OMG Meghan Daum, your tone is like SO insulting

Think she’d have written her column this way if Kaavya Viswanathan was a Harvard-educated man? Just saying.

*Sidenote: This isn’t meant to defend Viswanathan. She obviously plagiarized her work, and deserves to be called out for it. But Daum’s tone is incredibly condescending, and she clearly adopts stereotypical teenage girl-speak. Which, I’ll admit, is grating. But I don’t think we would have seen a column like this if, say, fellow fake writer James Frey was a 20-year-old college student.

24 comments for “OMG Meghan Daum, your tone is like SO insulting

  1. April 29, 2006 at 9:42 pm

    “…[Y]our boyfriend dumps you for some nonthreatening slut who takes remedial chemistry”?

    The fuck?

  2. Gordon K
    April 29, 2006 at 9:53 pm

    I think the tone is a reference to the way her book (and McCafferty’s) come across.

    And as a sidenote, if you can get into a Tier 1 college, you can get there without a “consultant”. Sheesh.

  3. April 29, 2006 at 9:55 pm

    Because all teenage girls talk like that. Riiiiight.

    I’m rolling my eyes so hard that I’m going to fall over.

  4. Sally
    April 29, 2006 at 10:01 pm

    Because all teenage girls talk like that. Riiiiight.

    I’m actually not sure that the implication is that all teenaged girls talk like that. I think the implication is that the girls in junior chick-lit books talk like that.

    I’m with Gordon on this one. I don’t think it’s that insulting, because I think it’s more a comment on a particularly literary genre than on teenaged girls in general.

  5. evil_fizz
    April 29, 2006 at 10:35 pm

    Frankly, I’m so annoyed with her writing style that I’m closing the tab after reading two paragraphs. That’s a lot of column inches devoted to acting like a stereotype and saying nothing of substance.

  6. Sally
    April 29, 2006 at 11:18 pm

    I actually thought she was saying something of substance, albeit in a really annoying way. What she was saying was that if publishers buy books based on how easy it is to market the author, rather than how good the book is, they’re going to publish and hype some really crappy books. “College freshman writes autobiographical novel!” makes for a great press release, but it doesn’t generally make for a good book. This kid wasn’t ready to write a book, and the only reason that anyone asked her to write a book is because personality-based marketing really drives the publishing industry.

    I dunno. I briefly worked in publishing, and it rang pretty true to me.

  7. evil_fizz
    April 29, 2006 at 11:37 pm

    Sally: interesting. The tone turned me off before I got to any statements of real consequence!

    Can you say a little bit more about personality-based marketing? I’m now quite curious.

  8. Sally
    April 30, 2006 at 1:01 am

    Sure thing. So the first thing to realize is that most publishers are just one arm of huge, multinational media conglomerates. And the people at multinational media conglomerate headquarters think of publishing as just another branch of their overall moneymaking venture. Your job, as head of the publishing branch, is to make money for the company. You can publish the best books in the world, but if you fail to make enough money, you’re going to get fired.

    The key to selling books, in most instances, is publicity. That’s not always true: some books more or less sell themselves without publicity. For instance, a best-selling author with a loyal readership doesn’t really need a lot of publicity, because readers buy the book based on the author. You can basically rely on advertising, because if you let the readers know the book exists, and they’ll buy it. With things like romance novels, readers are sometimes loyal to a series or imprint and will buy the books based on brand recognition. Word of mouth can sell a book, although that’s totally unpredictable and very difficult to orchestrate.

    But mostly, people buy books because they see or read something about the book. An Oprah’s Book Club book is a guaranteed best seller. (Or at least it was when I was in publishing.) Getting an author on the Today Show will make sales skyrocket. You have to follow up on that by getting the book prominently displayed in bookstores, which is a whole other racket, but getting the publicity is really key.

    So let’s say you’re a publicist. If you call up the Today Show and say “I’ve got a great author for you. She’s a 45-year-old woman who writes wonderful and sophisticated young adult novels,” they’re not going to be interested. But if you say that you have a 19-year-old Harvard sophomore who just wrote a young adult novel about getting into college, they might want to hear more. Add the further hook that the book is autobiographical, that the protagonist, like the author, is a stressed-out, overachieving Indian-American girl from New Jersey, and that the author was discovered by a private college-admissions counselor whom her parents hired to get her into Harvard. Add the kicker that the book’s publication is timed to coincide with colleges sending out their acceptance letters and that the author’s appearance could be tied in to a spot on how stressful the college admissions process is. Score! You’ve got yourself a spot on the Today Show and a lot more copies of the book sold.

    Kaavya Viswanathan isn’t so much an author as a very clever marketing ploy. But try getting publicity for an author who doesn’t have that kind of hook. Try getting publicity for an author who isn’t conventionally attractive, especially if that author is a woman. It’s really, really tough. And therefore, publishers are a lot more likely to put out a book by Kaavya Viswanathan, who isn’t ready to publish her first novel but who is a guaranteed publicity-generator, than by an older, more accomplished writer whose personal story isn’t as compelling to the mainstream media.

  9. rejiquar
    April 30, 2006 at 8:45 am

    She obviously plagiarized her work, and deserves to be called out for it.

    Actually, this was the comment that interested me, because not everyone agrees to the “obviously”: Bill Poser over at Language Log for one. Like just about every one else who’s commenting on this controversy, I’ve read neither book in question but I can attest personally to the habit of unconsciously incorporating phrasing of favorite authors—I’ve done it, and I’ve seen lots of other (especially inexperienced) authors do it. It’s called looking for your own voice. Mr. Poser, on the other hand, is a linguist, and can be presumed to be bringing sophisticated tools to his analysis. He had several interesting things to say, I thought. Some of them have to do with the way fair use is being evicerated (it should be noted the longest section copied out of a novel-length book, and last I checked, novels are usually at least 90,000 words, is 14 words—should we really be reducing the sequences we allow people to reuse to that sort of percentage?) which perhaps is not germane to a feministe board.

    But he goes on in his rebuttal to make points that I think are salient to the original observation:

    A lot of people, especially on the blogs, seem to give away ulterior motives for their sniping: they don’t like chicklit; they think that the book isn’t very original; they think that she is a spoiled rich girl; they resent the disproportionate academic and business success of Indians and are eager to take one down.

    which is more or less Jill’s point.

    I should note, too, given the disquisition about publishing, how much is the accusing publisher getting out of all this…? Lots, I’ll bet. (That’s not to say Viswanathan’s publisher didn’t take advantage in exactly the way detailed above, of course.)

    I guess my point is that I’d like to see just a little more nuanced discussion about all this, rather than immediately casting Viswanathan as lazy, greedy, or empty-headed.

  10. April 30, 2006 at 10:23 am

    I guess my point is that I’d like to see just a little more nuanced discussion about all this, rather than immediately casting Viswanathan as lazy, greedy, or empty-headed.

    Very much agreed.

    To clarify, I said she “obviously plagiarized” because, according to the coverage I’ve seen, entire passages from her book were nearly identical to entire passages from the other book. I thought it was more or less a settled point that she had plagiarized; thanks for pointing out that there’s still some disagreement.

    And that said, I think you’re right that people seem to be getting off on the young successful Harvard student taking a fall.

  11. Sally
    April 30, 2006 at 10:26 am

    Yeah, I definitely agree that most people harping on this have ulterior motives. (And that includes Meghan Daum, although I’m mostly on board with her ulterior motives.) This is front-page news partly because it comes on the heels of the Frey and JT LeRoy scandals, but also largely because it’s schadenfreudelicious. Here’s a wealthy, overachieving teenager who got a $500,000 book deal during her first year of college. Isn’t it fun to see her humiliated?!

    It’s not like she went to a publisher and pitched a book. They approached her after her college counselor sent her admissions essay to a publisher friend. Her main sin, it seems to me, is not realizing that she wasn’t ready to write a book. And how many of us would have turned down a book deal and a $500,000 advance if they’d been offered to us when we were 18? And, you know, I know that it’s possible to unconsciously borrow a clever turn of phrase, because I’ve done it.

    I should note, too, given the disquisition about publishing, how much is the accusing publisher getting out of all this…? Lots, I’ll bet.

    They’re the real winners in all of this, along with their author. But my sense is that they’re not really driving the media frenzy.

  12. June
    April 30, 2006 at 12:08 pm

    I agree with Sally, and with this part of the article:

    Yes, Kaavya messed up. But what about the domino effect caused by anxious parents, college counselors, agents and publishers who care more about marketing a phenom than upholding professional standards? These people really need to chill out and realize gymnasts and models might peak when they’re teenagers, but creative abilities, like boys, take a little longer to mature.

    Although I might snip the “like boys” part.

    If you cut thru the annoying tone this part is actually pretty sad/sympathetic:

    Kaavya’s this girl with awesome grades and parents who were obsessed about her getting into Harvard. They even hired a college admissions consultant, which lots of parents do these days. This consultant reads some of Kaavya’s writing, which happened to be about a girl whose parents want her to get into Harvard so badly that she never has any fun. The consultant sends it to a big agent, who sells it to a book packager, who makes a deal with a big publisher.

    Not that she isn’t responsible for her own actions, but it sounds like she was under a lot of pressure, and things sort of snowballed from there.

  13. April 30, 2006 at 1:11 pm

    I think my main problem with the tone is that even if it’s mocking the books rather than teenagers – a lot of girls still read and love those books, and in today’s society seeing kids reading anything is worth it. To me, anyway. And the audience is wider than just teen girls, too – my friends love the McCafferty books, and they’re a bit older than the target audience. Plus it does a disservice to Visnawathan.

    So – maybe Daum’s not trying to implicate teen girls, but it’s still annoying. Also, nobody’s said “majorly bogus” or “psyched” in about ten years. That’s also part of what grated; even if she’s trying to mimic the genre, she’s still failing and just coming off as even more annoying.

  14. Jen
    April 30, 2006 at 2:08 pm

    I don’t know…”ulterior” motives? Personally, I’m simply furious in any egregious case of plagiarism–even if the book stolen from is a silly chick-lit-lite “novel”.

    If Kaavya were not from the rarified places that she is–privileged, Harvard-accepted, rich already–I’d be much more sympathetic. Is that because I have envy towards more successful–or younger or wealthier–people? No, it’s not; it’s because I take it as a given that a girl who can be accepted into Harvard should be able to write well, not poorly; that she understands as surely as I did at age 10 that to “copy” from a book is BAD, is(as I was so quaintly taught)actually a wee bit evil, and that it’s a crushing shame to take credit where you youself simply know it is not due. This woman has every appearance of understanding right from wrong…it really would NOT have been so very very very difficult not to steal almost 40-odd phrases and paragraphs from one of your “favorite” authors. Believe me, I was just as angry and disgusted with Kearns Goodwin’s little “oops”–which personally I think were about a 1000% more likely to have been an accidcent of research notetaking(as stated), rather than deliberate. If anyone thinks this Opal Mehta theft wasn’t accutely on purpose, they’re overreaching to give mercy to a young, pretty, all-that girl…which is what often happens to young, attractive, all-that girls who lie and/or cheat when caught: they get more of a pass than men, than older women, than almost any other variety of person. Human nature, I guess.

  15. April 30, 2006 at 4:41 pm

    Not that she isn’t responsible for her own actions, but it sounds like she was under a lot of pressure, and things sort of snowballed from there.

    It also sounds as if she started writing the novel, to begin with, as a kind of escape from pressure. What better way to deal with being under way too much pressure about getting into Harvard than to write a kind of fantasy where your alter ego gets to break free of that pressure and have a bit of fun? And then suddenly she has a book deal on her hands, that she’s not really ready for, but even less ready to turn down.

  16. afrit
    April 30, 2006 at 5:23 pm

    I feel bad for her, and I would have liked to hear that her book went on to be a bestseller and she became a publishing phenomenon, because she seems like a nice kid. But this plagiarizing thing doesn’t seem that ambiguous to me. The line between borrowing a clever turn of phrase and reproducing entire passages almost verbatim doesn’t seem at all fine. I haven’t read any of the books in question, but I’m intrigued as to how there could be any kind of dispute over this.

  17. April 30, 2006 at 5:46 pm

    You know, I’m kind of inclined to believe her “unconscious” excuse because, as a sometimes creative writer, I’ve found that I’ve essentially lifted phrases and titles and styles from other authors without realizing it. Considering that I’m an avid reader, and still read something like 3-4 books a week, I’m not surprised that I do this. After awhile, internalizing and using other people’s words *does* become an unconscious and reflexive habit when you’re reading and writing as much as I and others do. I’ve found that I even do it while blogging sometimes, which is completely embarrassing when somebody notices. (Happens with shit I’ve heard on NPR too.)

    I am completely apt to forgive a young woman who had a book deal that she probably wasn’t ready for, especially considering that she was to write in a particular style that tends to be similar from book to book across the board. Can’t blame her, I’ve done it (sans book deal, alas).

  18. April 30, 2006 at 7:02 pm

    In an article which has since disappeared behind the NY Times pay-wall, a reporter who talked to Viswanathan’s agent and publisher noted that she and Megan McCafferty have the same editor (who’s thanked on the acknowledgments page of both’s books), Claudia Gabel. Alloy Press, the imprint that published Opal, is a “book packager,” i.e. a group of editors who brainstorm characters, plotlines, &c. then hand them over to authors to flesh them out. (Much like a television show, in that regard.) Point being, I’m not so sure Viswanathan’s guilty of plagiarism so much as following the template too closely. Part of me can even imagine her including the passages which came pre-written, thinking that they were the ones which the packagers insisted on being in there.

    (Somewhere in the Buffy DVD commentaries Marti Noxon talks about “Joss lines,” that is, the one-liners and cracks that the staff had to keep in the episode as they edited it both before and during shooting. And why wouldn’t they? Who turns a snark aside better than Joss? But I digress.)

    In other words, I’m not sure the disdain people have for such series necessarily stems from it being chick-lit so much as corporate. One of the reasons we turn to literature is because we want to hear an individual voice, one which hasn’t been filtered. (Though yes, a pipe dream, since by virtue of being published it’s already been filtered via a process of selection, approved by editors and what-not. But this is one of the reasons I find so many blogs fascinating: unmediated access to original voices.) Such series are fine up to a point, but once a reader feels committed to an author, the sense of betrayal–pace James Frey–can be intense. I think the scorn for such series, as well as works like them, like Opal, results from a feeling of having been duped. I feel the same way about all series, but then again, I’m in a literature department, so it’s no surprise this arouses my elitist ire.

  19. April 30, 2006 at 8:51 pm

    Jen, I think I’d disagree that young, together women get a pass more than men on this. Like anyone else, my media intake is biased, but I’ve only heard the major rumblings about this case from places like this, whereas James Frey was everywhere, I thought. I think she’s getting a pass because she’s in his shadow, like “at least she didn’t make up the WHOLE book like he did,” or something. I can’t fully articulate the differences, but I think she’ll get more flack as a woman. She’ll seem more prone to mistake yet be faulted for this very reason.

    Did she do something blantantly wrong? Damn straight. But what is proper punishment for any of this stuff, and what does it all mean about rehabilitation and forgiveness in society? I’m not trying to stretch this too much, but I think we’ve got to consider how she and Frey have been treated, not to mention the less recent instances when plagarism came up.

    I’m as disgusted as anyone by this whole thing, but I’ll let it go, if for no other reason, because I think we have bigger problems to solve.

  20. April 30, 2006 at 11:07 pm

    Killer B, you make some good points. And I think it also has to do with the respective genres and the current views on plagiarism.

    On genre – Frey made up large portions of his memoir. People expect truth from someone who labels and packages their story as the truth, or some version thereof; Frey flat-out lied. Whereas Visnawathan wrote fiction, and thus it’s a different level of betrayal. I think, anyway.

    Plagiarism – so many people forget that it’s a crime. Hell, one of my friends was researching for a paper and found a website that another student had lifted a presentation from, almost verbatim. It’s still wrong. But a lot of people, in this age of easy Googling and copy-paste keystrokes, just don’t seem to get that it’s wrong. I wonder how many of her classmates have plagiarized or bought papers? It happens at every college. And in a lot of high schools, too.

    I could believe the “unconscious” excuse if it was just a couple of examples. But almost forty? That doesn’t require a suspension of disbelief, it throws disbelief off the bridge with taped-together rubber bands for a bungee cord.

  21. r4d20
    April 30, 2006 at 11:29 pm

    Here’s a wealthy, overachieving teenager who got a $500,000 book deal during her first year of college.

    Wait a minute here. Overachiever? Considering the fact that her work is partially plagarized I think that judgement should be suspended if not revised.

    You’re all comparing this to Frey but the REAL comparison is Ben Domenench (sp?) – the little republican douche who was a serial plagarizer until he got busted.

    As far as I can see we have two “overachievers” who were willing to steal to get ahead and who have turned out to have built a reputation on lies.

    People who value reputation more than substance are exactly the type who will start gunnning for topschools like Harvard early and who will stop at almost nothing to secure their spot – through theft if necessary.

  22. r4d20
    April 30, 2006 at 11:36 pm

    Frankly, I wouldn’t be suprised if relatively large minorities at schools like Harvard and Yale weren’t plagarisers, cheaters, or other forms of fraud. These schools are so selective that high SAT and good grades are simply not enough and you NEED to pad your resume with all kinds of extra-curricular activities and personal achomplishments. Combine with with the school load of Advanced Classes and Soccor Practice (or whatever) and the temptation to sleep in and just fake it can become almost irresistible.

  23. Gordon K
    May 1, 2006 at 1:31 am

    Here’s the thing: yes, it’s very easy to accidentally use someone else’s material – phrases, sentences, whole ideas, whatever. However, part of being a writer is checking for those – and that applies whether it’s a short paper for class, or a half-a-million dollar book deal. How do you check? Well, taking catchy bits and putting them into Amazon or Google is a cutesy thing that some people see as the solution to plagiarism and cheating. But all you really have to do is look at it again: does that sound like me? Does it “jump out” of the rest of the work? Have someone else read it, someone who’s familiar with your writing or your speaking.

    And speaking as a student at a “school like Harvard and Yale”, as another poster put it – yes, there’s pressure. It’s on all of us. But that is – at least in theory – why we’re at these schools. Because we want that pressure, we thrive under it. Are there cheaters? Yes. But I don’t think there’s a “relatively large” minority of cheaters, and definitely not on this scale.

  24. Loosely Twisted
    May 2, 2006 at 12:29 am

    I don’t believe she did it on purpose. When I was her age, and younger, I could remember complete tests, perfectly. Having a certain type of “memory”, makes it so easy, EASY to remember full passages and sometimes full books.

    I didn’t start reading on a regular basis until I was in my 20’s. My parents just didn’t think books were worth money, or that I needed to read. It just wasn’t important. I have YET to read a book twice. I don’t need to, if I enjoyed the book, I read the first sentance, and the entire book comes up in my mind. I can recall EVERY PASSAGE. Doesn’t matter how big the book either.

    I can’t do it with out looking at the specific book, unless it made a huge impression on me. But I have tried over and over to re-read books, I can’t .. IT’s not enjoyment when you know what’s coming. WORD for WORD.

    So I absolutely believe she could have found that voice that repeats the stories you have read. IT’s entire possible.

    I am trying to write my own book, and I have to go through my entire collection to make sure I am NOT plagurizing (sp?) It’s a scary possibility. I haven’t read a book since the last Harry Potter came out. BECAUSE I don’t want to copy their work, or even confuse my own voice from theirs.

    It’s bad, I know it’s bad, but I don’t think she did it on purpose. She needs more time away from reading books she enjoys to find her own writer’s voice.

    Loosely Twisted

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