Writing for money

Published : May 19, 2006 00:00 IST

Kaavya Viswanathan at Harvard University, Massachusetts, on April 10. - CHITOSE SUZUKI/AP

Kaavya Viswanathan at Harvard University, Massachusetts, on April 10. - CHITOSE SUZUKI/AP

Commercialisation of creativity lies at the root of young writers taking short-cuts to fame.

SOME 230 years ago, a young English writer achieved considerable fame and his poetry was admired and acclaimed by many. The trouble was that he published the poetry - and, indeed, a great deal else - as that of a medieval poet, Sir Thomas Rowley, who did not exist, and the poems, crafted brilliantly in the language of medieval times, were by the young man himself.

This was discovered only after he had died, and scholars who studied the poetry and the times realised that there was no such poet as Rowley. They also realised that the poems were exquisite and are still regarded as among the finest of the pre-Romantic poetry in England. The young man was Thomas Chatterton, and when he died he was just a little over 17 years old.

Chatterton seems to have decided, a child that he was, that he would be ridiculed if he published, in his own name, poetry in a language over 200 years old, and that it was more profitable to pass it off as that of a fictitious medieval poet, and claim the benefits as editor and publisher. He hoped to make money on these, and yet died a pauper, having cast himself in the impossible and tragic role of a printer of his own work as that of someone else, never able to take credit for the poetic genius he so very clearly had.

I mention Chatterton only because he seems to have fallen prey to the urges that have clearly overcome a modern-day writer, who is about the same age as Chatterton was when he died. These are the urges that make writers - almost always young, impressionable - think that they have only to discover a kind of formula to fit their writing into and that great wealth will be theirs, apart from the recognition.

It is not so much the desire to write, or to express oneself, to present one's insight, one's perception of beauty not seen by lesser beings and one's craft with words that is important to them, seemingly; it is the craving for wealth, for money.

Not that other writers have not also dreamt of, and longed for, money earned from their writing skills; many have been successful in getting perhaps more than they had imagined they would. William Shakespeare would in all probability not have written his plays had he not felt that they would earn him handsome financial rewards; indeed, some scholars feel that, given his essential style and his approach to his work, he would have not hesitated to move to Hollywood if it had existed in his time.

But it was clearly not all money; they did have a deep passion and urge to write. Shakespeare may have written his plays for the returns he and his company of players would get; but one cannot say that of his sonnets, or his other poems. They are too personal, born out of deep anguish and joy, which he could, with his genius, express in exquisitely beautiful words. They were, in the words of another great poet, `felt in the blood and felt along the heart'.

Thomas Chatterton's craving for financial returns on what he wrote is understandable; he came from a very poor family, and lived constantly in great need. For him it was really a matter of survival, and being no more than a child, he thought of what seemed to him a way to earn some money from his gift for writing in the medieval English he had come to love.

What is difficult to understand is why a girl - she is not even 20 yet - from a financially secure family, who has just entered Harvard University, who clearly has the world at her feet, should seek wealth through what is perhaps the worst thing a writer can do - through stealing the work of someone else. This is what Kaavya Viswanathan has done. True, she has apologised, and said that she was unconsciously influenced by Megan McCafferty's novels; but McCafferty's publishers have quite rightly rejected her apology. The speciousness of young Viswanathan's statement becomes clear when one reads the interview she gave the Newark-based paper, The Star-Ledger, before her plagiarism was found out and made public. On being asked, very specifically, if any book had inspired her when she wrote her now infamous How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got A Life she said: "Nothing I read gave me the inspiration."

Perhaps, the answer lies in the transformation that has swept over the literary world, especially as far as novels are concerned. The old days of young men and women who felt they had the craft and the urge to write trudging from publisher to publisher with a manuscript, collecting rejection slips, living in down-at-heel lodgings, has long gone. They went when publishers began to look on novels as products to be marketed, as aggressively as other companies marketed cosmetics or cold drinks. As big money was poured into marketing, into the hype - often deliberately created by using pliant columnists and reviewers - around novels particularly those by first-time authors, it was natural that the authors would be paid larger and larger advances. There have been stories of writers being given $1 million as an advance; here in India some young novelists have reportedly got even more than that. Kaavya Viswanathan is said to have received $500,000 for two books - the one she has written and another that she is yet to write.

The first reports of novelists getting huge advances resulted in a veritable flood of manuscripts virtually drowning publishers' offices. Hundreds, if not thousands, of determined young men and women began churning out what they felt were the greatest novels ever written; even in India there was a sudden burgeoning of novelists. All in English of course; that was where the money was.

Given this, would it be too difficult to imagine a young writer succumbing to the temptation to lift a large number of pieces and, indeed, the outlines of the storyline from what she thought were novels that were not that well known, so that no one would find out that she had lifted and cleverly concealed them in her book? In the fiercely acquisitive society in the United States that may have seemed an easy way to fame, and above all, money. Being well off was not the point; the fact is that in such societies one never has enough.

But it is equally easy to be harsh in judging a 19-year-old writer, who, leaving aside what she lifted, can obviously write. She has done something that is unethical, true, but for one thing, she is not the first to have lifted pieces from someone else, and for another, is the present loud condemnation a little louder because of her ethnic background? Perhaps, it is and perhaps it is not. But it is necessary to remind ourselves that we are talking about a 19-year-old, a young writer who is just a little more than a child.

It may be more rational and kinder to ask her to go ahead and write her second novel, and then judge her on its literary merit. If it has any, Kaavya Viswanathan will be remembered as a good writer; if it does not, she will disappear into the oblivion that exists for those who aspired to write but could not, with perhaps a little notoriety - for having tried to be a good writer at the expense of someone else.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment