Saturday, May 13, 2006

Whitney Otto on Kaavya Vishwanathan

If you've been following the news over the last two weeks you will have heard of Kaavya Vishwanathan, the Harvard student who has been accused of plagiarism.

Her book "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life" has been withdrawn by the publishers in the US but still available here in Canada, and from what I have gathered from the article I linked to in my first para. will be available in the UK.

There has been a swarm of articles on Kaavya and the issue of plagiarism, but Whitney Otto's op-ed in yesterday's NYTimes resonated with me the most when she stated that (and I paraphrase) Ms. Viswanathan was more motivated by being a writer than actually writing. She went on to say Kaavya may have had more success at fiction if she didn't bear the burden of the overachiever(so determined was she to get ahead that she hired a college admissions consultant, someone who, for a nice chunk of change, will get you into that Ivy League college of your choice.) Overachievers don't generally become writers because the skill set is so different.

Whitney Otto says (and I love this)

"...As I tell my writing students, if you want to be a writer work on the finer points of gossip, eavesdropping and voyeurism; basically the pastimes of the underachiever, ways to while away the hours."

With this statement she has made my 'doing nothing but people watching' seem legit! Hooray!

But she does have a point, doesn't she? If you're an overachiever with a desire for instant success, you would want to follow the "paint-by-number" approach and produce something that has already been successfully received so there's no window open for failure.

"...It would take an underachieving, gossipy, voyeuristic, bit of a slacker to write a genre novel capable of pulling away from the pack. In the writing life you can't avoid failure. Or, to put it another way, someone who is driven to write is usually not the same sort of person who would work with an expensive college counselor to ensure admissions success.

That's a little like expecting a claustrophobe to take up a career in a coal mine. And you can't trade on your youth because being young isn't enough to even know your own story, let alone tell it. Some of the best books ever written about youth are by writers long past those dewy days."

Yes, Whitney, you've got me nodding my head in agreement here.


Dorothy W. said...

I agree -- Otto's take on the whole thing is interesting and makes a lot of sense. People certainly don't always write solely because they love writing -- I'm reminded of people who use ghost writers. They haven't done anything wrong, but they are equally uninterested in "writing" as we usually think of it.

Susan in Italy said...

Hi Lotus, Sorry, but I just opened the New York Times website and today there's a story about the dangers of skin-whitening creams in Asia. Thought you'd be interested (if you don't alrready know)

Lotus Reads said...

True, Dorothy! Infact, there have been times when I found an autobiography interesting, but so badly written that I wished so much the author had thought to employ the services of a ghostwriter!

Hi, Susan and thanks a bunch for the link which I will be checking out shortly! Anytime you find something you think I might be able to use on my anthropology blog, please throw it my way! Thanks so much!

jean said...

I don't know if I agree that an overachiever hoping for instant success is particulary likely to follow a paint-by-number approach to anything. I would think very few overachievers are followers and that almost no one with an initial paint-by-number approach to something will stand out from the pack. Even in the case of best-selling authors who churn out formulaic works every year, no doubt their first successful work was different from what else was out there. Just a thought. As for Otto's slamming this gal's use of a college admissions consultant, from what I've heard about college admission these days in the States, it's become 'the new normal.' Horrific but true. But I totally agree with her point that underachievers and great writers may very well overlap. Overachieving is about doing, moving, acting; it doesn't leave a lot of time in the day for watching, listening, thinking. So I think if you're a confirmed people watcher and contemplator, then you're well on the way to having the ideas and observations to produce great stories. Best of luck!

Tim said...


Just wanted to say I liked your site--the photo is lovely. About the NYT piece, I agreed with it, too...until I realized that there's a living, breathing, contradiction of Otto's thesis at Princeton: she's called Joyce Carol Oates, and it seems a bit difficult characterizing her as a "slacker" :D

Anyhow...I'm happy I surfed to your site, though~have a great day! :)

Lotus Reads said...

Jean, thanks so much for the comment, it's always nice to read a different opinion. The one common characteristic I've found in all the overachievers I've known ( and I'll admit I don't know too many :) has been this terrible fear of failing, and this is why when Otto mentioned the paint-by-number approach, it just made sense to me, but I see your point about OA's not being followers and that makes sense too! :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Tim!

Wonderful of you to stop by. The picture- Saraswati,Hindu Goddess for the Arts - isn't she lovely?

Ahhh, true, how could I forget Joyce Carol Oates, she's amazing, isn't she? Been meaning to read her novel, "The Falls" for the longest time now.

I hope you will visit again.