Monday, May 08, 2006

The Kaavya Viswanathan saga ended last week with a whimper. There was mounting evidence of more plagiarized passages (Opal Mehta Blah Blah Blah turned out to be not a novel so much as an anthology, with contributions, according to some sources, from not only Megan McCafferty, but Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot, even Salman Rushdie). The product tainted beyond salvageability, Little, Brown finally dropped the book and the would-be wunderkind, blacklisting the literary Milli-Vanilli, and forcing massive layoffs at Brand Kaavya. And after all the sweat and toil they’d put into typing their jazzy paint-by-numbers Bildungsroman, too. Well, humph.

How Kaavya, Inc., Got Dropped is a tale of bland ambition for our times. Because, truly, their tragedy is the tragedy of our age. To paraphrase “Success in Business” guru, William Feather: so many have ambition, so few ability. But, here’s the thing: it’s really only a tragedy if you don’t recognize which side you’re on. After all, ability can be bought. If you’re ambitious, you find a way to pay for it. Get a second job if you have to. Kaavya, Inc., had half a million bucks to spend and a staff of thousands. Why’d they settle for used, when they had more than enough to buy it new?

Like I said, a lot went into the making of Kaavya, Inc. Kaavya herself is the product of the sort of high-powered marketing effort described in the slap-dash, tag-team novel to which her name was attached like Michael Jordan’s to a Nike shoe. She’s been a marketing phenomenon since her parents paid IvyWise tens of thousands of dollars to package her as Harvard material in the first place. And why stop there? Yes, it’s cynical, and sordid—a little like pimping out your kid to softcore pornographers—but it’s the status-obsessed haute bourgeois version of the same white-trash overgroping that produced Jonbenet Ramsey and Jessica and Ashley Simpson.

And why should publishing really be any different than fast food or soda pop? Or Hollywood, for that matter? Little more than an upper-middlebrow version of “American Idol,” where you garner extra points for expert impersonation? The rivalry between Little, Brown and Random House is just a literary version of the Cola Wars, after all.

Kaavya has been compared to James Frey, but it’s an unfair comparison: Frey had an overactive imagination, Viswanathan doesn’t have one at all. Good thing ambition doesn’t require it. I guarantee you this: we have not heard the last of her. She is destined to become the Omorosa of Harvard Yard. Whether or not she makes the cut of “The Apprentice 6,” I urge her not to abandon ambition out of mere lack of ability. It’s only a minor detail. But, Kaavya, a word of advice: ditch the arty-farty novelista pose, switch your major to Poli Sci, and grab yourself an MBA on your way out. Stick with bland ambition, and someday you could win the ultimate “American Idol”: you could be president.

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