Over the past year, there’s been a debate about female and male writers and how they come off in the press. Franzen made clear that “Freedom” was going to be important, while others say that Allegra Goodman was too quiet about “The Cookbook Collector.” Do you think female writers have to start proclaiming, “OK, my book is going to be the book of the century”?
Anyone can say anything, that’s easy. My focus is less on the need for women to trumpet their own achievements than to shoot high and achieve a lot. What I want to see is young, ambitious writers. And there are tons of them. Look at “The Tiger’s Wife.”
There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models?
I’m not saying you should say you’ve never done anything good, but I don’t go around saying I’ve written the book of the century. My advice for young female writers would be to shoot high and not cower.
To quote Beckman, When she says “the Harvard student,” she’s referring to Kaavya Viswanathan, a very young novelist whose first young-adult work of fiction, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, plagiarized veteran chick lit authors Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot, and Megan McCafferty. The book was pulled from the shelves by publisher Little Brown and Company, and Viswanathan’s contract for a second book was canceled. It was ugly.
But Egan’s disgust isn’t about the plagiarism — it’s that Viswanathan wanted to write chick lit. Judging by the quote, Egan thinks chick lit is “derivative,” “banal,” and not shooting “high.”
Cue an opportunity to yet again defend chick lit and YA literature, explain yet again that quality exists in every genre, including the ones for which Egan doesn’t seem to have much respect, and give examples of how the books dismissed by Egan as “banal” and “derivative” were written by the likes of Meg Cabot and Megan McCafferty, writers who, as Beckman pointed out so aptly, were pioneers of their genres.
We’ve done that here over and over – I do it regularly on behalf of romance in general. Hell, I even did it yesterday at the bank when the teller noted the “business name” on my account and asked what “Smart Bitches” do with “Trashy Books.” My answer: “We read them – can I recommend a book for you to read?” – because personalized recommendations for good books can almost always make a sizable dent in prejudice about the romance.
So yeah, Egan gave me a massive sad and a rampant desire to get her a ladder so she can get the hell over herself already (though with a Pulitzer backing up her dismissive comments, that might prove to be a challenge. Those things are heavy).
What’s most exhausting and frankly banal about Egan’s response is that the question itself was a good one: a woman’s statements about her own accomplishments can be a troublesome topic. Many people struggle with how to state their own achievements in social media alone. Hell, I have a hard time figuring out when and how to talk about how excited I am about the book I have coming out in October, and how proud I am of it. Yeah. I’m already wondering if I should edit that.
But therein lies a struggle for many women. There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying that you did something awesome – except Egan immediately frames any statement about accomplishment with an accompanying comparison to other writers who haven’t aimed as high and done as well in her opinion. Ambition is good, but be careful what kind of books you want to write with that ambition. It’s fine so long as you’re not plagiarizing books that aren’t banal tripe in the eyes of Egan. Egan elevates herself by denigrating someone else – in this case a whole host of other female writers of considerable accomplishment.
Also: plagiarism is an acceptable demonstration of ambition? REALLY?
Egan said, “What I want to see is young, ambitious writers.”
Yeah? What I want to see is young, ambitious writers in any venue who can comment upon their own accomplishments without establishing a pecking order of status and quality. “I did something great” does not need to be followed by “and it’s better than hers.”
You don’t need “better than” to create your awesomesauce. What a waste and an insult to answer what was actually a very thought provoking question.
ETA: Seems this is not the first time Egan has taken a slap at what Viswanathan plagiarized. Susanna Kearsley, who can type very fast, it seems, was researching this topic and provided me with a transcript of this interview from NPR in 2006 in which Egan says the following:
Interviewer: Why do people have to be focused or herded into a genre? What do you think about that?
JE: I think there’s something to that, I mean one thing that I found really disturbing about this whole scandal involving plagiarism for the novel by the very young novelist, Kaavya Viswanathan, How Opal [Mehta] Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. There was a lot of debate about whether she had really plagiarized, whether it was intentional or unintentional, but what I took away from that story more than anything was, here’s a really smart, 17-year old girl who wants to write a novel, and what does she do? She reads a lot of other novels that I think anyone would agree are pretty derivative, I mean the material that she was plagiarizing did not, there was not a lot of originality there to begin with. She recycles all of this either knowingly or unknowingly, and then with a book packager, packages this novel. And that’s not really my ideal of what a young, smart woman who wants to write a novel goes and does, and that that’s what writing a book meant to her, I find a little disappointing.
Here’s the link to the entire interview (Egan shows up at around 12:30): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6160671