it's a tribute, not a theft

I’ve been following the controversy around Kaavya Viswanathan’s book with muted interest. Muted because, quite honestly, she doesn’t merit the attention she’s gotten from the beginning. And I mean, the very beginning. A half-million dollar advance for a seventeen-year-old’s literary opus from Little, Brown? It’s so cynical a marketing ploy it stinks to high heaven. You can’t blame Viswanathan for thinking it had something to do with her, when in fact it was a little like a kiddie pornographer sweet-talking a minor into posing for him, flashing her some twenties and telling her he’s gonna make her a star.

Of course it’s not Viswanathan’s fault, entirely. It is very much her editor’s and Little, Brown’s. It is the fault of a book industry which is styling itself after the Cola Wars. If Random House comes out with a coming of age story that sells like hotcakes, well, Little, Brown is gonna stick as close to the formula as possible, since, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Coke, Pepsi? Big Mac, Whopper? Ford, Chrysler? What’s the difference?

What’s happening in publishing today is simply what’s been going on in the clothing, automotive, fast food, and entertainment industries for decades. Sometimes a line is crossed, but more often than not, the crossing of the line inches the line itself a little further toward the ethical margins. For example, Little, Brown is pulling the book, but plans a re-release, capitalizing on all the press it’s getting, with a “revised” edition, the lifted passages scrambled so as not to look quite as plagiarized. The author retains her good name, and her advance, and everything’s back to normal, and everyone wins! Can’t wait for the sequel!

Viswanathan’s advance was obscene, no question about it, but it was also part of a ploy to sell the book. This is the Hollywood approach to selling the product, and again, while it violates something for those of us who look to literature for something more than mere consumption, it was more or less inevitable, given the way things are.

I mean, consider the history of hip-hop. I was at the gym the other day and they were playing one of those satellite R&B/hip-hop-lite stations, and I swear every song was based on a ripped-off riff from some eighties pop song, the most comical number of the day that day was one based wholly on the well-known riff from John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane”.

So, remember: there is no sin, and no shame, in loving a book so much you end up plagiarizing it. It’s a tribute, not a theft!


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