11 May 2006

How Opal Mehta didn’t make me one dime richer

OK, the others have adequately introduced the stakes, so I will change to another Now What channel:

Lost in the initial hub-bub over the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism scandal was the role of a company called Alloy Media and Marketing, and more specifically, its subsidiary, Alloy Entertainment, and its subsidiary 17th Street Productions—a cross-promotional marketing firm that helps create branded items to capture the lucrative youth market.

Viswanathan’s now-pulled book from Little Brown & Company, ''How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life," seems to have found its life through indeterminate help from the Alloy firm. David Mehegan of The Boston Globe notes that Alloy president Leslie Morgenstein claims: “no one helped Viswanathan write the actual words of the book that, it turns out, liberally borrowed from at least three authors.” Yet, I’m certainly not clear on what this “book packager” (17th Street Productions) does, exactly.

There are two cogent issues here: 1) Plagiarism/copyright (reports even link passages in Mehta to Salman Rushdie’s work), and 2) Book production/fabrication of the “Author.” The first angle is about as fresh as your father’s Oldsmobile, so let’s hit the second:

Viswanathan procured her $500,000 two-book deal as a 17 year old, without a finished book! There seems to be no complete story about how this all came about, but Motoko Rich and Dinitia Smith at The New York Times sum it up as follows:

“Viswanathan acknowledged that she had help conceiving the book from Alloy Entertainment, a ‘book packager.’ Ms. Viswanathan's parents sent her to a private college counselor, Katherine Cohen of IvyWise, who is also the author of a book on writing college applications. Ms. Cohen showed some of Ms. Viswanathan's writing to Suzanne Gluck, her agent at the William Morris Agency. Ms. Viswanathan said that she had written a piece in the vein of ‘The Lovely Bones,’ the 2002 best seller by Alice Sebold, but that Ms. Gluck thought that it was too dark. ‘They thought it would be better if I did a lighter piece. They thought that was more likely to sell.’

“No one at Alloy suggested she read Ms. McCafferty or any other author's work, Ms. Viswanathan said.

“The summer after graduating from high school, she wrote four chapters and a synopsis of what became ‘Opal,’ and sent them in an e-mailed message to Alloy. After some minor editing, Alloy said it would get back to her.

“In October of her freshman year at Harvard, she received a call from Ms. Walsh, also an agent at William Morris, who told her she was going to start shopping the manuscript around. ‘Two days later, she called to say Little, Brown wants to buy the book.’


I don’t pretend to have all the details on this complex transaction—but let’s call it just that, a “transaction.” A piece of business foiled, in this case, because one product infringed upon the proprietary realms of an earlier products. We should think carefully before we call these things, these objects, “books,” or anything remotely akin to the broadest and lowest definitions of literature.

[NOTE: Reportedly, Viswanathan signed up initially to work with IvyWise, a company packaging “raw material” into suitable college admissions materials. I wonder if they charge a half mil? Perhaps it’s a tax write-off.]

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a literary snob (OK, bullshit), but I don’t want to see commercials at the movie theater, and I most certainly don’t want to read commercially produced texts that are in effect little more than commercials for an explicit commercial concern. Of course that angle goes against the pomo professor in me who argues incessantly about the commercialization of everything (no escape, suckers), and the attendant commodification of dissent (which Thomas Frank writes about so convincingly). You know, the fact that hippies were sell-outs from day one of the first freak flag commune. Or how some Madison Avenue wunderkind thought it would be great to sell a patchouli-smelling counter-culture to a bunch of Grateful Dead fans eating steak on a stick while watching to see if Jerry Garcia will get a boner and/or play “Dark Star.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Dead, and I’m humming “He’s Gone” right now, as I write this entry—but even the surliest, most jaded hippy has got to raise his eyebrows at $500K for nothing more than a target market.

Hey, call me crazy (like a fox), but this whole thing makes one hell of a book idea! Get me someone to work out the details...


Dimitri Anastasopoulos said...

Alloy Media and Marketing, Alloy Entertainment, 17th Street Productions, Ivywise, Harvard University, William Morris Agency, Little Brown, Bertelsmann Distribution, Barnes & Noble.

So, Viswanathan's the villain, eh? Not the vultures? Pretty amazing. Her parents should be flogged, the agent flayed, this Ivywise thing destroyed.

Ted Pelton said...

Speaking of "a cross-promotional marketing firm that helps create branded items to capture the lucrative youth market," faculty at my college were recently pleasantly surprised when our college website got a long-promised makeover. It looks really spiffy: http://www.medaille.edu

But then it occurred to several of us that these fresh-faced students we were seeing on the various opening pages of the site were not familiar. Yes, we had evidently purchased images of students (who after all look so much more like college students should look than our own actual students) from a marketing firm. Even more insidious -- we don't have many Asian-American students at Medaille College. No problem: one prominent image is of an Asian-American woman enjoying a light classroom moment with three Anglo guys.

Like Literature -- why engage the messy real thing when you can simulate something that so much more accurately images what the thing (a college, a novel, a nation) looks like, having hired the right marketing company?

Dimitri Anastasopoulos said...

Ted, Your new website also doesn't support browsers that are not owned by the richest most powerful people on earth:


Davis Schneiderman said...

Right on, gentlemen.

Care to offer some offerings for my recent challenge at the top of the blog?