Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Tom Wolfe

The Man in the White Suit

Today's New York Times has a follow-up story on a young author's "unintentional" plagiarism. Kaavya Viswanathan wrote How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, which manages to unintentionally steal passages from Megan McCafferty's two novels (literary classics, really), Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings.

Viswanathan's excuse for stealing another author's words is believable. "I wasn't aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty's words," she told the Times. You see, Viswanathan is a huge fan of McCafferty's work, and so in reading it, she memorized, and put it to her own pages.

Here's an example the Times cites:

At one point in "Sloppy Firsts," Ms. McCafferty's heroine unexpectedly encounters her love interest. Ms. McCafferty writes:

"Though I used to see him sometimes at Hope's house, Marcus and I had never, ever acknowledged each other's existence before. So I froze, not knowing whether I should (a) laugh, (b) say something, or (c) ignore him and keep on walking. I chose a brilliant combo of (a) and (b).

" 'Uh, yeah. Ha. Ha. Ha.'

"I turned around and saw that Marcus was smiling at me."

Similarly, Ms. Viswanathan's heroine, Opal, bumps into her love interest, and the two of them spy on one of the school's popular girls.

Ms. Viswanathan writes: "Though I had been to school with him for the last three years, Sean Whalen and I had never acknowledged each other's existence before. I froze, unsure of (a) what he was talking about, or (b) what I was supposed to do about it. I stared at him.

" 'Flatirons,' he said. 'At least seven flatirons for that hair.'

" 'Ha, yeah. Uh, ha. Ha.' I looked at the floor and managed a pathetic combination of laughter and monosyllables, then remembered that the object of our mockery was his former best friend.

"I looked up and saw that Sean was grinning."

Is it possible to "internalize" so much if you don't have one of McCafferty's novels open beside you as you type? I'm not sure, but Viswanathan's explanation reads like bullshit.

But beyond the plagiarism lies the origin of Viswanathan's book deal. The Times continues:

In a profile published in The New York Times earlier this month, Ms. Viswanathan said that while she was in high school, her parents hired Katherine Cohen, founder of IvyWise, a private counseling service, to help with the college application process. After reading some of Ms. Viswanathan's writing, Ms. Cohen put her in touch with the William Morris Agency, and Ms. Viswanathan eventually signed with Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, an agent there.

Incredible that line I emphasized. Her writing, seen above, was seen to be particularly good for publication? It's crap. And this isn't a fit of jealousy over Viswanathan's lucrative book deal. I've read better non-published, non-plagiarized writing elsewhere. In the school papers, in weblogs, on napkins discarded at restaurants. And Viswanathan gets a book deal on the strength of weak writing.

But beyond the ersatz writing lies the origin of Viswanathan's novel. The Times continues:

In the Times profile, Ms. Viswanathan said the idea for "Opal" came from her own experiences in high school "surrounded by the stereotype of high-pressure Asian and Indian families trying to get their children into Ivy League schools."

Her own experiences? Enter Tom Wolfe.

Last night, I paid around $40 (yes, too much) to listen to Wolfe speak at the silver and beige Roy Thomson Hall. The Hall features mirrors on most walls and tuxedoed ushers. The Hall's patrons have an estimated mean age of 68.75 years. The looks one gets for being less than a third of that mean age cause a state of spiritual joy. I wanted to get to my seat apparently 10 minutes before the auditorium was to be opened and one Tuxedo nearly came unglued, demanded to see my ticket and told me to return in said 10 minutes. After the auditorium did open, Big Sister pumped through the corridor speakers to notify us paying customers that now, yes, we could sit in our lovely beige seats.

Wolfe came out just after 8 looking like Wolfe. He's the Man in the White Suit.

He began on the subject of Marshall McLuhan's ability to tell three-liners. McLuhan, Wolfe said, told him that Canada's love for Pierre Trudeau came from Trudeau's French name, English thinking and Aboriginal looks.

After Wolfe finished testing the waters of the crowd (approximately 20 minutes), he moved on to the subject of his second novel, A Man in Full, and the bad reviews he received from John Updike, Norman Mailer and John Irving. The three bad reviews indicted Wolfe's novel, Wolfe says, on the basis of its journalistic and commercial approach. But those two principles of Wolfe's style are ones he says we need more from writers (Wolfe's talk really was a mish-mash of ideas he's presented before elsewhere; he told an anecdote about Hunter S. Thompson found here, in a piece written after Thompson's death a year ago).

Wolfe said that while he agrees writers should write what they know, that doesn't mean people shouldn't write only about their personal experience. We all might have one good autobiography, but we don't have two, Wolfe said. And after telling our life story, what's left to talk about if that's all we could ever do? So while Kaavya Viswanathan has secured a book deal, written a novel about her own experiences, and been caught for plagiarism, Wolfe would tell her that a second novel about being a novelist and the hard luck life of being exposed as a cheater shouldn't be the subject of her next novel. There won't be an audience for that. Instead, Wolfe says that writers must go outside and find that weird, bizarre, authentic material and bring that to the page. Because that's what matters.


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