podcast review

Books Gone Bad

Photo: The Podglomerate LLC

In 2006, two years after Facebook’s founding and shortly before the radical degradation of the books business owing to corporate consolidation and the age of the internet giants, a Harvard sophomore was accused of plagiarism — not in a college paper but in a young-adult novel, one that the student, Kaavya Viswanathan, had scored a widely publicized half-million-dollar publishing deal to write.

It was an astonishing rise and fall. What began with mythology-building publicity, budding stardom, and energetic sales rapidly evaporated in scandal after the Harvard Crimson published a story finding that chunks of Viswanathan’s book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, appeared to be lifted from entries in a YA series by Megan McCafferty that had come out five years earlier. (Also identified were passages that seemed to pull from other authors, including Meg Cabot and Salman Rushdie.) In a televised interview with Katie Couric, Viswanathan acknowledged the similarities but claimed any cribbing was unintentional. The situation spiraled. Further printings of the book were ceased, a planned film adaptation was scuttled, and Viswanathan’s public reputation was left in ruins. When her parents perished five years later, the headline from Gawker, which had extensively covered the mess, read “Parents of Harvard’s Chick-Lit Plagiarist Die in Plane Crash.”

Viswanathan’s ordeal is the opening story in Missing Pages, a new podcast anthology series that applies the medium’s time-tested true-crime approach to the seemingly genteel world of book publishing. Hosted by Bethanne Patrick, an author and industry insider, it explores an assortment of recent publishing kerfuffles. Beyond the Opal Mehta affair, the series covers Dan Mallory and the exaggerated life story he used to sell his thriller, The Woman in the Window, written under the pseudonym A. J. Finn; the curious case of JT LeRoy, a transgender teen sex worker turned literary sensation who was eventually revealed, in a 2005 story in this magazine, to be an elaborately staged creation; and the more recent social-media- facilitated escapades of Caroline Calloway, who gets her own two-parter.

There’s a solid appeal to Missing Pages’ somewhat gossipy endeavor. For those unfamiliar with the guts of the book business, it offers a window into this perennially intriguing industry. In its handling of Viswanathan’s story, for example, the show takes you through the ins and outs of the trade’s technical peculiarities: how the existence of “book packaging” firms like Alloy Entertainment, which bundles writers with book ideas and marketing concepts for sale to publishers, led to Viswanathan’s rise as a potential star and how the subsequent breakdowns or simple nonexistence of certain other processes meant she was not adequately protected as an early-career talent, a situation that ultimately resulted in her public evisceration.

Meanwhile, for those familiar with the book world, Missing Pages offers space for a sustained critique of the industry’s many sins, which I can only imagine is cathartic for many who have been through the publishing wringer. Viswanathan herself, now a lawyer, appears in the first episode, and speaking to Patrick years after the fact, she fully cops to her responsibility in the scandal even as she maintains that the plagiarism was inadvertent. Yet she still seeks to emphasize the severe imbalance in the ways everything played out: During the whole imbroglio, she argues, she was the one who had the least power, yet she paid the highest price. “Everyone was operating within a framework of incentives. I get that,” she says. “I just wished that, at 18, I would have known more about that.”

It’s a genuinely fascinating moment but unfortunately a rare one. Listeners shouldn’t go into this podcast expecting extensive appearances from the primary subjects of scandals across the other episodes. The remaining targets of the show, mostly still working in some form, have little reason to agree to interviews. (The series will have two more subjects at the tail end of the season: Anna March and Greg Mortenson. As of this writing, their participation remains unclear.)

As a result, it usually feels as if Missing Pages finds itself forced to work the art of the write-around, with each installment using the scandal in question as a way to discuss something larger and more sys- temic about the book business. While it blunts the inherent appeal of the show’s hook, this isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. After all, many of Missing Pages’ thematic fixations remain persistent issues. “Does a book sell well because it’s well written and engaging or because a publisher puts their time, money and resources into promotion?” Patrick asks in narration at the conclusion of an extensive discussion of the Mallory story, mulling its significance when considering how the author’s preexisting family wealth likely allowed him access to publishing opportunities that others did not have. On the subject of LeRoy — which broadly echoes a recent Spanish publishing scan- dal in which a female writer honored for crime thrillers that thematically deal with violence against women turned out to be the creation of three men — Patrick draws attention to the industry’s deep attraction to a perfectly marketable persona.

While ostensibly a vessel of critique, Missing Pages itself contains notable things to complain about. In addition to being excessively baggy in places, there’s a certain hamminess to its scripted narration that won’t work for everyone. (Patrick, perhaps being made to illustrate her authority as an author, is prone to the refrain “We authors …”) It’s also one of those productions that trade in the language, aesthetic, and framing of true- crime podcasts, which is mostly frustrating because the genre is so stiflingly pervasive that rendering any subject matter as true crime seems like the only way to get any narrative podcast funded.

Then again, a big reason Missing Pages leaps out is its extraordinary timing: It’s being released in the immediate shadow of the government’s yet-to-be-resolved antitrust trial involving the blockbuster Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House merger. If completed, that pairing would almost certainly exacerbate problems caused by the incentive structures rooted in the industry’s already horrendous state of consolidation, which is only magnified by the stories covered in Missing Pages.

During the highly publicized trial, Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle reportedly declared on the stand, “Everything is random in publishing. Success is random. Best sellers are random. So that is why we are the Random House!” Given how much power, influence, and riches these publishers facilitate every day, viewing the book business through a true-crime lens seems only fitting.

Books Gone Bad