May 8, 2006 - Issue #224

From the Desk of Robin Uncaphter:

Romance Gets an Ally & a Friend in Chick Lit

"Plagiarizing from chick lit has to be some kind of double whammy against artistic integrity." - (widely used) quote from someone claiming to be a former teacher of Harvard undergrad author Kaavya Viswanathan on MetaFilter.com. (Research by the Harvard Independent indicates that the poster was Nina Strohminger, a former teaching fellow currently at MIT).

A few years ago my, then ten-year-old daughter and I were having a conversation about getting into Harvard. We live in Bethesda, Maryland, a hotbed of student (and parental) competition if ever there was one, where there is a constant stream of talk as to what to put on a Harvard application.

I never went to Harvard, but I am in the unusual situation of having a brother who did. Since my brother did not go to a prestigious boarding school, have a relative who was an alumnus nor come from a wealthy family, he breaks many of the Harvard myths. Cam got good grades but was not valedictorian. He had excellent SAT’s, but they weren’t perfect. Our public high school in Rhode Island was too close to Harvard to make him “culturally interesting.” We were neither rich nor poor and no one from Cumberland High had been accepted to Harvard for thirty years. My parents were hardly going to be major donors. Scholarships paid for my brother’s tuition, room and board. In spite of that it was no surprise to us when Cam got into Harvard. I won’t go into his accomplishments but I will say this. Cam was interesting. He did a lot of things that most 17-years-olds don’t think of doing and he clearly did them because he wanted to, not to get into a prestigious school.

And so when my daughter asked me this question about how she could get into Harvard I thought of her interests and said casually, “My best advice would be to write a novel and get it accepted for publication.”

Maybe somebody else had the same idea?

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On April 23, the Harvard Crimson broke the story that the book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, by Harvard undergraduate Kaavya Viswanathan ’08, contained passages that were disturbingly close to Megan McCafferty’s Chick Lit for Teens 2001 book Sloppy Firsts and her subsequent follow-up to that book in 2003, Second Helpings (both DIK'd here at AAR) . The newspaper was not cavalier in its claims. It sited numerous passages and, in a subsequent article, sited more.

Since then other similarities between How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life and McCafferty's series have been pointed out. The Associated Press reported that Viswanathan acknowledged taking the material but said it was by accident. Crown Publishing Group, publisher of Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, has been, understandably, reluctant to accept Viswanathan’s statement as sincere. The book was later pulled from bookstore shelves and Little Brown, the book’s publisher subsequently announced that no revised edition would be published, nor would a second book on Viswanathan's contract.

But from the moment I read about it, something bugged me about this case. How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, was not another best seller with feet of clay. The reporting on the story was a bit too gleeful for that. Viswanathan had accepted a $500,000 advance for the book.

Seeing that she is only nineteen, and seems to have written the book as a high schooler in an effort to get into a university, I have a funny feeling her wild success was accidental. In that way she reminded me of Rosie Ruiz, the ill-fated Boston Marathon runner who cheated by taking the subway and won the 1980 Boston Marathon in record time. Ruiz cheated in the Marathon but she won by mistake. Her intention was to do well, not to do so well that her place would be scrutinized. My guess is that Viswanathan wrote her book so she could tell Harvard that she had a novel in the works. The $500,000 advance for How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life and the publicity was a case of a cheating plot that got out of control.

But something else bothered me about the story as well, something I could not put my finger on until I read this quote (widely reprinted in numerous blogs) purportedly made by a former writing teacher and TA: "Plagiarizing from chick lit has to be some kind of double whammy against artistic integrity".

Ah, now it all becomes clear.

If you read through the many articles about this book, you can’t help but notice how the early articles refer to Viswanathan’s book as a novel, not a “Chick Lit,” novel nor a Young Adult novel. Early stories in the Harvard Crimson, Boston Globe, and New York Times all state the facts as they appear - ie. that it is alleged that a book which was expected to be a huge success, may have had sentences taken from other books.

How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life was expected to be a big hit and a lot of fun, not unlike an American version of the very popular movie Bend it Like Beckham, which told the story of a young Pakistani girl in England.

But after a few days you could almost feel a strange embarrassment flow through the mainstream press (though not the Crimson.) The question was asked, again and again, how could a publisher trust a 17-year-old to write a book worth $500,000? Various answers were given. But the real unasked question seeping through academia and the book world was this—how could a book worth $500,000 be copied from one that made far less—one that was directed at teenage girls (and the adult women, including at least two from AAR's staff) who also read YA fiction)?

Had Viswanathan copied her passages from Kingsley Amis, Phillip Roth, or Jane Smiley, you can bet the reaction would have been quite different. Regardless of what the mainstream book press now says, “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life,” was not slated to be published as a genre Chick Lit book. It was going to be general fiction, one that (horror of horrors) might actually have been reviewed by the New York Times!!! And what if they had liked it? What if it had ended up being discussed by reading groups on the West Side of Manhattan and in independent bookstores that have people like John Updike and Thomas Friedman come to speak? Disaster was averted but the possible humiliation boggles the mind.

Oh dear. Here is a real scandal. Had this book not been found out early, a lot of people would have looked, well, silly when the true origins of the book were revealed. Reviewers may have looked silly. Readers of literary fiction would have looked silly and unknowing Harvard professors who praised the work of a former student might have looked silly. So instead of addressing the fact that a highly anticipated general fiction manuscript was copied from Chick Lit genre fiction, let's all pretend that genre books by 17-year-old authors get $500,000 advances. Let’s go through the book line by line and trash the writing, which we now know was not the work of a brilliant Indian Harvard undergrad, but was the work of a professional writer who has been selling right along and making readers happy. This is exactly what has happened. Google the key words and you can’t miss the message from bloggers and from the mainstream press—the book was a great idea but rather poorly written.

In a way this conclusion was inevitable. Though Americans may give lip service to the idea of not judging books by their covers, virtually everyone does it. Not to do so in this case would have required a paradigm shift on the part those writing about the scandal. What a shame that instead of concluding that How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life was lousy because it was copied from Chick Lit, reporters and bloggers had not realized that Chick Lit had produced two books worthy of a lot more attention than what they had been getting. Isn’t that a far more logical conclusion?

I am feeling particularly affectionate toward Chick Lit these days because it seems to be the only kind of fiction where heroes and heroines bring up romance novels in a respectful way. I haven’t read In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner, but I caught the movie on a transatlantic flight a few weeks ago. What a delightful surprise I got when the hero, Simon, picked up a romance novel and began reading it to the heroine, Rose. Yes, he was joking at first, but clearly the two got a huge kick out of it and by the end of the passage he declared himself, “officially turned on.”

Even better than this passage in In Her Shoes was the revelation that Bette, the public relations heroine of Lauren Weisberger’s Everyone Worth Knowing is a closet romance reader. Unlike many romance heroines, who read romance without a thought, Bette is a believable New York professional woman, embarrassed but defiant about her love of romance novels. Virtually everyone who knows Bette sees her love of romance as eccentric and downright weird, She does not know one other fellow romance reader until one day when, Courtney, approaches her from behind a rack at Barnes and Noble. In the scene she hears a disembodied voice:

“You’re not alone, you know,”

After turning and seeing the woman, Bette tries to hide her interest.

“Excuse me, are you talking to me?” I asked, quickly covering my copy of Every Woman’s Fantasy with an oversized English Greek dictionary that resided nearby.

She nodded and moved in closer to whisper, I’m just saying you don’t have to be embarrassed any longer. There are others.”

This is how Bette meets a secret cabal of romance readers who meet regularly to discuss books like Who Wants to Marry a Heartthrob? Though Bette’s descriptions of the books are sometimes funny, she makes a point to tell us that the romance readers she meets with are interesting, genuinely sophisticated and intelligent.

There is a revealing sequence in the Everyone Worth Knowing; Bette goes to an important book party attended by the cream of Manhattan intellectual elite. Attendees include Alan Dershowitz, Tina Brown, Tucker Carlson, Dominick Donne, and Barbara Walters. The toast of the evening is Charlie Rose, whose book everyone there to salute. At this party, Bette meets the head of a public relations firm who explains that everyone at the party was invited because their names reside in a database of media elites and journalists.

Later that evening Bette rushes off to her romance book group. The group is attended, not by important media or book types but by people who like to read books. Everyone is excited as they are getting ready to discuss a highly anticipated romance novel The Very Bad Boy. The contrast in the conversation at both parties is striking. Despite the sparkling company at the Charlie Rose party, virtually no one mentions the book or any books for that matter. The important thing at the Charlie Rose party is to see and be seen. By contrast the conversation at the romance book club starts out social but soon turns to the book, The Very Bad Boy. You can’t possibly miss the message - that romance readers are all about the books, not about being seen and not about impressing anyone with what they are reading.

The alleged plagiarism of Kaavya Viswanathan makes me sad, It’s tragic to see someone so very young and with so much potential get into this kind of trouble. But the swipes at Megan McCafferty’s and her obviously excellent books Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings make me more frustrated. If writing is brilliant and valuable when one person signs her name to it, shouldn’t it be considered equally brilliant when it is discovered to be the work of a genre author of juvenile fiction for young women?

Its nice to see nods to romance sneaking into Chick Lit. Let's hope a few readers of Everyone Worth Knowing go looking for The Very Bad Boy.

Questions for the Message Board:

What was your take on the allegations regarding How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life? How did you feel about the press coverage? The blogs?

Do you agree with Robin that Americans judge books by their covers? Are the various genres including literary fiction, as distinct as most people believe? Give examples of some books you know of that could have been marketed as more than one genre.

Do you believe that mainstream readers recognize various genres when they are marketed in hardcover? For example, do most readers know that J.D. Robb is a romance writer?

Have you noticed any positive references to romance creeping into mainstream books and movies? What are they?

Robin Uncapher

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