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Nilanjana S Roy: Kaavya Viswanathan: Sloppy Seconds


Nilanjana S Roy  |  New Delhi 

This should really be called "How Kaavya Viswanathan Got Caught, Got Nailed and Ruined This Columnist's Vacation". Yesterday's column referred to the young sophomore's book deal for How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got A Life, but came out just before accusations of plagiarism were made against Kaavya Viswanathan. Many thanks to all of you who wrote in with links and comments, and generally forced certain idling columnists back from the beaches of Goa.
The story broke when The Harvard Crimson cited a dozen-odd passages from Opal Mehta that seemed strikingly similar to passages found in two of author Megan McCafferty's books, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. McCafferty is an odd choice for a plagiarist: her books came out in the last six years, and she's a fairly well-known author in the teen market.
Here's a sample of what The Crimson found, and there was passage after passage like this one:
"From page 213 of McCafferty's first novel: "Marcus then leaned across me to open the passenger-side door. He was invading my personal space, as I had learned in Psych class, and I instinctively sank back into the seat. That just made him move in closer. I was practically one with the leather at this point, and unless I hopped into the backseat, there was nowhere else for me to go."
From page 175 of Viswanathan's novel: "Sean stood up and stepped toward me, ostensibly to show me the book. He was definitely invading my personal space, as I had learned in a Human Evolution class last summer, and I instinctively backed up till my legs hit the chair I had been sitting in. That just made him move in closer, until the grommets in the leather embossed the backs of my knees, and he finally tilted the book toward me."
The New York Times says that the similarities are more extensive than even The Crimson indicated""they counted 29 passages to the Crimson's dozen. Kaavya's defence is that she did it, but she didn't know she was doing it-the classic unconscious plagiarism plea. She was "very surprised and upset" to learn about the similarities; she "wasn't aware of how much" she may have "internalized Ms McCafferty's words". There is much scope for irony here: when it was revealed, before the scandal broke, that Kaavya Viswanathan's original debut novel had been massaged into shape by editors as well as something called a "book packaging company", her editor asserted staunchly that the writing of Opal was "1,000 per cent" Kaavya's work. Make that somewhere around 900 per cent.
What makes Kaavya's plagiarism, unconscious or not, such a burning issue that the Malaysian Star, the People's Daily of China and the New Guinea Gazette would all consider it front-page news? This is a book from a genre not especially known for its originality""boy meets girl plays out against the battlefield of SAT scores, teen friendships and fashion bloomers.
It's a first novel that was massaged and pummelled into shape""again, long before the plagiarism storm broke, Kaavya's editors were comfortable admitting that Opal Mehta needed more work and more "inputs" than most manuscripts, though they gave her credit for an "original" idea. Given that one of Megan McCafferty's novels is about a young girl trying to get into Columbia, and that Kaavya Viswanathan's novel is about a young brown girl trying to get into Harvard, the only thing original about Opal Mehta lies in the fact that it features an Asian protagonist. In other words, we may not have known how much of Opal Mehta had been borrowed, accidentally or not, from another published writer; but we did have a fair idea of the many processes that went into the manufacture of this book, complete with the advance, the hype, the deal.
Years ago, I remember reading Elizabeth Goudge's The Rosemary Tree alongside the late Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen's Crane's Morning with shock, and dismay. Aikath-Gyaltsen was a minor but fine literary talent; she plagiarised her entire second novel from Goudge's work; and reading those paragraphs, I felt my heart sink in genuine, terrible sadness.
Looking at the similarities between Megan McCafferty's work and Kaavya Viswanathan's work was like reading a sobering checklist, nothing more: this may be snobbish, but I cannot care as much about moderately well-written teen stories as I do about fiction that is genuinely original. Genuine acts of plagiarism force us to see things we would rather not see, like the despair and hubris of a talented mind spiralling into its own darkness. In the brand-new world of publishing as it stands today, even plagiarism has become a simulacrum, a pale imitation of the real thing.

First Published: Wed, April 26 2006. 00:00 IST