Friday, May 05, 2006

Assembly-line books: two stories

Ah yes, the Kaavya Viswanathan thing. I don’t want to express any thoughts on the plagiarism issue - partly because there’s been enough opinion pornography on the subject already, and partly because it turns out I don’t have as many thoughts as you’d think (oops, plagiarised that line from Joey). But one of the side-issues that I find interesting is the suggestion that Viswanathan and Megan McCafferty weren’t the real authors of the books that carried their names - that they were just the fronts and the books were put together in assembly-line style by a packaging syndicate; and that the repeated passages might have been a natural result of this process.

This reminds me of a couple of old pieces, which I highly recommend:

1) A Roald Dahl story titled "The Great Automatic Grammatizer". This is a cautionary tale about the invention of a machine that mass-produces entire stories.

An engine built along the lines of the electric computer could be adjusted to arrange words (instead of numbers) in their right order according to the rules of grammar. Give it the verbs, the nouns, the adjectives, the pronouns, store them in the memory section and arrange for them to be extracted as required. Then feed it with plots and leave it to write the sentences.

Eventually, this puts all human writers out of business (they all end up signing contracts relinquishing their right to create any more original work, and in some cases agreeing to have their names on the machine-produced stories). One of the best things about the story is Dahl’s sly commentary on the writing process. For instance, there’s a passage where the machine’s inventor is explaining some of the tricks of writing to his sceptical boss:

"There’s a trick nearly every writer uses, of inserting one long, obscure word into every story. This makes the reader think the man is very wise and clever. So I have the machine do the same thing. There’ll be a whole stack of long words stored away just for this purpose."


"In the word-memory section," he said epexegetically.

Love the playfulness Dahl shows in throwing that "epexegetically" in, out of nowhere. If you haven’t read the story, get hold of it. Quite funny and very relevant to much of what’s happening in the modern publishing industry.

2) Also, this illuminating piece from the New Yorker about Edward Stratemeyer, the man who started the publishing syndicate that produced, among other series, the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. Don’t miss the comparison of Stratemeyer's revolutionising of children's books with what Henry Ford did for the auto industry.

Stratemeyer could not keep up with the demand for his stories. This prompted his second big idea: he would form a literary syndicate, which would produce books assembly-line style. From his days of working at Good News, he was acquainted with the best juvenile writers, and knew that "any one of them could have built up a 70,000-word novel from a comma, if required," as one such writer put it. By the time the Stratemeyer Syndicate was incorporated, in 1910, he was putting out ten or so juvenile series by a dozen writers under pseudonyms, and had more series in development.

Stratemeyer would come up with a three-page plot for each book, describing locale, characters, time frame, and a basic story outline. He mailed this to a writer, who, for a fee ranging from fifty dollars to two hundred and fifty dollars, would write the thing up and—slam-bang!—send it back within a month. Stratemeyer checked the manuscripts for discrepancies, made sure that each book had exactly fifty jokes, and cut or expanded as needed. (Each series had a uniform length; the standard was twenty-five chapters.) He replaced the verb "said" with "exclaimed," "cried," "chorused," and so forth, and made sure that cliffhangers punctuated the end of each chapter—usually framed as a question or an exclamation. Each series was published under a pseudonym that Stratemeyer owned. As Fortune later noted, it was good business for children to become attached to a name, but it would be bad business for that name to leave the syndicate with the ghostwriter.

Full piece here.

P.S. Please read what poor Samit had to go through as a result of being misquoted on the Kaavya topic by Tehelka. Another good reason to keep quiet about the whole thing.


  1. There's no such thing as enough opinion pornography. In my opinion.

  2. The Great Automatic Grammatizor is one of my favourite Dahl stories - it's a fantastic read, and I love the not-so-subtle commentary on writing becoming so formulaic.

    It's one thing I've found in a lot of modern fiction books, particularly those in series. There are some that literally seem to be written off templates these days - Jack Higgins comes to mind. When he began writing about the Sean Dillon character, it was fresh and entertaining. His last 5-6 books have all been almost identical in the most basic plot outline, with only the antagonists' backgrounds/names and the locations really changing.

    That's one thing I absolutely loved about PG Wodehouse. Most characters become stale after some time, most writing styles start to reach a point of saturation (like the Higgins example). It never seemed to happen with Jeeves and Wooster, or Psmith. And even if it seemed like it would do so, the writing alone would keep one going.

  3. In one of the books my Douglas Adams, a character finds -- in some galaxy -- a room full of monkeys, really typing out shakespeare:)

  4. "epexegetically", eh? Oh, ruthless machine, what have you done with out Jabberwock?

  5. *bristles* I'll have you know I often use "exegetically" in my feature stories.

    Amar: that's what I always say. When millions of freshly evolved monkeys bang about on millions of keyboards, there are bound to be similarities in word arrangements and ideas. Why such a fuss?

    Salil: I'm horrified now that I spent so many months of my life on dozens of Hardy Boys.

  6. Do you think a woman who, according to her own admission, lives with her "brilliant but adorable husband and her daredevilish young son" is worth plagiarising?

  7. The Grammatizer story was very good - like all Dahl tales, there was always this mean undercurrent throughout the tale. I read somewhere that Dahl wrote it after a couple of his stories had been sent back by publishers.

    Add Robert Ludlum to the template factory - I am horrified to see him churning out book even after his death.

  8. Argh, I meant to type "churning out book after book"

  9. Yes, it is scary when dead people do that. What about that Barbara Cartland?

  10. Thanks for reminding us about this short story (kicking myself for recalling it during the whole Kaavya incident!).

    Didn't RK narayan's 'Vendor of Sweets' have something as well about the son wanting his father to invest in 'novel producing' machines ?

  11. To be honest, I have never really understood the whole concept of plagiarism... Back in High School, I sort of got the basic idea when the teacher said "don't copy things right off the book, try to paraphrase when doing your term paper"... But when it comes Novels, I usually find my self totally lost on the issue...

    Now I'm in no postion to comment about Kaavya Viswanathan because I haven't read her book (Not my cup of tea)... But the name seems to be popping out all over the media and its really hard to avoid the issue...

    But here is my question... Is plagiarism (in Novels) more about passing off ideas or actual passages?...

    Because a few years ago, I remember reading a short story by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala which sounded exactly like Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" with only the names and places Indianized... Would that also be considered as plagiarism ?

  12. The Dahl story was awesome, agree. Have you ever used at the automatic paper generator?

  13. Jai, is it Alloy Entertainment you're talking of?

    At least the Nancy Drew-Hardy Boys machine never copy/pasted chunks, factory or no factory :-( :-(

    This must be a factory of fakes

  14. Jai, that novel generator reminds me of Dadaistic poetry.

    @Mohan, you know passing off others' ideas as one's own has always been censured. But the modern fuss over plagiarism (attribution, quotation marks) is tied to the terms of academic tenure and the influence of intellectual property rights discourse.

    By the time American students reach graduate school they have a fair idea that plagiarism is not kosher.
    But apparently, plagiarising is far more common among American undergrads than grad students (I was a teaching assistant for grads, a friend taught undergrads and we compared notes).

    And plagiarism, though uncommon, is not unknown in Harvard. Apparently, it's a big problem in Oxford, where they estimate 10 per cent plagiarise on their assignments.

    Though I cannot tell you the number of times I've had a student caught plagiarising crying in my office because they are from countries where copying chunks of texts from sources without attribution is not a big deal. And most of them tend to be genuinely ignorant about how seriously the American academia treats plagiarism.

  15. Anyone read Narayan's Vendor of Sweets, where the vendor's son proposed to build a fiction writing machine?

    Saw the film the Squid and the Whale last night (quite good). In it, the eldest son sings the Pink Floyd song "Hey You" for a school talent contest, passing it off as an original composition. When he's caught, his defense is that he could have written the song--that he was talented enough to do so, so the fact that he didn't actually write it was of little consequence. (It didn't fly, of course.)

    I wonder if writers who plagiarise feel similarly?

  16. At least the Nancy Drew-Hardy Boys machine never copy/pasted chunks, factory or no factory

    Patient Portnoy: really? Are you so convinced that out of those hundreds of books (the plots of which came from pre-formatted templates), there wasn’t a single instance of a paragraph being extremely similar to another para? I’m not defending plagiarism, but to a large extent I agree with what Malcolm Gladwell said recently - about genre fiction by its very nature lending itself to the repetition of certain stock phrases and ideas.

    It's quite evident that the only reason so much fuss has been made about the KV incident is the huge advance/pre-publicity she had received.

  17. Thats how modern fiction is, I guess. I was shocked to read about these book packagers who apparently help you in organizing the book and writing bits and pieces etc.
    Thats why I prefer reading things like PG Wodehouse (I agree with above commentor Salil), because they illustrate whats best about books - originality and an ethereal sense of associating with the characters.

    Coming to the Kaavya Vishwanathan episode, I've blogged about it just now myself. Its a black mark on India and Indians and she should be punished a lot more severely than she has been.

  18. It is so good to stumble across a fellow dahl lover. I'm not feeling too eloquent right now, so this comment seems rather plain vanilla, but I had a love for reading dahls and wodehouses and the like, which I seem to have lost after reading the grishams, the macleans, the higginses and so on. Any recommendations? Having exhausted every dahl book in existence (and is there any doubting that the roald dahl complete short story collection is one of the finest collections, ever?), I need recommendations on authors.

  19. Anonymous, roti or chawal? And we do seem to disagree on dessert...

  20. Its a black mark on India and Indians and she should be punished a lot more severely than she has been

    Confused and Baffled: whoa, aren't you the activist?

  21. C'mon, the kid wants to be an investment banker. She was striving to live upto the normal ethical standards of the finance industry. But Opal is an unfinished work, a little immature. Think of it as a term paper that gets a B in investment banker ethics. Give her time and she'll learn not to get caught.

  22. Jabberwock:whoa, aren't you the activist?
    Haha...Hardly activist. If you see my blog-post on Ms. Vishwanathan, you will see what I mean by severe punishment.
    I haven't heard of any other case of plagiarism that matches upto Ms. Vishwanathan's audacity. And how could that American author give up the chance of suing an Indian for potloads of dollars? Thats the second thing I dont get.

    Activist-shactivist I dont know.
    I was just really surprised to see her get off so lightly. Inexplicable.

  23. But Jai, have you ever encountered the Sweet Valley phenomenon? It's about these twins, and they have several series to their name. There's the one about their childhood, one about their high school, even one about Uni I think. And all of it put together by syndicates.

    They are at least 15 years old to my certain knowledge and they still sell.

  24. Oh, and @Port: The Case Files lot were mass produced, didn't you know?