Saturday, April 29, 2006


Another Writing Scandal

So, what do I think about the 17 year old Harvard student who won a $500,000 advance for her first "novel," and who was recently discovered to have either copied or been inspired by -- depending on how you look at it -- a novel by the more established Megan McCafferty?

My first thought, believe it or not, is to wonder how I would ever have gotten into Columbia were I a student now. Yeah, I know that's a lame thing to think, but that was what first crossed my mind.

You see, I'm completely unsurprised by the idea that aspiring writers "internalize prose" to the point that they "might" accidentally plagiarize someone else, or that a 17 year old was considered a hot property by marketing forces; all writers worry about and want to outsmart the market. I am well aware of the fact that, at 35, I am in my last year of appealing to advertisers. After this year is up, it's on to middle age I go. (Hah).

What does stun me is the fact that the girl's parents hired a "coach" to get her into an Ivy League school (preferably Harvard), and that it was the coach's decision to contact an agent at William Morris. The agent then referred the girl to a book packager known as Alloy, which helped the girl "find her voice" and come up with a more sure fire plot than the manuscript the agent originally saw. The book packager contacted editors and, after much due diligence, a book was born. Plus, a $500,000 advance and entry to Harvard. There is just so much I could say about this, but since I don't really know who is reading my blog (and according to stats there are more of you), I will only say the following.

I consider my parents very devoted, and my mother in particular to have been a driving force behind my education. But a coach? And just what does such a coach do?

The project got its impetus from none other than Viswanathan's professional college packager. Katherine Cohen, a founder of IvyWise, a premier outfit that choreographs the college application process from ninth grade onward, and, crucially, helps produce essays that convey students' "passions."

I am dating myself here, but I remember my father getting excited during the summer of 1987 (I think) when the Princeton Review published it's first "Cracking the SAT" book. I sat out in the backyard in one of my ill-fated attempts to get a tan -- I don't really have the patience a native Californian should have for this kind of thing -- and studied the strategies. My scores shot up 200 points in the end. I thought this was fascinating and went to work for Kaplan after college (The Princeton Review never responded to my application).

In college I remember the university president addressing my class, and telling us just how many kids from Dalton and Horace Mann had been accepted to Columbia. I thought to myself: You mean, more than one kid from each school got in? There was more to the whole getting-into-college transaction than met the eye.

During the first few weeks I met people my age who had planned to apply to Columbia for years. It was expected. Planned. Some had had doctors declare them "dyslexic" in order to get unlimited time on the SATs. Even then I wondered if Columbia made a mistake in accepting me. I mean, I'd had a good education, devoted parents and a copy of "Cracking the SAT," but these things, I learned, were hardly sufficient to classify you as "savvy."

Back to the scandal at hand. I feel sorry for this girl. At 17 it seems to me it should have been clear that what was happening to her was wrong, but she certainly couldn't stop the process once it started. The goal was to get into Harvard, after all. I wonder: who gave her the books of Megan McCafferty to read? Was the the book packaging company providing her with "inspiration" to get her book done in the first place? Was it her own intellectual curiosity (! ) which led her to McCafferty? Did she discuss her "internalization" of the McCafferty's prose with any of the editors, and if so, what did they say to reassure her? What do her parents say now? Is she aware of what she has done, or just sorry she got caught? And I wonder if her parents feel like crap for having pushed her to the point that she did something morally wrong, just wrong?

Here are some similar musings over at Slate:

I don't mean simply to let Viswanathan off the hook, but her own book—indeed, its very copyright line, Alloy Entertainment and Kaavya Viswanathan—suggests a broader culture of adult-mediated promotion and strategizing at work. It's a culture, as her novel itself shows, that might well leave a teenager very confused about what counts as originality—even a teenager who can write knowingly about just that confusion. In fact, perhaps being able to write so knowingly about derivative self-invention is a recipe for being ripe to succumb to it.

My friend Kaytie says that the adults in this girl's life seem to have failed her and I tend to agree. There were . . . how many people involved in the generation of this book? At least a dozen, I'd say. How do you say "no" to 12 adults in your life pushing you to write a book?

How terrible, though, to learn at 18 years old that it is not okay to lie. How terrible to have been taught your entire life that it is okay to lie as long as you "win" in the end. It is much, much harder to learn to do something right once you are older than when you are still young. And for that, I definitely blame all the adults, any one of whom could have, at some point, put a stop to the charade.

It might be a stretched comparison but this is a little bit like the Jayson Blair affair..New York Times - but then again I'm probaly off beam.
Well I certainly have to agree. she's been humiliated for life on a global scale for doing exactly what she had been encouraged all along to do - if not lie and steal outright, then at least pretend to all involved (including herself) that she was more fully developed as an artist, a mind and a person than she was. In that event she was simply doing what every teenager does - she was trying to grow up too fast and trying to act like a prodigy. Everybody does that. But, unsatisfied with her normal (I'm sure, already over-achieving) pace they gave her the equivalent of career-altering steroids. From my view her parents were not only at fault for the discreet actionable steps (hiring a coach, etc) that led to the abnormalamplification of her normal growth-charade. They are at fault for not loving their daughter enough to be amazed by the incredible, rich treasure she should have already been to them simply because she existed.
This is reply directed towards your tangent rather than the post topic. Columbia Admissions absolutely loved you, and I'm confident that could have gone anywhere you wanted. I'm compelled to add this one footnote that in high school Marie also had a college "Coach".

Most of us who graduated from Stevenson owe our admission successes to Mr. Frank Keith, our college advisor. Back in '86, while I was applying for colleges, I had several serious interests, and Mr. Keith would came to me with 'offers' like "Williams will give you early admissions, but you have to accept immediately" or "If you really want to go to Stanford, tell me now. Otherwise, I can only get you on the wait list."

I pondered this many years later and realized that Mr. Keith was more or less a broker/agent who spent most of his time on the phone with admissions staff all across the country. I remember visiting campuses with him, and he was always recognized and greeted by admissions people like an old friend. Mr. Keith was more than a coach...he was our admissions champion!
Kurt, I'm sorry, sorry, sorry to be so slow to see your response! You know, I never realized until I read your incredibly intelligent post that we had a "coach" at all. I like to think that we were so naive, going to school in northern California, but actually it turns out that our little school knew much more about the admissions game than we ever realized -- and this was the whole point of going to RLS in the first place.
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