Friday, April 28, 2006

Where thieves and pimps run free

"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."

Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter Thompson's observations on music industry sleaze surely ring true. But what is becoming of this world? Are Gonzo ethics now invading college entrance too? I'm shocked. Shocked! But witness the factory-like creation of a babe-liscious author that makes the music industry's packaging of Britney Spears look a bit amateurish, all in the name of getting into the 'right' college.

Kaayva Viswanathan, you see, is this smart, attractive teenager. The daughter of two New Jersey-based doctors who were obsessed about her getting into Harvard (not unlike a lot of parents these days), who got her break while using a $10,000-plus college entrance counselling service.

Here's how it happened. 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 founder of the service looks over her novel and passes it on to an agent at William Morris, the famed talent agency. From there it was farmed out to 17th Street Productions, a division of Alloy Entertainment, now probably the most famous “book packager” in America. Alloy specialises in developing young adult “chick lit” authors before passing them on to publishers. Alloy’s team craft the proposal, shape the plot and create characters. Even the writing of the book is often farmed out to a team of authors. The process is more similar to television writing than most readers’ idea of the creation of a novel and the packaging closer to creating a boy band than promoting a new literary star. The book is called How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. And Kaavya, just 17 at the time, gets close to US$500,000 (HK$3.9 million) for a two-book contract. She also gets a movie deal with DreamWorks. Oh, and she gets into Harvard too.


Kaavya got her book deal when she was - hello! - like - 17 years old - Dude!? As super smart as she is, the truth is she was and is still a teenager, and there's a reason that teenagers usually aren't professional writers. Like - yo! - dude - the same reason they don't perform surgery or fly jetliners. Totally! Well I guess Mary Shelley did write Frankenstein when she was only 19, but then, that was in 1816 when you weren't always getting interrupted by SMS messages. Most authors aren't really up to the task until they're in their 20s or even really old, like in their 30s or 40s.

So a few years go by and Kaayva's book finally comes out (and they print 100,000 copies, which is a lot ... I should be so lucky; my books have runs of 2000). You'd think this would be the best thing that ever happened to her but, in fact, this is where Kaavya's life starts to tank.

Kaayva Viswanathan has admittedly had a bad week. She's had a really, really bad week. Not the kind of bad week where you have premenstrual tension and then your boyfriend dumps you for some unthreatening minx who takes remedial chemistry. No. Worse.

Last week, the Harvard Crimson student newspaper ran a story saying she allegedly copied several passages from two books, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, by author Megan McCafferty. By the next day, the story is all over the media, and McCafferty's publisher finds more than 40 passages in Opal Mehta that are scarily similar to McCafferty's work.

Whoa! Kaavya does not seem like the kind of person to do something like that. She goes to Harvard! But the weird thing is that Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings happen to be two of her favorite books ever. McCafferty, who had to wait until she was 28 to get a book published, was hugely inspiring to Kaavya when Kaavya was growing up.

When Kaavya goes on The Today Show to try to fix everything, Katie Couric is totally super mean to her. Then her publisher pulls Opal off bookstore shelves. Ommagawd! Not only is this totally embarrassing but she's now not even sure herself how this happened.

And the big winner in all of this is Megan McCafferty. And she didn't even go to Harvard! Her publisher calls the whole thing "nothing less than an act of literary identity theft." But the publicity is sure to generate a whole lot of readers.

How cool is that?


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