Saturday, May 06, 2006

Steal this book, Kaavya

Kaavya Viswanathan, the 19-year-old "novelist" who's apparently cribbed from other real writers' work, has landed the third sucker punch in the literary world's gut in the past six months.

My buddy Warren Adler, the author of "War of the Roses" and "Random Hearts," isn't happy about the little thief, but he reserved his most caustic commentary for the book media, such as the New York Times, which hailed Viswanathan as a fresh new voice (funny, since it was somebody else's voice.) Adler says the Viswanathan scandal shows exactly how today's successful authors aren't necessarily our best writers ... they merely have been molded into "great" writers by marketing hacks, who care more about market demographics than plot.

"It makes my blood boil when I think of the legions of literary wannabes working their hearts out in isolation or taking creative writing courses in the nearly 200 universities, some costing as much as $100,000 for the full program, to suddenly be confronted with the real skinny on how so-called literary reputations are made out of thin air and bullshit."

Personally, I don't blame the New York Times as much as I blame the book-publishing industry, where brilliance is in short supply. First-readers, the gatekeepers who look at all submissions before real editors see them, are largely young college grads chosen for:

A) their youth,
B) their speed-reading, or
C) a back-channel relationship to the publishing house.

Their job is not to truly assess the literary merits of stories, but to ferret out stories that might appeal to a hip 18-to-34 demographic. This is an educated guess, as someone who has had manuscripts in hundreds of first readers' hands: Half of them have probably never read a Pulitzer Prize-winner published before 1980. Then the manuscript goes to a committee of editors, who often employ the same shallow values, looking for something that kids will like -- kids who don't (as a group) read voraciously, mind you. Book-publishing has utterly surrendered its storytelling values to Hollywood.

How sad it is to think that the next Hemingway or Joyce or Twain is out there in the middle of America someplace, creating great work that you'll never have a chance to see. But, by golly, you'll see 19-year-old plagiarists (Viswanathan), outrageously dishonest drug addicts (James Frey), and imaginary teen truck-stop hookers (J.T. LeRoy) -- because that's what New York publishers think kids want to read. Through their marketing dollars -- which go to only a handful of authors, leaving the rest to shill books on their own -- publishers too often elevate the wrong writers and show their disrespect for serious readers.

Face it, folks, if you like a truly good piece of literature and you're older than 34, you simply don't interest New York publishers.


SingingSkies said...

Alas and alack! My son is one of them, even though he grew up in a reading household. *sigh*

When did we start narrowing our choices to fit only those who met certain supposedly more affluent demographics? Or has it always been that way and I haven't noticed because I was in the middle of the 'right' segment of society? Our lives would certainly be richer if we didn't allow targeted markets to determine what we have available to choose from.

The only saving grace in the publishing world that I see is the growing ability to self-publish at an affordable rate. If an author manages to make enough of a splash, then they may subsequently be picked up by a major publisher. Self-marketing has to be a monumental task (one which I wouldn't want to tackle), but may ultimately be the way to outfox the 18-34 mindset of the main publishing houses. I definitely don't envy those who undertake the task, though. More power to you!

Chancelucky said...

Here I was going to start plagiarizing Ron Franscell so I could get published :}.

I think the "marketing" driven publishing industry is largely a function of the multimedia conglomerate and greater emphasis on the bottom line with new authors. There was a time when new authors weren't expected to make money for a couple books until they established their style.

The old, editor driven system wasn't perfect either, but it at least recognized that writers needed to be nurtured not just placed on Oprah.

Ron Franscell said...

Oh, don't get me started on Oprah, Chance! I admit I'd love the riches that go with being an Oprah Pick, and she has almost singlehandedly breathed life in book-buying (if not book-reading.) But she's also influenced the industry's gatekeepers toward her tastes -- which are narrowly defined -- and has had a hand in promoting one of the worst literary disasters of our time (James Frey.)

Michael Gillespie said...

You do some of your best writing when you're angry, Ron. ;-)

You've got the publishing industry pegged, except that you left out the part about the restrictions on non-fiction when the subject is Israel, Christian Zionism, or Islam. Unless you happen to be Sy Hersh or James Bamford, other than small publishing houses (Common Courage Press, South End Books, Clarity Press, CounterPunch Books, American Educational Trust, et al.) if you want to get politically sensitive non-fiction published, you pretty much have to look to Europe and British (Verso, Pluto), French, and, occasionally, German publishers.

The late great Grace Halsell, a Texan, author of 14 books, worked in the Johnson White House with Bill Moyers. In 1998, Halsell wrote in the pages of the May/June issue of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs:

The process of getting my book Journey to Jerusalem published also was a learning experience. Bill Griffin, who signed a contract with me on behalf of MacMillan Publishing Company, was a former Roman Catholic priest. He assured me that no one other than himself would edit the book. As I researched the book, making several trips to Israel and Palestine, I met frequently with Griffin, showing him sample chapters. "Terrific," he said of my material.

The day the book was scheduled to be published, I went to visit MacMillan’s. Checking in at a reception desk, I spotted Griffin across a room, cleaning out his desk. His secretary Margie came to greet me. In tears, she whispered for me to meet her in the ladies room. When we were alone, she confided, "He’s been fired." She indicated it was because he had signed a contract for a book that was sympathetic to Palestinians. Griffin, she said, had no time to see me.

Later, I met with another MacMillan official, William Curry. "I was told to take your manuscript to the Israeli Embassy, to let them read it for mistakes," he told me. "They were not pleased. They asked me, 'You are not going to publish this book, are you?' I asked, 'Were there mistakes?' 'Not mistakes as such. But it shouldn’t be published. It’s anti-Israel.'"

Somehow, despite obstacles to prevent it, the presses had started rolling. After its publication in 1980, I was invited to speak in a number of churches. Christians generally reacted with disbelief. Back then, there was little or no coverage of Israeli land confiscation, demolition of Palestinian homes, wanton arrests and torture of Palestinian civilians.

Speaking of these injustices, I invariably heard the same question, "How come I didn’t know this?" Or someone might ask, "But I haven’t read about that in my newspaper." To these church audiences, I related my own learning experience, that of seeing hordes of U.S. correspondents covering a relatively tiny state. I pointed out that I had not seen so many reporters in world capitals such as Beijing, Moscow, London, Tokyo, Paris. Why, I asked, did a small state with a 1980 population of only four million warrant more reporters than China, with a billion people?

I also linked this query with my findings that The New York Times , The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post — and most of our nation’s print media — are owned and/or controlled by Jews supportive of Israel. It was for this reason, I deduced, that they sent so many reporters to cover Israel — and to do so largely from the Israeli point of view.

My learning experiences also included coming to realize how easily I could lose a Jewish friend if I criticized the Jewish state. I could with impunity criticize France, England, Russia, even the United States. And any aspect of life in America. But not the Jewish state. I lost more Jewish friends than one after the publication of Journey to Jerusalem — all sad losses for me and one, perhaps, saddest of all.

In the 1960s and 1970s, before going to the Middle East, I had written about the plight of blacks in a book entitled Soul Sister, and the plight of American Indians in a book entitled Bessie Yellowhair, and the problems endured by undocumented workers crossing from Mexico in The Illegals. These books had come to the attention of the "mother" of The New York Times, Mrs. Arthur Hays Sulzberger.

Her father had started the newspaper, then her husband ran it, and in the years that I knew her, her son was the publisher. She invited me to her fashionable apartment on Fifth Avenue for lunches and dinner parties. And, on many occasions, I was a weekend guest at her Greenwich, Conn. home.

She was liberal-minded and praised my efforts to speak for the underdog, even going so far in one letter to say, "You are the most remarkable woman I ever knew." I had little concept that from being buoyed so high I could be dropped so suddenly when I discovered — from her point of view — the "wrong" underdog.

As it happened, I was a weekend guest in her spacious Connecticut home when she read bound galleys of Journey to Jerusalem. As I was leaving, she handed the galleys back with a saddened look: "My dear, have you forgotten the Holocaust?" She felt that what happened in Nazi Germany to Jews several decades earlier should silence any criticism of the Jewish state. She could focus on a holocaust of Jews while negating a modern day holocaust of Palestinians.

I realized, quite painfully, that our friendship was ending. Iphigene Sulzberger had not only invited me to her home to meet her famous friends but, also at her suggestion, The Times had requested articles. I wrote op-ed articles on various subjects including American blacks, American Indians as well as undocumented workers. Since Mrs. Sulzberger and other Jewish officials at the Times highly praised my efforts to help these groups of oppressed peoples, the dichotomy became apparent: most "liberal" U.S. Jews stand on the side of all poor and oppressed peoples save one — the Palestinians.

How handily these liberal Jewish opinion-molders tend to diminish the Palestinians, to make them invisible, or to categorize them all as "terrorists."

Interestingly, Iphigene Sulzberger had talked to me a great deal about her father, Adolph S. Ochs. She told me that he was not one of the early Zionists. He had not favored the creation of a Jewish state.

Yet, increasingly, American Jews have fallen victim to Zionism, a nationalistic movement that passes for many as a religion. While the ethical instructions of all great religions — including the teachings of Moses, Muhammad and Christ — stress that all human beings are equal, militant Zionists take the position that the killing of a non-Jew does not count.

Over five decades now, Zionists have killed Palestinians with impunity. And in the 1996 shelling of a U.N. base in Qana, Lebanon, the Israelis killed more than 100 civilians sheltered there. As an Israeli journalist, Arieh Shavit, explains of the massacre, "We believe with absolute certitude that right now, with the White House in our hands, the Senate in our hands and The New York Times in our hands, the lives of others do not count the same way as our own."

Israelis today, explains the anti-Zionist Jew Israel Shahak, "are not basing their religion on the ethics of justice. They do not accept the Old Testament as it is written. Rather, religious Jews turn to the Talmud. For them, the Talmudic Jewish laws become 'the Bible.' And the Talmud teaches that a Jew can kill a non-Jew with impunity."

In the teachings of Christ, there was a break from such Talmudic teachings. He sought to heal the wounded, to comfort the downtrodden.

The danger, of course, for U.S. Christians is that having made an icon of Israel, we fall into a trap of condoning whatever Israel does — even wanton murder — as orchestrated by God.