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ISSUE 119 VOL 19 PUBLISHED 5/5/2006

Plagiarism overblown

By Peter Farrell
Variety Editor

Friday, May 5, 2006

We are living in an age of “truthiness.” Publisher Little, Brown announced last Thursday that it was recalling all editions of Kaavya Viswanthan’s “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.” The novel, Viswanthan’s first, contains more than 40 passages that resemble sections of two books by Megan McCafferty, “Sloppy Firsts” and “Second Helpings.”

Viswanthan is the latest in a string of “representation” scandals to rock the literary world. Only a few months ago, the James Frey controversy embroiled two generally disparate groups – literary critics and Oprah fanatics – in a heated debate over authenticity.

Frey, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, had severely exaggerated several portions of his supposed memoir, “A Million Little Pieces.” For instance, the three months of jail time Frey writes about in “Pieces” was actually only a few hours.

For those keeping score, that’s 89 days and 18 hours that Frey didn’t have to worry about dropping the soap, so to speak.

Of course, Frey argued that his admittedly embellished narrative captured the “essential” truth of his experience as an addict, and publisher Random House continues to bill the book as a memoir. (That said, Frey did make Oprah cry on television, which surely means that he’s probably going to be single for the rest of his life and that most God-fearing Americans will refuse to sell him basic stuff, like food or soda pop. When Oprah cries, she cries for all of us.)

Viswanthan’s case is slightly different. At the age of 17, she signed a $500,000 book contract with Little, Brown after her “agent” at IvyWise – a college counseling service counseling service that buffs up applications to elite universities for $10,000 to $20,000 dollars a pop – saw a sample of her writing.

Viswanthan wrote “Opal” during her freshman year at Harvard, and the ensuing media blitz pushed the book to 32nd on The New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list. And, oh yeah, if that’s not enough, major motion picture heavyweight Dreamworks bought the rights to “Opal” before it was even published.

In other words, when it was good for Viswanthan, it was really good. Unfortunately for Viswanthan, when a positive media frenzy morphs into scandal, the fall is that much farther. Soon after the publication of “Opal,” the Harvard Crimson reported that a number of passages in her book bore a striking, almost verbatim likeness to McCafferty’s fiction. McCafferty’s publisher beefed that number up to around 40, and Little, Brown has promised to remove all the offending passages.

Viswanthan herself pled innocent by internalization in an apology issued to the press: “I wasn’t aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty’s words [...]. Any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious.”

Now, pushing aside the dubious “production” issues surrounding the conceptualization and plotting of “Opal” (a book-packaging outfit known as 17th Street Production aided Viswanthan in the creative process), the real issue causing critical coronary arrest boils down to deception.

The self-righteous chest pounding that accompanies any plagiarism scandal – the cardinal sin of textual discourse – grounds itself in the notion that an author has certain responsibilities to the reader: namely, originality.

The public’s definition of a “good” writer is very much dependent on whether or not the author is doing something original. Of course, “original” is really a synonym for “fresh.” Truthfully, a good story never dies, and most of the great ones stick around for centuries. The specifics change, but thematically they remain the same.

A great novelist engages those old stories and ancient tropes like love, war or family with vigor, plucking out new melodies from old notes. Viswanthan’s crime, then, is failure to make her own melody – she borrowed her notes from someone else.

However, Viswanthan is not a great writer, nor even a good one. Nor does she claim to be, judging by the numerous interviews she’s given over the past few months. Her target audience is decidedly teenybopper. The novel is geared toward tweens and teenagers dealing with pressure from peers and parents, and the plot (which was not lifted from McCafferty) reflects at least a dozen teenage romcoms released in the past five years.

(The two-sentence summary of “Opal” is pretty telling: Opal, an ambitious Indian-American student whose parents push her to get into Harvard, is told by an admissions agent that she needs to get a life. She quickly changes course and, with the help of her parents does get a life, shockingly discovering something about what she really wants out of said life along the way.)

In other words, despite the fact that the press has treated Viswanthan like she’s the second coming of Jane Austen, she’s actually a teenage girl writing within the realm of her experience, and certain elements of the teenage experience overlap.

A quick glance at the plagiarized passages printed in The Harvard Crimson online reveals that nearly all of Viswanthan’s plagiarism is superfluous. She’s more the victim of lazy writing than anything, falling back on myriad overused clichés that always pepper the teenage drama genre.

Of course, the offending passages from Viswanthan’s novel should be removed and rewritten. Her transgressions, however minor, should be corrected.

But, as The New York Times’ Tom Zeller Jr. aptly noted, it’s pointless to pretend that the media frenzy over Viswanthan is driven by anything less than “Schadenfreude and bloodlust.” If Viswanthan was not the recipient of a blockbuster book deal, or young, or successful, her story would be a blip on the literary radar.

Instead, her minor scandal has metastasized into something major, and the critical commentary on Viswanthan has lost any sense of perspective or context.

Online bloggers are fervently deconstructing “Opal” and outlandish accusations of plagiarism continue to mount, including the bizarre claim that Viswanthan cribbed from Salman Rushdie.

Is Viswanthan a bad writer? Probably. Did she make a mistake? Yes. But let her punishment fit her crime.

Variety Editor Peter Farrell is a sophomore from Eden Prarie, Minn. He majors in English and in history.

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