Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Book Report: That (Allegedly) Plagiarized Book

This is a different kind of Book Report. Usually I'm talking about books I'm encouraging you to run out and read, but today's book is one you probably won't be able to find. This is more of a publishing industry discussion and analysis.

Maybe you recall a big to-do that happened in the publishing world last summer when allegations were made that a much-hyped book by a young author contained content lifted from other books. Kaavya Viswanathan was a high school student applying to Harvard. The admissions coach her parents hired had publishing contacts, and through various people who knew people, Viswanathan got hooked up with a book packager who helped her put together a book proposal that sold for a rumored half a million dollars (and she got into Harvard). There was a movie deal, and there was a lot of publicity about the teenage author. Then just about the time the book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, came out, some journalists noted that there were a number of passages that bore a remarkable resemblance to another book, Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty. Then there were other allegations that came up pointing out bits and pieces of other books seemed to be in there. Amid all the outcry, the book was withdrawn and the film deal cancelled.

Well, my library apparently didn't get the memo because the book was on the "new fiction" shelf on my last visit. I'd read the books that were allegedly plagiarized, so I was curious and wanted to judge for myself.

In case you didn't follow all the discussion in the media and the blogosphere, the book tells the story of the daughter of two Indian doctors who've built her whole life around the goal of going to Harvard. Everything has been structured toward making her the perfect admissions candidate. She's drilled and rehearsed on every possible question she might be asked when she goes for the early decision admissions interview, but then the dean of admissions stumps her when first he asks her about her friends, then asks her what she does for fun. He tells her they're looking for more well-rounded candidates and suggests she try again during the regular admissions process. Her parents jump on this with the same zeal they had for their earlier plan to get her into Harvard, only this time it's all about getting her a life. They watch every teen movie in existence, read tons of magazines and Tivo every episode of The OC, then create a plan to make her popular and get her a boyfriend. She has a massive makeover, gets in with the popular girls, throws a wild party, gets kissed by the guy she likes -- and then the popular kids find out it was all just part of her plan to get into Harvard and shun her. As a social outcast in school, she learns what friends really are and what she really likes to do for fun.

And my verdict? It was a very frustrating book. I can't believe it went through two layers of editors, at the book packager and at the publishing house, because the copied bits stand out like a sore thumb and the book as a whole is a mish-mash of teen story cliches that makes it read in part like the book version of Not Another Teen Movie, except without the conscious satire. But in the middle of all that is a fresh voice and a core story that could have been great if it had been really developed instead of just surrounded by things taken out of other books. I don't recall seeing this in any of the coverage about the scandal, but in addition to all the books named, I think she really owes an apology to Tina Fey because a big part of it maps almost exactly to the plot of Mean Girls. The heroine is a sheltered Indian girl instead of having been home schooled in Africa, and she's a physics nerd instead of a math geek, but otherwise, all the stuff about getting in with the popular set, the way the girls in that group act and dress, their rules, the way the heroine starts ditching the people she used to hang out with, the way she falls out with the popular girls and becomes a social outcast when something secret is made public, and the way that a math/science thing is her big triumph is basically an Asian-flavored Mean Girls.

The reason the copied parts stand out so much is because of voice. To be totally honest, I liked Opal as a narrator more than I liked the heroine of Sloppy Firsts because she's more like someone I can relate to. She's a nice girl and means well, while the heroine of the other book is darker and more bitter -- the kind of "I hate the whole stupid world" teenager I can't relate to (but that a lot of teens apparently do). There's no indication that Opal had any strong opinions one way or another about the popular girls because she'd never paid much attention to them -- but suddenly when she's describing them she drops into this edgy, sarcastic voice that derides them, and that's one of the passages alert readers found to be copied almost word-for-word from the other book. It was almost jolting to hit the copied passages because the voice suddenly got edgier for about a paragraph and then went back to normal.

The other big bit of copying involved the guy who serves as romantic interest. This character is pretty much lifted, complete with description, from the other book, and it serves as a lesson on the differences between common elements and copying. It is pretty much a given that if you've got a book about a straight-A student trying to expand her boundaries, the ideal love interest to shake things up is a slacker guy who's actually a bored genius (he has to be different enough from her to shake up her world view -- thus the slacker part -- but he still has to be someone a smart girl would find appealing -- so he's a genius who just doesn't apply himself), so just the inclusion of that kind of character isn't an obvious sign of a lack of originality. But you need to have a reason for this character to show up, and he needs to drive conflict and have an impact on the heroine.

Sloppy Firsts does this very, very well. The slacker genius in that book is actually a drug user. To make matters worse, he was part of the group of people her best friend's brother was hanging out with when he died of a drug overdose, and that's the reason her best friend's family moved away. She doesn't know why she finds this guy fascinating, but she's drawn to him in spite of resenting him for helping ruin her life. Even after a stint of rehab, when he has turned his life around to some extent, there's conflict because he's not really popular and her friends can't understand her being with him, and she knows her best friend might never speak to her again if she found out she was having anything to do with a guy associated with her friend's brother's death. He's the one person she can really talk to, the one person who "gets" her, but there's a lot about him she's afraid of and that disgusts her.

But in Opal Mehta, the slacker genius is just a slacker genius, the one person the heroine can really talk to, the one person who seems to "get" her, even as she's a bit disturbed by this. But he's not a threat to her popularity because he's considered a real hot commodity at the school. The only bit of conflict associated with him is the fact that one of the other popular girls has called dibs on him, and the plan for being popular and getting a life has identified a different target as her ideal boyfriend. It's like the author took this character from the other book because he seemed like a good idea, but because he wasn't her own character and didn't arise organically from her own story, she didn't know how to use him.

It's mostly a sign of an immature writer's first effort. Goodness knows, the stuff I wrote when I was a teenager was probably just as derivative. I was still figuring out how stories worked and how to create my own characters as I scribbled things into spiral notebooks. But all those notebooks were part of the learning process. I needed to go through the process of sticking a character based on myself into the Star Wars universe, then creating new people for her to interact with, and then eventually having it not be about Star Wars at all, in order to learn about how to create characters and situations. When I didn't know how to plot, writing a story with my own characters in my own world and situation that happened to map pretty closely to a plot I knew was good practice. But that stuff needs to stay in spiral notebooks, and the adults in this girl's life did her a disservice by giving her half a million dollars and a film deal for that kind of writing. She was set up for failure. I suspect that if she'd got the kind of deal most first-time novelists get and if this had been just another mass-market paperback that shows up in the racks at the grocery store and on school book orders, nobody would have paid enough attention to raise a huge outcry.

All of this was so frustrating because all the stuff about the crazy plan and the push/pull with her parents where they're the doting, over-achieving Indian parents who then are pushing their daughter into things that they don't get, culturally, in order to achieve the higher goal are hilarious. Her getting a boyfriend is on their plan, but when she has a date set up, her mother goes into "but what do we know about this boy?" mode. Her parents figure out that, according to every teen movie, the key to popularity is to host a wild party at your house when your parents are out of town, so they plan to go out of town -- and then plan the party for Opal to throw. The party's going well, until the parents can't resist not being there to see their daughter's triumph, so they sneak back, just to take a few pictures. The kids think they're getting evidence to give to the police and start trying to escape, and chaos ensues. It's a great scene. I loved all the analysis and planning because it totally sounded like something I'd do (mind you, not that my parents would have done for me, but that I would have done to myself -- in fact, all those spiral notebooks and the diaries I found in a box last week are full of my grand schemes for reaching various goals).

There's a core of a great book here, and it seems like a more experienced writer and a more involved editor could have done something with it. It definitely wouldn't have been worthy of a half-million-dollar book deal, but they went for the quick hype, and it burned them all. I hope she doesn't give up entirely and doesn't get blackballed by the industry. Maybe she should learn what goes into really writing a book, figuring out the structure, learning to create characters and use them in a plot, and finding ways to avoid cliches and then write something else. She may get stuck having to use a pen name because her own is marred (then again, Janet Dailey did worse, for longer, and at an age when she would have been expected to know better, and she's still publishing), but I'd be open as a reader to letting her try again.

Reading the book actually made me a lot more sympathetic toward this girl. I'll admit to having felt some jealousy -- after all, her parents spent more money on a coach to help her prepare her application to Harvard than I spent on my entire college education. I knew schools like Harvard were beyond my reach financially, so I didn't even let myself consider trying. Then there was that huge book deal and all the publicity when I'll probably never see that kind of money as I keep slogging away, gradually working my way up. At the same time, I think it also made me mad at myself. What if I had at least tried to get into schools like Harvard? Did I sell myself short because I was being too practical? And with all the writing I did as a teen, why didn't I have more self discipline to try to finish it, polish it and actually try to sell it? It was my own fault if I hadn't achieved all those things. But if she really went through anything resembling what her heroine did, with that kind of pressure, that kind of sense that if she failed at getting into this one school, everything else in her life was meaningless, then I don't envy her. I also don't envy the kind of scrutiny and pressure that comes with a huge book deal like that. It's a lot to live up to. In fact, on the phone with my agent yesterday she made a joke (at least, I think it was a joke) about getting me a six-figure book deal, and I said I didn't want one, not yet. I'm not ready for that kind of pressure, and I don't think I have the readership for sales to support it unless part of the deal was the publisher also pulling out all the stops to make the book a bestseller. But selling about the way I am and with the level of support I'm getting, a six-figure deal would be the ticket to career doom. Right now, the amount of money and the related expectations are low enough that I've been a pleasant surprise, and I'd rather keep it that way for a while.

So, there you go, a book report for a book you probably can't find. And trust me, it's not worth the prices you'd probably have to pay on eBay to get a copy out of curiosity.

1 comment:

spyscribbler said...

Awwww, you know that's just sad. You see it in teenagers all the time--so much potential, great opportunities, and they screw themselves over.

Why? So many would've killed for that opportunity, and she squandered it. Ah well.

She'll live and learn, poor girl.