Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Not-So-Innocent Pawn in the Publicity Game

Evidently Kaavya Viswanathan is the new James Frey, the latest poster child for literary malfeasance. By now you've probably read something about the Harvard sophomore with the half-million-dollar advance from Little, Brown whose first novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, turns out to contain some forty passages suspiciously reminiscent of passages from another chick-lit author, Megan McCafferty. (If you haven't caught up with the story yet, or vice versa, this piece by Ann Hulbert on Slate will bring you up to speed.)

The contretemps is providing an opportunity for lots of folks outside the publishing world to learn about the odd phenomenon of "book packagers," creative boutiques that, for some books, have taken over the functions once handled by editors, artists, and even authors, from designing jackets and writing cover copy to tightening plots and cranking out pages of serviceable prose. Yes, the practice can feel a little tawdry, and the fact that no one at Little, Brown, William Morris (her agency), or Alloy Entertainment (her packager) noticed that the resulting book was filled with passages that were not original illustrates what can happen when ownership of a creative project is so diffused that no one really feels responsible.

We English majors have an idealized image of the artist as infused with a passion that grows from the near-sacred uniqueness of his or her vision. It's a image that doesn't fit terribly well with the idea of the novel as commercial product to be churned out according to formula by an anonymous team of hirelings--with bits spliced in from other products as needed to fill out the predetermined page count.

But this is what the publishing industry gets for signing books not on the basis of their inherent literary or artistic qualities but because of the attractiveness and promotability of their authors. Having sat in on hundreds of editorial meetings, I can practically hear the conversation when Kaavya was first introduced:

Here's our next hot property. She's young, she's South Asian--a hip new demographic--articulate and pretty. She's fodder for Oprah, Elle, Glamour, Vanity Fair, Page Six, The View. And the book? Don't worry about the book! We've got a packager on the case.

I stop well short of calling Kaavya a victim--she did get paid half a million smackeroos, after all--but I almost feel sorry for her. How many twenty-year-old kids are polished novelists, after all? How many have the maturity, insight, and perspective to write intelligently about life, love, and relationships--to say nothing of the writing skill? God knows I couldn't have written a decent novel at age twenty, and it would have put me in a false position if I'd signed a contract to do so. (Thankfully I wasn't cute enough to attract any offers.)

A variation on the same phenomenon underlay the James Frey case. Frey's book, too, wasn't so much a work of literary art as a publicity opportunity, driven by the author's dramatic backstory: Drug Addict Tells All! Under the circumstances, it's not surprising that Frey would have been tempted to ratchet up the drama of his life story several notches--he was simply providing his publisher and the reading public with the "true-life" thrills they'd bargained for.

Publishers have better odds of publishing honest books when they seek out real writers rather than photogenic images designed to generate buzz on TV.

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