Imperative: The Pressure to Be Exotic

Azita Osanloo

I have a feeling I'm not the only one.

When news broke this past spring that nineteen-year-old Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan had allegedly plagiarized passages for her novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life (Little, Brown, 2006), my first reaction was one of pity.

Appropriation aside, the circus surrounding Viswanathan—which sprang up even before the allegations of plagiarism were made public—illustrates just how much the publishing industry takes its cues from the film industry. Here was an articulate, stunningly pretty young woman willing to produce a chick-lit novel based on her own experience of growing up as a "super-serious" Indian teenager in suburban America. In addition to her youth, smarts, and girl appeal, Viswanathan's ethnic background would have been enough to make any savvy editor—betting on Western culture's more recent embrace of all things Bollywood—salivate. Kaavya Viswanathan should have been a triple-count slam dunk.

True, beyond a writing talent she may or may not actually possess, Viswanathan never falsified anything about her identity. She is, in fact, young, a Harvard student (at least at the time of this writing), and Indian. What makes her story similar to the other literary hoaxes of 2006—and therefore connected to any discussion about memoir and autobiographical fiction—is that in her case, too, the book's publisher was selling the potential star quality of the writer more than the actual book: The "character" of the artist became the most important commodity, the art itself relegated to mere incident, a tedious yet necessary stepping-stone on the way to a much-touted authorial debut.

My pity for Viswanathan stems from a belief that she is not wholly responsible for the scandal. No doubt playing on the vanity of an incredibly young writer, it's quite probable that the more seasoned adults in her life (agents, editors, book packagers, and, perhaps, even parents) convinced Viswanathan that she could and should sell her story—and quickly!—for the sake of literature, her career, and multicultural teenagers the country over. While no one forced her to plagiarize (or, depending on which story you believe, unconsciously internalize) passages from Megan McCafferty's novels, the seduction of being a published author, one recognized for her exotic, youthful image, was, inarguably, a potent temptation.

Had Viswanathan never cheated, would her book have opened the door to a locust of young writers selling ethnic memoirs? And, since the message regarding the scandal surrounding her book is—as one of my undergraduate creative writing students at Oberlin aptly put it—that "plagiarism sucks," will we yet see a population of writers finding their way toward a book deal via their exotic personas and not through the writing itself? Had Nasdijj not been caught, would more writers—in the tradition of Forrest Carter—have appropriated Native American culture? Finally, despite Frey's exaggerated tendencies, will more writers get stuck on the idea of selling their images, selling some unique part of their stories, simply to get published, simply because memoirs are trendy?

The popularity of the memoir genre comes as no real surprise to anyone paying moderate attention. With the onslaught of reality television, day-time talk shows, and tabloid journalism, it's become clear that American culture is increasingly voyeuristic, intent upon knowing the lurid, private details of the life of almost anyone it comes across. Perhaps it's because we're just a bunch of gossips. Or perhaps it's because we feel a direct connection to an artist when we know that this film or that book relates events the artist personally experienced. As a friend, one immersed in his own work of (non-memoir-based) creative nonfiction, recently suggested to me, one of the reasons nonfiction is so popular right now is because readers want "to go on a journey with the author." This same friend also suggested that autobiographical fiction, like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (Houghton Mifflin, 1990), is powerful as much for the fact that the author personally experienced the events as for the events themselves.

To be fair, there is some historical precedence for our proclivity toward voyeurism. Supposedly, prostitutes and libertines in eighteenth-century France penned the first memoirs. The "scandalous memoirs," as they were called, described in striking detail the exploits of the sexual underworld. Regularly and widely distributed, the leaflets enjoyed great popularity, due almost entirely to their attention to naughty gossip. In our own culture, there is a significant and weighty history behind the genre. African American biographies developed from slave narratives; Helen Keller wrote about living with neither sight nor hearing ability; military leaders recorded their war exploits. More recently, memoirs like James McBride's The Color of Water (Riverhead Books, 1996) describe the experience of growing up in a biracial family; Judy Blunt's Breaking Clean (Knopf, 2002) tells of the author's virtual escape from the patriarchal dominance of an eastern Montana ranch. Whether lurid or poignant, triumphant or tragic, memoir, in its purest form, enables a writer to uncover those aspects of our culture that have eluded us.

Trouble occurs when writers cave in to the seduction of the memoir market, viewing it as a jumping-off point, a vehicle to market themselves as up-and-coming authors (exotic by virtue of heritage or experience, or both). Do emerging writers have a choice? Would we, my friend in Seattle and I and all our peers, have logged hours crouched over the keyboard if we had been told that, unless we were willing to create a mythology around ourselves and write about that, we wouldn't have a snowball's chance in hell of being published?

Well, probably. That was the risk we took, the risk we continue to take. At some point or another, every emerging writer comes to the realization that time is finite, that writing may never "earn" its place in our lives, that the novel we've spent the last year on may need to be written all over again, that we might have to go back to school, that maybe we don't want these risks after all. Nevertheless, current marketing trends that stress the importance of the writer's star quality can seduce a writer into stretching the boundaries of his identity, allowing it to fit neatly into an attractive publishing niche. What's the fallout? Little by little, as editors become marketing experts and novels become memoirs, writers will increasingly become sales technicians, and the artists themselves, along with their art, will be lost to posterity.

Azita Osanloo received her MFA from the University of Montana in Missoula and is a regular contributor to the Missoula Independent. She has taught writing and literature at the University of Montana and Oberlin College and is currently at work on her first novel.