The scandal surrounding the young Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan seems, on the face of it, to pivot specifically around the crime of plagiarism. Viswanathan is the charming, photogenic, 19-year-old author of the teen novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. This first offering in a reported $500,000 two-book deal with the American publisher Little, Brown flew straight on to the US bestseller lists last month. Yet it turns out that many of its lines derive from other sources, and the book has been withdrawn from sale. So far, so simple.
Read more carefully, though, and Viswanathan's story seems more a cautionary tale about the dangers for authors of being over-packaged. In a books market where every writer is routinely "branded" (their looks/personality assessed for publicity potential; their work moulded to fit an existing commercial category) Viswanathan's experience represents the high water mark of this process.
It's something I know a little about, having published two novels myself. These were bought in a deal when I was 24, and (the first being about a lesbian feminist, the second about a girl growing up on a prison island in 1959) proved fairly uncategorisable. Despite good reviews, prize nominations, et cetera, it's fair to say that the sales went, well, tits up. When it came to my third novel, there was understandable pressure for it to fit into a specific category. I was asked by one interested editor to scrap the entire "back story" (which makes up at least a third of the book) and replace it with one they thought more suitable.
This didn't make sense to me. Perhaps the book doesn't work (I'm certainly open to that suggestion) but the editor's idea seemed to destroy all the themes, relationships and coincidences that might give the work any worth. And I was relieved to have rejected it when I read, some time later, about a truly jaw-dropping book deal that had taken place in the weeks before this suggestion was made. A debut novel that had sold for £800,000 had exactly the same back story as the one that I'd been encouraged to shoehorn into my work.
In their efforts to push writers into specific commercial categories, publishers can sometimes, knowingly or not, come perilously close to encouraging authors to commit a form of plagiarism. As soon as a new book becomes profitable the hunt begins to find, or create, something similar. Any new author's work is shaped according to such requirements, the sad thing being that this rarely, if ever, produces a genuine hit.
In Viswanathan's case, the details of how her book came to be published are exceedingly murky. They begin with her enrolment, while still a high-school student, with a company called IvyWise, which takes average teenagers and, for a fee of up to $40,000, moulds them into prime Ivy League candidates.
The founder and chief executive of this business, Katherine Cohen, read a few chapters that Viswanathan had written, saw potential, and sent them to her own agent.
At this stage the book was apparently a dark little tale. This wasn't deemed the most commercial prospect for a shiny young author, though, and so the agent put Viswanathan in touch with the "book packager" Alloy Entertainment, which describes itself as a "creative think-tank" devoted to developing "original" books, TV series and films for the teen market, among others.
Anyhow, it helped Viswanathan shape her work to the extent that its name appears before hers on the novel's copyright line. On completion, the dark little tale had morphed into - what else? - a punchy teen novel about a young Indian girl who decides to "package" herself for her Harvard application.
Considering her age and inexperience, I feel sorry for Viswanathan. There's no doubt that some of the lines she wrote are from other sources, but her book was shaped so much by other people, it seems conceivable that, somewhere along the way, she lost all sense of what was acceptable in publishing and what, indeed, constitutes originality.
When I heard that Viswanathan's long-term ambition is to be an investment banker, I was relieved for her (her writing career is almost certainly over) and also understood more clearly why she had agreed to be moulded to such an extent. Writers who are genuinely committed to their work obviously have to accept editing, but they also have to fight for what they deem essential.
There are much easier ways to make a living than as a writer, and the real enjoyment is in creating and publishing something that is fundamentally your own voice. If you're publishing work that's been pummelled into shape by a sprawling Swat team, then the point where originality ends and plagiarism begins no doubt becomes very confusing.
And with your name on the cover, it's you who'll get the blame . . .