Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Victim or Perpetrator?

I continue to be fascinated by the Kaavya Viswanathan story. I want to feel bad for her. I want to believe that she didn't fully understand what she was doing and wasn't trying to do something wrong. But then there is this quote at the end of a Harvard Crimson story from Salman Rushdie, from whom Viswanathan is also accused of stealing:

"I do not accept the idea that this could have been accidentally or innocently done," Rushdie told CNN-IBN, an Indian-based network. "“The passages are too many and the similarities are too extensive."”
But what I still don't understand is how she got the contract to start it all. I recently wrote a children's story and called a friend, who is a published children's author (her book spent time on various best seller lists). When I asked her about being published she told me that she, a published author, was having trouble getting her calls returned. In fact, most publishers didn't want to look at any new material from unpublished authors, choosing instead to work with known quantities, such as celebrities. There are thousands of talented writers out there all vying for some recognition, but can never get it.

So, what does that mean for Viswanathan? I think she was a marketing ploy. Her packager/ publisher saw some raw talent, figured it could make some hay with a young, attractive, talented writer who received a book contract along with her acceptance letter to Harvard. It all worked perfectly, right up until the point she was found out.

But what I can't decide is if she was a victim, or just a teenaged girl in over her head who just made a few mistakes.


Amy said...

A real train wreck, isn't it?

I think it brings up an interesting point about our changing media.

I used to think that object of media communication as a method by which to connect with a large audience was one of principle.

That is, I used to be altruistic in my approach to sending a message.

"This is wrong!" or "I/We need to DO something!" or "Someone needs to listen to me/us, and help us to DO something".

I felt a bit smug at the advancement of technology which seemed to serve to "help mankind" especially in the area of communication.

This was much better than "the old days" where stunted growth, isolationism, and "wars" were a result of lack of effective communication.

But recently I had an epiphany (and this relates to your post). I realized that the only times the advancement of communications lead to progress is when the communication encourages ENGAGEMENT.

That is, if we take "blogs" as the latest and greatest in communication technology (and even without sufficient retrospect, in all likelihood it isn't), they don't really have any effect unless there is readership, or evidence of readership, or effect of readership (which are all forms of ENGAGEMENT).

Thus Viswanathan might very well have been one in a long string of authors falling under the radar screen of the average Joe on the street.

But because of this unique story, and we have seen how people have ENGAGED (I'll stop using caps now), people can argue that her book has captured more attention, and thus we can make the logical assumption that it was all a stunt.

Maybe we're all way off base here, and this is just the sensationalist-media-gone-wild, but it would be entertaining to indeed prove my point true by this example.

Are we looking for ways to actually advance communications relying on technology and the notion of the altruistic advances of smart scientists? Or are we slaves to advertisers and PR folk, who see engagement as the primary focus of human interaction.

What's more important? Facts, or the fact that we're talking to each other?

Chuck Tanowitz said...

I actually agree with you. Since my focus comes from the PR side of things, it tends to cloud my thinking.

That said, I think this is a case of what some call "transparency" that worked. She copied something, people found it out rather quickly and she was "corrected" in the sense that her book has been removed.

It's an extreme case, but it happens all the time. When it comes to communications in general, it's this kind of interaction that will force companies to be careful in how they design and manufacture products. You can't make something that you know is sub par, and expect people to just not notice. They'll find the weaknesses and use them against you.