A few words about forgiveness and culpability

And I’m speaking of the Viswanathan publishing scandal, which I am finding especially troubling.

I know she did wrong, no question. But can’t we (meaning the people in the business of publishing) examine this a little more closely? Can’t we take a minute to wonder if maybe we bear some responsibility for this happening in the first place?


1) Ms Viswanathan was 17 years old when a big publisher dangled that $500,000 advance (and some probability of fame) in front of her.

2) In an interview (prior to the scandal) she said she didn’t even want to be a writer, she had no plans to pursue it as a career. (Anyone else see a red flag?)

3) The book was bought on the basis of a few chapters. A few chapters!

4) Suddenly, sale complete, she found herself faced with finishing the whole book…this for a young woman who has never written a novel before.

Having written two novels myself, I can testify that about halfway through the process, fear, despair, and a certainty that it will never, ever get finished sets in. Even when I know I’ve made it to the end of a book once before, and that I can, I still panic, and I’m 40 years old, with an MFA under my belt and no big contract contingent upon my finishing the manuscript.

Did no one involved in this sale think that this was a possibility? Did no one pause to wonder if they were doing the right thing giving a huge advance to an unpublished author who is also only 17 years old?? Was there such a rush to get a piece of The Next Big Thing that they all lost their heads and put a huge load of pressure on a high school student? Sure sounds like it to me.

She can’t even go into a bar and order a drink. She’s a kid. A kid who screwed up royally, but I challenge you to show me a kid who doesn’t have at least one major screw up during his or her teen years.

Did Viswanathan exploit the business, lie and steal? Yes, she did. She panicked and she plagiarized. By all means cancel her book, take it off the shelves, make her pay back her advance.

But an equally valid question is, Did the corporate publishing machine exploit her as a pretty young ambitious female with a foreign name?

I think perhaps they did.