Quick Hits, 4/25/06

Feel like I’m running about like a madman today, which I suspect has something to do with an orthodontist appointment this morning (for Athena, not for me, and yes, everything’s fine with her mouth; we’re juts making sure it’s big enough for her grown up teeth). So some quick hits:

* Lori Jareo? She’s so last Friday. The hot writing scandal today involves Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard undergrad who got half a million for her novel — which on closer examination appears to have rich, meaty chunks of plagiarism in it. This caused Ms. Viswanathan to issue an apology suggesting that some near-word-for-word rips from author Megan McCafferty’s work were “unintentional and unconscious.”

Bah. Look, people. Cutting and pasting paragraphs from someone else’s book into your own and then swapping out a few words here and there as a freshening agent is not something you can blame on your subconscious, on Ambien or on alcoholic blackouts. You will remember doing it.

Having said that, I find it difficult to work up a real head of steam about this one. A teenager plucking choice passages from someone else’s work to give her own work additional resonance? That’s what happens on MySpace 13,000 times a day. Speaking from experience (believe me), teenagers are generally not terribly resonant communicators, even the clever ones, so they model and ape the words and poses of the writers they admire. I spent a large chunk of my 19th year trying to be a junior HL Mencken, and yes, it was just as painful to read as it sounds. Now, I didn’t plagiarize ol’ Henry, but then, I also didn’t have half a million dollars worth of pressure hanging over my head, either.

I’m trying to roll with the snark here, but I just keep feeling sorry for this girl instead. She could probably have used a good editor who understood that teenage writers — even the ones what go to Harvard — are special cases and need to be handled with a gentle combination of encouragement and suspicion; the former because the writer is being asked to do so much, and the latter because the writer is being asked to do so much. I have no opposition to young writers being published — when I was 19 I wanted to be published, so why would I begrudge anyone else — but were I an editor of a novelist that young I think the first thing I would do when I got the manuscript would be to quietly wash it through Turnitin.com, and then be ready to deal with the handholding that would follow if something popped up.

* Wanna make yourself feel like a fool? Stress out like monkey in a trash compactor about an article deadline at the end of the month, and then learn the deadline is at the end of next month. Man, I want hit myself with a hammer for that one. On the other hand, if you ever need an expert on LEGO brand toys, baby, I’m your man.

* The state legislatures of Illinois and California are reportedly considering drawing up articles of impeachment against President Bush; apparently they can do so under some obscure parliamentary rule of Congress. I think this is a tremendously bad idea. Leaving aside the issue of whether Bush should be impeached or not (you can see my thoughts on that subject here, if you would like), if the states get into the whole impeachment act, there’s not a single president between now and the end of the United States who will not get impeached by some damn state legislature during the course of his or her term. There are fifty of them and only one of him. And anyway, state legislatures are where high school senior class treasurers go to die. Think about your high school senior class treasurer. You want him having a significant role in national politics? I didn’t think so. I’m hoping this thing gets nipped in the bud.

* Arrived via UPS today: Chris Roberson’s latest, Paragaea: A Planetary Romance, which is his take on the thrilling pulp science fiction stories of yore. It comes out next week, for those of you with money burning holes in your pocket. I’m a fan of his Chris’ last novel, Here, There & Everywhere, and he wrote a kick-ass story for the Subterranean Magazine issue I edited, so you can imagine I’m looking forward to cracking this one open. I’ll let you know what I think when I’m done. In the meantime, here’s Chris’ Paragaea site, which in addition to info about the book contains a complete prequel novel for your enjoyment.

* Asked in one of the comment threads:

I have noticed that you don’t run any ads on the Whatever. You are popular enough that you could probably bring in some significant revenues this way… Any reason why you have held off on this?

Yeah: I just don’t want ads on the Whatever.

There’s no major philosophical reason for this; I’m not opposed to people making money writing blogs (I do it myself). And I certainly don’t think ill of people who put ads on their sites. I just prefer not to do it here. I do suppose it’s true that I could make a tidy sum from ads at this point, but you know, I’m not exactly hurting for cash these days. If I were to lose income in a significant way and needed a way to replace it, then I might consider putting ads here, and not feel too bad about it. Baby needs shoes and all that. But at the moment I can afford not to do it. So I don’t.

Which is not to say I don’t do any sort of promotion here on the Whatever. This site is of course an advertisement for myself; I’m not shy about letting you all know when something of mine is out and about. I also cheerfully promote others; I promoted Chris Roberson in this very entry, because he’s a friend of mine and because I expect Paragaea to be a lot of fun, and therefore something worth sharing; two entries previous to this I promoted Hal Duncan’s book Vellum because I thought it was a really excellent read. Tomorrow I’ll post a note from Bill Schafer at Subterranean Press announcing a nice little deal he has on one of his books (not one of mine), because he’s one of my publishers and I don’t mind doing him a favor. But in each case, it’s not trivial that this promotion comes from me personally rather than from ad server; I’m fairly transparent in my motives and in my intent, and I try make sure it’s not all pimping, all the time.

I have given thought to creating a different site, with different content, that could run ads. I own the domains Mencken.com and Schadenfreude.us; both of those, I think, have a number of delightful high-traffic possibilities, some of which I plan on pursuing at some point in the reasonably near future. But I expect that Whatever will remain ad-free. I like it that way, and that’s a good enough reason there.

* Final thing: Those of you wondering when my next novel will hit the stores, wonder no longer; according to Amazon, The Android’s Dream will hit the stores on October 31, 2006. I think having a book with an official release date of Halloween is super cool.

23 thoughts on “Quick Hits, 4/25/06

  1. Just got the ARC of Paragaea myself. Very much looking forward to it, as I loved Here There & Everywhere. Still finishing Vellum, though, which I’m not yet sure how I feel about….

  2. Speaking of promoting ideas…
    I’ve started on a reasonably-complete set of hardcover Scalzi fiction, and I’d like to get at least one of them signed in my presence. What is the probability of you doing a book-signing tour that would include Portland Oregon?

  3. RooK:

    “What is the probability of you doing a book-signing tour that would include Portland Oregon?”

    Not terribly likely at this point, I’m afraid. Sales-wise, I’m not at a point where a tour makes a whole lot of sense for Tor. If I’m invited to a local convention at any point, that would be more likely.

  4. “And anyway, state legislatures are where high school senior class treasurers go to die. Think about your high school senior class treasurer. You want him having a significant role in national politics? I didn’t think so. I’m hoping this thing gets nipped in the bud.”

    Given that my state representative is Tom “Dr. No” Brinkman, you’ve just gratuitously insulted my senior class treasurer (whom I believe now works for Merrill Lynch and can’t be bothered with politics.)

  5. My state rep (Karen Yarborough) is the one who sponsored this in the Illinois house. I’m of two minds on this. If I actually thought there was a snowball’s chance in hell that it’d work I’d be against it, for the reason you give.

    But I don’t see there’s much chance that it’d actually happen. First, Article 1, Section 2, Clause 5 sez: “The House of Representatives…shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.” That seems pretty straightforward, Jefferson’s manual notwithstanding. Second, I doubt the Illinois leg would go for it. And finally, even if it did happen somehow, there’s no way Frist’s Senate would vote him out.

    So given that Bush is fairly safe from that kind of end-run, I don’t really mind seeing a bit of symbolic pushback. So far he’s been slammed around in the polls. But the various forms of government have barely slowed him down (Dubai ports was about it.)

    I’d *much* rather see argument about Bush’s impeachment than argument over how we’re going to preemptively nuke Iran.

  6. I’d be surprised if I’ve never unconsciously stolen a simile or a sentence structure from, say, William Gibson. But I’d also be surprised if anything I stole was as banal as those Viswanathan/McCafferty excerpts. (Be hanged for the sheep, people! The sheep!)

  7. Ooooh, Legos– did you get the inside skinny on the forthcoming NXT systems? Where’s the article going to be published?

  8. The article is going to be in Jungle magazine in a few months. I know there’s talk of the NXT systems being open source, you know, for the geeks.

  9. According to an column by Alex Beam in today’s Boston Globe, Kaavya was coached by a “book packager” called Alloy Entertainment, which “helped flesh out the novel’s concept”. And it is his guess (in a typically caustic Beam way) that the quotes came as much from them as Kaavya’s “internalizations”.

    I’ve never heard of a “book packager”. Beam’s column on Boston.com is here, at least for a little while:

    http://snipurl.com/pp2b

  10. Jonathan Arnold:

    “And it is his guess (in a typically caustic Beam way) that the quotes came as much from them as Kaavya’s ‘internalizations’.”

    I think that’s a real possibility, and if that’s what happened, it’d be a shame that the writer would have to have it all laid at her door (although implicit in that is the fact she didn’t, in fact, write the whole book, which is another can of worms entirely).

  11. Think of what the legislatures are doing as “charging.” The House has the sole power of impeachment, which is essentially the “indictment.” So a state legislature cannot impeach anyone. But they can get the ball rolling.

    As for Kaavya, I thought the alleged similarity between the passages was pretty weak tea. But as established, I’m a copyright guy. I understand the need for ethical rules about plagiarism in academia and certain professions, but I’ll never consider taking someone’s ideas, with or without credit, to be causing harm to that person, or in any way “wrong.” The concept that McCafferty would be emotionally distressed over this makes my head hurt.

  12. On the Kaavya Viswanathan front, the plagiarism (which can easily be spotted and corrected) worries me much less than the fact that a high school student is being assisted in writing a novel and handed half a million for it. I don’t claim to know all of the details, but it sounds like somebody (or lots of somebodies) just used their Harvard pull to create an author. Are we headed toward a publishing industry that mirrors the “music” industry. Is she the Britney Spears of publishing? If so, I feel for all the would-be authors that will never have the connections to be handed half a mil. In fact, what about the existing authors that have been writing for years and never hit it big due to lack of marketing by their publisher and other factors. I could be off-base, but my spoiled rich-kid-wants-to-be-an-author alarm is tripping.

  13. Wow, I can’t believe this.

    Being one of the few non-authors in the Whatever Comments crowd, I typically lurk when the conversation turns to writing, but this took me by surprise. John – are you seriously saying it’s OK to plagarize as long you’re young and overwhelmed with the pressures of getting your book published? I’m not saying throw her in jail or anything, but if she doesn’t learn the law now, what’s she going to do when she’s thirty and feeling pressure to get her next book out?

    Also, the juxtaposition is amazing: Jareo claimed she was “just doing it for her friends and family” and you jumped all over her. Not that I give any credence to her excuse, but what are the odds she’s going to bring in half a million on a Star Wars ripoff? This woman financed her college education (and then some!) by ripping off someone else’s work.

    If we’re going to come down hard on someone here, shouldn’t the shoe be on the other foot?

  14. Brian Greenberg:

    “John – are you seriously saying it’s OK to plagarize as long you’re young and overwhelmed with the pressures of getting your book published?”

    I don’t believe I said any such thing, Brian, and I’m a little confused as to how you got that out what I wrote. I said I feel sorry for her, which is not the same thing as condoning plagiarism. Ms. Viswanathan will almost certainly be punished for her actions (and possibly the actions of others, if all this chatter about the book packagers who “helped” with the book is half-way accurate), and that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

    However, I don’t think it’s out of line to suggest that the girl, whatever her personal foul-ups, was also substantially let down by the folks who should have been aware that young writers come with their own set of challenges. Throwing a 19-year-old (who was actually 17 or so when all this started) into the deep end of publishing is not a trivial action. Some editor somewhere should have been watching out for her, and one apparently wasn’t.

  15. John,

    I was hoping that you would comment on my previous post. I am interested in your thoughts on the odds that a 17 year old would be a good enough writer to merit a $500,000 advance and film deal vs. the odds that a Harvard-bound 17 year old’s family and friends would have the pull to have a novel at least partially ghost-written and handed a deal that would make many of the authors that we read and respect would salivate over.

    I keep wondering how much money Charlie Stross has made on all of his books compared to her sweetheart deal. Is good writing becoming a niche market? Will the future be dominated by 100 page, double-spaced, wide margined pap promoted by Oprah and sold by Walmart for the new illiterati? You’ve got to have an opinion.

  16. Other Stephen:

    Actually, I don’t have much of an opinion on it. First, of course, I haven’t read the book in question so issues of plagiarism aside, I can’t say if it’s a good or bad book. Second, the very week I sold Old Man’s War, another 19-year-old kid sold his book for half a million, too — in that case, it was Christopher Paolini, and the book in question was Eregon. Did it signal the end of the publishing world? Not really. Neither does this. In another few years, another teenager will get another ridiculous publishing deal, and it won’t signal the end of the publishing world then, either.

    Publishing is a business, and it would like to be a mass market business. Had not Ms. Viswanathan been derailed by this whole plagiarism thing, chances are very good that the books would have done very well for their publishing company. And indeed, they may still. Books very rarely get published purely on literary merit; there’s a profit consideration as well. I’ve said before that the reason Patrick Nielsen Hayden picked up Old Man’s War was less because he thought it was it was a tremendous book and more because he thought it was a book that could sell a lot in paperback, i.e., he thought “he, I think this book could make a tidy sum of money.” Now, I know he also likes the book, so that’s nice too. But I don’t pretend that was the sole or even primary consideration.

    Ms. Viswanathan’s book will not crowd out Charlie’s work, or mine, or anyone else (possibly excepting some other teen girl banging out chick lit). Perhaps it’s not fair that she got half a million while Charlie got somewhat less, but publishing, like, life, really has never been fair.

  17. Hey, plagiarism happens in the big leagues too. A few years Janet Dailey (a big name romance author) had admitted that three of her(Dailey’s) published novels with fourth due out contained passages lifted verbatim from the works of fellow romance author and longtime acquaintance Nora Roberts.

    The case has since been settled and the damages awarded were donated to the Literacy Volunteers of America.

  18. Sorry, John. I didn’t mean to offend. I guess I misunderstood this:

    A teenager plucking choice passages from someone else’s work to give her own work additional resonance? . . . I spent a large chunk of my 19th year trying to be a junior HL Mencken, . . . I didn’t plagiarize ol’ Henry, but then, I also didn’t have half a million dollars worth of pressure hanging over my head, either.

  19. Dude, You need to proof read your articles better. “we’re juts making sure it’s big enough”, “even the ones what go to Harvard”?

  20. Dude, it’s a blog. Typos happen. Also, the last one is intentionally ungrammatical for style purposes.

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