's books, *Sloppy Firsts* or *Second Helpings.* I have, however, read the news. And McCafferty's two books were apparently plagiarized in both plot and 53 instances of prose by nineteen-year-old author Kaavya Viswanathan for her novel *How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.*

Before Viswanathan's plagiarisms were discovered, she scored a $500,000 two-book contract and a movie deal for "Opal." (The book deal is now canceled and "Opal" permanently withdrawn from circulation.) Viswanathan contends the borrowings were "unconscious and unintentional."

Here's what gets me about this. A visit to McCafferty's website suggests that her two victimized novels, although solidly successful, were by no means broken upon the world with the fanfare that accompanied "Opal." There seems to have been no breathless "Wow, a $500,000 deal!!" publicity of the kind that Viswanathan so briefly enjoyed before being exposed. Since Viswanathan borrowed from "Firsts" and "Seconds" so heavily for her own book, one has to ask: how come they weren't worth this much the first time around? Paint 'em brown and dial back the age of their author and suddenly they're an event? I hope the publishing industry takes a good long look at itself.

Viswanathan is part of the same phenomenon that fueled those other literary fakers, James Frey and "JT Leroy." In each case, who they were (or claimed to be) drove the acceptance of their prose. Frey was supposed to be this big badass who beat up priests and did hard time, while "Leroy" was allegedly a former drug-addicted transsexual truck-stop prostitute. Whoah! Who wouldn't want to read a book by such over-the-edge, raw survivors? As for Viswanathan, she really *is* an Indian-American teenager--which apparently made Megan McCafferty's work look orders of magnitude better than it did when it belonged to McCafferty herself.

So the publishing industry needs to ask itself: are we the publishing industry, or are we trying to be a phantom limb of the movie business? What are we selling, books or authors? I got news for you: 97% of authors are pasty, isolated obsessives who have no life. Because THEY SPEND ALL THEIR TIME WRITING. Because WRITING (even when you do it really fast like Stephen King) TAKES A LONG TIME. As many have pointed out, it is like manual labor. There are no shortcuts. You have to sit and do it. Writing 120,000 words--and with rewriting, it's more like 300,000--takes WAY longer than your average truck-stop transsexual has time for. Jean Genet (an *actual* gay prostitute who was one of the twentieth century's great cold absurdists) is pretty much the only one who broke that mold, and he was French--and his books are short.

As long as agents and editors allow themselves to be seduced by youth, "exoticism," danger, and the thought of crack-fueled blowjobs, they will be vulnerable to fakers. My heart goes out to Megan McCafferty, who must feel deeply hurt that her ideas and words rocketed a teenager to fame while earning far less--a lot, but far less--for herself. Because it's so obviously personal. McCafferty was less "interesting," therefore her books were less interesting.

If authors are judged like that, then they lose. Period.

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