Just one more way writers are doing their darnedest to kill the book

First there was James Frey and “A Million Little Fibs — er, Pieces.”
Then we learned that young male novelist JT Leroy is not in reality an HIV-positive former teenage truck-stop prostitute and drug addict who turned his nightmarish childhood into searing fiction. Instead, we discovered, Leroy is actually a 40-year-old San Francisco writer named Laura Albert.
And now we have the curious incident of the plagiarist in the nighttime. Or, perhaps, possible plagiarist. Perhaps Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan really did copy somewhere between 29 and 40 passages from two books by Megan McCafferty by accident. Or maybe it was all a tragic coincidence. Haven’t we all been told there is a statistical possibility that with enough monkeys and enough time and enough typewriters, one of those chimps would eventually rewrite “Macbeth?”
In any case, I have to ask: Is there anything more book writers can do to make absolutely certain that readers never trust us again?
We are constantly bemoaning the state of literature — yup, me too — and how beleaguered fiction has become. Everyone is perusing their mail at myspace.com or scanning the Web for the latest gossip on Lindsay and Britney and Paris instead of (for instance) reading “Silas Marner.”
Okay, that was a bad for instance. I wrote the introduction to the Modern Library edition of “Silas Marner,” and even I would rather read some good dish on Lindsay Lohan than “Silas Marner.”
Insert (for instance) Andrea Barrett’s “The Voyage of the Narwahl” for “Silas Marner.”
My point? If literature is to remain vital and vibrant and competitive with the myriad entertainment alternatives available in the digital world, writers who give a damn about pulp and ink need to be honest. We can’t be fabricating our memoirs or creating patently false personae or stealing whole passages from one another.
After all, that’s what the Internet is for.
It’s one thing to lie about your age on myspace.com; it’s quite another to lie about your background in a book.
And perhaps that right there is the crux of the problem. We are allowing the ethical sloppiness that on occasion marks the digital work to encroach upon pulp and ink. And that can only hurt novelists and memoirists and historians in the long run.
After all, digital data is easily deleted. But books last forever.
Yup, even Kaavya Viswanathan’s “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.”
Sure, it has been pulled from bookstore shelves, and amazon.com and bn.com are no longer selling it. But the book is just a few clicks away at e-bay.
And now that the writer is enduring a horrific moment of disgrace, you can buy a copy for a mere $49.95 — or twice the book’s cover price when it was new.
Perhaps we can thank the Internet for that, too.

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

One thought on “Just one more way writers are doing their darnedest to kill the book

  1. Justin R says:

    Good art takes from other art to make it better. Its all about the finishing touches. Harry Potter is the most popular series in the world, and you can’t seriously tell me none of it is borrowed from anything else. I work at a library, and I see people reading what makes them happy and I think that the state of literature is that it’s more accessible than ever before. Public domain works are available online. Literature is art, as are movies and music. In a society where such advanced visual art is more accessible than literature, then people are going to stop reading because why not have a more easily digestible version that conveys the same meaning. I wouldn’t call McCafferty amazing fiction, but what do you want? More people are reading than ever in history, but they’re also watching TV and, as crappy as it is, surfing myspace. I work in a library, I see these numbers going up all the time, everywhere, and while Viswanathan may have taken from another author, the people who care about that aren’t the ones hanging on the balance between reading and not reading. They’re the ones already reading great books. The people who might just watch the next gross-out comedy or read a book, they don’t care about that stuff. That probably makes it more interesting actually. People care about celebrity crap because its the closest Macbeth has to becoming flesh. It’s all drama, and its somehow only interesting if its written down?
    Literature is fine and more people are reading. If they read the wrong books, then oh well. Better they read non-fiction then, that way they are at least increasing their knowledge about the real world instead of just its pop-culture.
    I’m sorry if this sounds like I’m attacking you, but I’m just tired of everyone saying art’s gone to shit when its more accessible and experienced than ever before in the history of the world.

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