Every writer struggles with jealousy at the (professional) success of other writers. It's genetically pre-coded due to the requisite combination of self-doubt and rampant ego which compels one to a life of private commune with blank page or empty screen.
But it's not jealousy that I feel toward a James Frey or the young novelist Kaavya Viswanathan, who has now confessed to plagiarizing passages from a few of her favorite author's books in her own first novel, published when she was 17.
I actually feel more pity than jealousy.
Many, many mediocre books and screenplays have been written by seventeen year olds. Very, very few of them deserve to be published. This includes some of the ones that have actually been published. And now on top of that, her own mediocre first novel, which is only interesting because it was written by a seventeen year-old, is tainted by being stolen from someone else's mediocre book. (Note that I haven't actually read any of these works, hence the use of the word mediocre is proof of the jealousy-gene I mentioned at the top.) She will never get to live this down. Better for her that her first book had never seen the light of day, like most of our first books.
It was probably bad enough that her fellow students and teachers at Harvard, many of whom have written or are writing mediocre books of their own, knew that she had a two book deal with a major house worth something like $600K--they were already going to be gunning for her. But now they have license to look down on her as well.
Kaavya was my student last spring (in a section where I was a TA). I was surprised to learn she had written a book, as her writing was awful– I had given her low grades on her papers.
I feel bad for her, even though she was always falling asleep in section (as if you don’t notice a snoozing person sitting at a conference table for ten). Plagiarizing from chick lit has to be some kind of double whammy against artistic integrity.
So, I'm going to choose the route of moral superiority from high upon my throne of unpublished-ness. I don't get plagiarism, I don't understand the impetus. Perhaps because my own mix of self-doubt/rampant ego is skewed so heavily to the ego side of the ledger. I just couldn't imagine living with the horrific sense of failure that would come from being exposed.
That's where the pity part comes in. I'm technically old enough to be this woman's father. I have a daughter half-way to her age. Every time I have to watch my kids struggle with something and fail, a little piece of me feels like dying. I know that they will figure it out with enough time, but it still hurts.
I have no idea if Viswanathan is a good writer now, or if she will ever become one. Something like this certainly won't help. But I know that somewhere her parents are in agony and I feel for them.
Nate and I were perusing the lastest Lego catalog the other day over breakfast. The newest sets feature Batman and his Rogues Gallery. Some of the villians come with a second figure called "Henchman".
Nate and I had the following conversation:
Nate: Papa, what's a henchman?
Ken: He helps the bad guys.
Nate: What does he do?
Ken: Mostly, he carries the bags of loot and stuff. And when Batman shows up, the bad guy says, "Get him, you fools" and the henchmen have to try and beat up Batman.
Nate: Do the henchmen ever beat up Batman?
Ken: Nah, they just slow him down long enough for the bad guy to get away.
Nate: And then they get caught?
Ken: Yeah, they usually get caught.
Nate: Papa, I don't think I want to be a henchman.
Ken: Yeah, being a henchman sucks.