Another plagiarism scandal has come and gone, and the amassed minions in the media dutifully bided their time, clocking every permutation. But the only real insight into the whole fiasco came in an opinion piece by novelist Whitney Otto called "Unoriginal Sins," which appeared in The New York Times of May 12.
As you may recall, Harvard University undergrad Kaavya Viswanathan, a clearly ambitious type, sold a novel titled How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life to a major publisher for a major amount of money. Her literary indiscretions, though, were eventually unmasked by the hometown rag, The Harvard Crimson, which showed that she'd lifted portions of her book from several works by another writer. At first, Viswanathan played dumb, then the proof mounted up.
But what's interesting about this case is not the plagiarism, per se. Far more interesting is the back story that Otto analyzed in her Times piece. It seems that Viswanathan consulted a company called Alloy, a book-packaging establishment well-known for successes in the chick-lit genre. Wanting to succeed desperately, the young writer put her fate in the hands of these people. (It's hardly surprising to learn that Viswanathan's college admissions consultant, who helped get her into Harvard, was the one who steered her to Alloy.)
Otto's piece began by considering the nature of genre fiction. "A good romance/chick-lit book," she noted, "is really about two things, discovery and appreciation. A chick-lit novel tells the reader that good humor, imperfect looks and quick wit are desirable even if the world at large seems to tell the bookish girl otherwise.
"And who else would be reading a novel but a bookish girl? Ms. Viswanathan is a bookish girl who might have had more success at fiction if she didn't bear the burden of the overachiever. Overachievers don't generally become writers because the skill set is so different.
"As I tell my writing students, if you want to be a writer work on the finer points of gossip, eavesdropping and voyeurism; basically the pastimes of the underachiever, ways to while away the hours."
Otto argued that the real conundrum behind the Opal Mehta affair is why this young woman would succumb to the pressure to produce another "by-the-numbers" chick-lit book – unless she was more interested in being a writer than in writing.
"In the writing life you can't avoid failure. Or, to put it another way, someone who is driven to write is usually not the same sort of person who would work with an expensive college counselor to ensure admissions success."
The people really attracted to writing, to telling stories with depth and truth, are those who have the time to slack off, to gossip and spy on their neighbors – and maybe smoke and drink too much as well. Those who worry about their resumes – which is what seems to have driven Viswanathan to pen Opal Mehta – will probably never make the real grade.