Tuesday, April 25, 2006

chewing chick lits

If I cut and paste the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article aptly titled Plagiarism into the Google search box, I can find the same words in quite a number of other Web pages with varying degrees of attribution. For example, the blog Contraband Bayou seems to lift wholesale from Wikipedia and an artists' resource called YourArt in explaining the controversy that's emerged about Dan Brown's bestselling potboiler The Da Vinci Code. Why bother putting new words to old ideas? Dan Brown might've been better off plagiarizing more, not less, given the quality of his writing.

Plagiariasm is almost too easy these days.

Too easy to cut-and-paste and too easy to identify the cut-and-pasted text later when you're running a plagiarism detector. Ask any academic. They'll tell you that students are way too busy downloading music to come up with their own essays these days; instead they risk ready exposure by copying material that's way better written than their own puny efforts would be. They don't even bother going to the library to find an obscure source to copy: like me, they are loath to leave the comfort of their chairs and the convenience of their computers.

^C^V. Save As. As if.

I remember carefully copying Jeff (not his real name) Klein's physics homework sets as a freshman in college. Although we weren't graded on the problem sets, and technically what I was doing fell within the realm of trying to learn physics well enough to squeak through the midterm and final on partial credit, it was still out-and-out transcription. I just hoped that by re-writing all those equations, I'd somehow assimilate freshman physics. Sort of like putting your history book under your pillow. By sophomore year, I knew that wouldn't work, but as a freshman I was, well, DESPERATE. No way would I be able to come up with that shit myself. No way. Those gradients, those contour integrals, those second-order partial differential equations. Not me.

So I have to be careful when it comes time to point the finger. I've been there.

There's nothing new under the sun, after all. And 82,400 writers seem to agree with me, according to a search on the trite truism, "There's nothing new under the sun."

What invariably follows from plagiarism that seeks reward is outrage, and possibly tears, failing grades, dismissal, and other non-resume-worthy accomplishments. But the article in this morning's New York Times was more fun than the usual "she stole my screenplay/sitcom idea/plot line/hit song/term paper" riff. It was about a young woman, a sophomore at a certain well-regarded Ivy League University, who'd published a first novel that fit neatly into a genre dubbed chick-lit.

The Times photo shows an attractive young Indian woman, sitting in a casual Joyce Maynard-style pose in her dorm room (see the dust jacket of the first edition of Looking Back -- it should be noted that Ms. Maynard attended a different highly regarded Ivy League University). According to the Times (and before that, The Harvard Crimson), Ms. Viswanathan had appropriated certain language, plot, and style from another wildly successful chick-lit author. She claims -- and I have little reason to doubt this is true -- that she'd simply internalized the other writer's works and inadvertantly copied them out of wholesale admiration. Fair enough. It's not a term paper. This is a genre that's populated by highly derivative works. How many ways can a cute, brainy, but socially backward girl be speechless when she encounters her hottie crush? How many of these girls apply to prestigious Ivy League universities and deliver triumphant validictory addresses, amazing and moving their now-envious peers? A lot, it seems, a lot.

As Moon Unit Zappa would have it, gag me with a spoon.

But here's what got me: the 500K advance. It brings me right back to the Bret Easton Ellises and Jay McInerneys of yesteryear (the early eighties, to be more specific) who commanded enfant terrible advances at the beginnings of their careers, and proceeded to sink into cyclic decline, producing novels about models, Peruvian marching powder, and misogyny for the next several decades. What's funny and fresh tapped out on the keyboard of a twenty-two year old is less well received by readers two decades down the road. The last time I read anything by Jay McInerney, I was in Mexico and being punished for my inability to read Spanish; his was one of the small selection of English-language novels. Sitting on the beach with a Marguerita tasting of powdered mix and gazing at the azure waters of the Gulf is not enough: I must have a novel, no matter how skanky.

But a 500K advance? For a girl who has hired a consultant -- sorry, a private counseling service -- to apply to college? A 500K advance for chick-lit?

Did those Scholastic Books star authors command advances like that? I'm thinking Donald Sobol, author of the terrific Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective series that you could buy through Scholastic Books' in-school purchase program. Kids who conned their parents into a Scholastic Books order would get a big stack of popular paperbacks, which these days would surely include a smattering of not-too-racy chick-lit. My parents knew better than to fall for the Scholastic Books gambit; to the library with me. Hemingway wrote short sentences; surely I could at least be reading Hemingway.

Nor did I get 500K advances on my physics problem sets, even when I stopped copying Jeff (not his real name) Klein's homework. I did, however, make it all the way up to a "B" third term sophomore year (quantum mechanics). Not a 500K advance.

But it's all part of the current flap: first we over-praise writers, then we slap 'em down for cheating. We don't do this to our elected officials, only to writers (who are marginal characters at best, I'm given to understand). We've got James Frey conning Oprah with his poorly-cribbed memoirs (I've heard I'd find a treasure-trove of drug addict cliches within), then outed, then permanently punished. That wasn't really even plagiarism; it was merely a case of representing bad fiction as bad non-fiction.

Then we have the more complicated (and tragic) case of good fiction parading as non-fiction. About seven years ago, a supposed Navajo writer published a moving story in Esquire about his kid, Tommy Nothing Fancy, who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. I even remember it. Not trite in the least. Now we see an apology in the May issue; the story turns out to have been written by a white guy who also writes gay leather porn. A guy's gotta make a living and the story's still as moving as it was in 1999. It's just that it was fiction. The young editor, David Granger, turned to mush and after telling us that Oprah had been too easy on Frey, he wrote:

It was with a weird combination of anger and helplessness that I realized we had been duped and that we had, in turn, duped our readers. Especially when we thought back to how the story came to us-- through the mail and into the massive pile of unsolicited manuscripts we receive each month. The chances we would notice it, let alone publish it, were infinitesimal. This is hardly how I would expect to be defrauded.
Unagented writing? The horror, the horror!

But we should note that Ms. Viswanathan had an agent, one who seems to have been unfamiliar with the genre she was handling. That's how the young writer got a 500K advance.

At this point, I'm not sure what to say. You might say I'm jealous of writers who receive unseemly advances for genre fiction. You might say I'm a little grossed out (a chick-lit term of art) by editors who are quick to fall on their rubber swords. You might observe that I'm angry that Shrub, Rummy, Dick, and the gang aren't held to the standards of popular writing. You might even say that copying Jeff (not his real name) Klein's problem sets indicated that I had no future in physics. And you could certainly say that today's students shouldn't be so quick on the draw with the ^C^V-Save As sequence.

You could say all of these things. But you can't copy them. That'd be plagiarism.


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