Final Mehta Thoughts (Probably Final Anyway)

May 3rd, 2006 · 3 Comments
by Booksquare

We’re guessing that the publishing industry, like most industries, isn’t one for deep introspection. You know, a scandal here, a scandal there. Given the number of books published every year, the percentage of horrors is relatively low.

But we like to think that the Kaavya Viswanathan story is starting more than a few discussions in the halls of publishers — or at least in the halls of the blogosphere — about the role of book packagers in what we like to think of as a creative industry.

Book packagers are not evil. Generally, they are honorable and useful. Alloy Entertainment isn’t breaking any rules by putting ideas and authors together. We like to romanticize our industry by thinking that all novels are born from the author’s imagination, even though we know full well that’s not the case. What makes the Alloy aspect of the Viswanathan story feel so sordid is, well, the way it all played out.

The New York Observer goes into some detail about how Opal Mehta moved through the publishing stream. This was not a novel written and shopped in the traditional mode. By most accounts, Viswanathan had about 30 pages of a good start to a novel. This, as we all know, is not the same thing as having a good novel.

Viswanathan was signed to the William Morris Agency based on the strength of this initial proposal:

Opal Mehta’s journey to Alloy was not entirely linear. According to William Morris sources, Ms. Viswanathan first signed with agent Suzanne Gluck, who then passed the author to a junior agent in her office. The junior agent worked with Ms. Viswanathan and eventually hit a wall in terms of developing a commercial proposal. The junior agent then suggested that the writer speak with Josh Bank at Alloy. The Opal Mehta idea emerged from Ms. Viswanathan’s conversations with Mr. Bank; once an outline was ready, it was decided that another William Morris agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, would try to sell it to publishers, which she did, to Little, Brown.

As you see, when the book was contracted, it wasn’t yet a book. It was an outline. Again, there’s a great distance between outline and book. Little, Brown must have felt confident that the team involved with Viswanathan would come back with a finished, commercial product. Everyone involved clearly thought they had a hook, an angle, a marketing miracle when this first-time, unproven, untested author was brought into the inner circle.

Had the plagiarism allegations never arisen, possibly the entire team — William Morris, Alloy Entertainment, Little, Brown — would be taking bows for their ability to spot and nurture talent. They’d have a great story. They’d have the kind of success that would launch a million agents in search of 17-year old wannabe authors.

Instead they ended up with the kind of mess that makes everyone involved look bad. There are no heroes here.

[tags]Kaavya Viswanathan, Opal Mehta, publishing, Alloy Entertainment, William Morris, Little Brown, plagiarism[/tags]

File Under: Square Pegs

3 responses so far ↓

  • Walt // May 4, 2006 at 8:23 am

    The little wrinkle in the whole affair that I thought most interesting was the bit where Kaavya Viswanathan’s original writing that was sent to the Gluck at the William Morris Agency was actually rejected. It was only then that Kaavya went back and started the writing sample that would become the now famous book in question.

    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. Cohen showed some of Viswanathan’s writing to Suzanne Gluck, her agent at the William Morris Agency.

    Viswanathan said that she had written a piece in the vein of “The Lovely Bones,” the 2002 best seller by Alice Sebold, but that Gluck thought that it was too dark. “They thought it would be better if I did a lighter piece. They thought that was more likely to sell.”
    New York Times Select
    -also republished here

    So, first she wrote a book in a completely different genre, and then magically started writing a book with the hook that got a two book $500,000 contract and a movie deal. While I haven’t seen any notices to prove things, I’d suggest that someone “told” Kaavya which kind of book to then submit in order to get it sold.

    I don’t believe Kaavya came up with the idea of the topic of her all by herself.

  • Walt // May 4, 2006 at 8:26 am

    The second (free to read) link in that last post was supposed to read:
    http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/04/27/features/opal.php#

  • Booksquare // May 4, 2006 at 8:37 pm

    Walt — I think the scandal of this story is that there were a lot of adults (or, as I like to call them, grown-ups) who were deeply involved in the packaging of this whole scene. It’s not just the story. It’s not just the advance. It’s not just the plagiarism. Even if I were to believe that Viswanathan wrote this book (unconscious plagiarism and all), there are other scandals. I don’t think she did write it alone. I think there were grown-ups who took words and thoughts that she wrote and massaged them into a story.

    You know novels (and novelists). This whole thing reeks — especially when you dig deeper. I’m not suggesting we have an innocent child here, but I’m thinking we have a lot of culpable adults.