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05 May, 2006
How Opal Mehta Got Busted
The literary world was rocked by another scandal last week. Unlike the recent cases of James Frey and JT Leroy that involved embellishing memoirs with healthy doses of fiction, the case of Kaavya Visnawathan seems to be a straightforward instance of plagiarism:
A recently-published novel by Harvard undergraduate Kaavya Viswanathan ’08, “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life,” contains several passages that are strikingly similar to two books by Megan F. McCafferty—the 2001 novel “Sloppy Firsts” and the 2003 novel “Second Helpings.”Though Kaavya apologized and maintained that any similarities “were completely unintentional and unconscious”, Ms. McCafferty’s publisher, Random House didn't buy it, calling the 40 similarities an act of “literary identity theft”.
The Harvard Crimson, official student newspaper of Harvard University where Kaavya is enrolled as a sophomore, further indicated that similarities were also found between her novel and novels by more authors (is there any author this young woman didn't crib from?).
As of last report, “Opel Mehta” was pulled from the shelves and Little Brown, Kaavya’s publisher, cancelled her two-book contract for which she was rumored to have received a $500,000 advance.
Some speculate the plagiarism was committed by ghost writers hired by Alloy Entertainment, Kaavya’s book packager. Though Alloy helped shape her plot and shares the novel's copyright with her, both she and the company deny the allegation.
I tend to believe them on this. The book packager wouldn’t ruin its reputation in the industry by taking such a risk. Not only is there no statute of limitations in the public’s mind for this kind of offense, but I doubt the company was naïve enough to believe that in this day and age, no one would notice. If they're guilty of anything, it was failing to catch the copied text in her work.
Besides, if that was the case, why would Kaavya cover for the book packager and take responsibility for the fiasco herself? She gains nothing doing so and only ruins her own reputation as a budding novelist by saying any similarities were due to her “internalizing” the books she has read.
In some ways, I feel bad for Kaavya. Though she's young and will recover from this eventually, it is a scandal that will be difficult to live down professionally.
I think her literary career is over; no publisher will touch a plagiarist and rightly so. Too often in our society, lying is given a pass like it’s no big deal: public officials lie about weapons of mass destruction, corporations lie about their financial status, spouses lie about infidelity. But lying is a big deal, and in the literary world, plagiarism is the ultimate lie.
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