Kaavya, We Barely Knew Thee

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Let me tell you a story of a little upper-middle-class Indian-American girl named Kaavya Viswanathan. At the tender age of 17, Kaavya somehow managed to secure a 2 book deal with a New York publisher, worth $500,000! At that point, Kaavya had never written a book before, and didn’t even have an idea for a novel. That’s how pop books are created these days: potential authors are found for their marketability, “book packagers” work with the authors to develop a marketable story which matches the authors’ innate marketability (in this case, pretty young ethnic girl with conservative family pressures wants to be cool and get into Harvard), and a piece of digestible pop-lit is produced.

In Kaavya’s case, the book that was birthed was called How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got In, and is a bestseller with film rights already sold to Dreamworks. Her magical story is summarized here, and Kaavya is enjoying her sophomore year as yet another celebrity wunderkind at Harvard. Never one to dodge a bit of schadenfreude, I and my ilk were predictably a bit irked that Kaavya had been hand-fed and ushered into the kind of success that so many of us struggling authors toil for decades to achieve. (I still have knuckle pains from so many teenage nights sitting up in my parents’ unheated basement, knacking away on the ancient manual typewriter.)

But, oh, my friends, the story does not end there. This week, several varieties of feces hit several models of fans. The best summary of the controversy is presented by the Harvard Crimson, which reports that Kaavya’s book has something on the order of 40 “similar” if not identical passages to two novels by accomplished youth author Megan McCafferty, whose books Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings are quite popular among girls Kaavya’s age. And sure enough, after much delay, Kaavya has admitted that she is a fan of McCafferty’s books, and issued an email response, which included the passage:

“I am a huge fan of [McCafferty’s] work and can honestly say that any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious.”

Slate has an interesting summary of the trend of plagiarism. Apparently, McCafferty’s publisher has rejected the erstwhile apology and is rightfully seeking legal damages. As Slate so poingantly put it, “if you succeed by packaging, you can expect to fail by packaging, too—and you alone, not your packagers, will pay the price.” Indeed, some experts are saying that Kaavya may surive the suit from McCafferty, but lose one from her own publisher, who would be in their rights to demand repayment.

Yes, we of the author ilk can now celebrate that at least one over-inflated fake writer has been brought down…. sort of. But I do have some sympathy for Kaavya. She was a teenager clearly in over her head, under a lot of pressure from a “book packager” to produce something she just assumed she could create (that a lot of people assume they can create, without realizing just how difficult it is to do).

And there’s an element of the modern education system at work here, too. High schools today give lip service to the threat of plagiarism; the typical penalty for plagiarized work is…. nothing. Moreover, increasingly, high school and university level “research” consists of cobbled together citations of greater works, with minimal innovation or original content. Call it the “blogification” of academia and literature. In these ways, Kaavya’s transgression is merely a symptom of a deeper scar on society.

But she’s not off the hook. Not by a long shot. She’s an adult, albeit a fresh one, and so is responsible for the consequences of her actions. (Mind you, I won’t be surprised if she still ends up making millions off of the movie deal.) Of course, the question remains, was her transgression a conscious one? Non-writers may ask, how is it possible to plagiarize unconsciously? Well, I too was accused of plagiarism once. Gather ’round as I tell the tale, chil’un…

Back in the late 80s, before I’d had any real success as a fiction writer, I was eager to earn my chops in the litmag circuit, that arena of high literature in which all the truly great fiction writers prove themselves before venturing into the world of book publishing. I’d had one or two stories published at that point, and was really enjoying exploring daring ideas on paper. One summer, I wrote what I thought was my finest story to date, a tale about a Latin American barber being coerced to slit the throat of a dictator who was sitting in his barber chair. Titled, “Wizard With A Straight Blade”, the story was immediately accepted by The U.C. Review, one of the University of Toronto’s many respected litmags.

Some weeks later, I received an angry letter from the editors, copied to editors of other leading magazines in the city, accusing me of stealing the story from an established Latin American writer, whose photocopied story they enclosed. Sure enough, the narratives were almost identical, though I still think my words were better and more thought-provoking. I do not recall ever having read that story before (the original was in Spanish, after all), nor had I then even heard of the author. It is entirely possible, though, that someone had once told me its gist, and it thus percolated to my subconscious, eventually emerging from my pen; the artistic process is a mysterious one.

So was I guilty of plagiarism? We’ll never know. I certainly bristled at the accusation, and fired off several unanswered letters of defence and complaint. But the fact remains that it remains a possibility that I indeed unconsciously plagiarized a story I had heard told to me sometime in the unidentifiable past.

But Kaavya’s situation is a bit different. So many passages using the same words, the same scenarios, are far too much for unconscious regurgitation alone. Or maybe they aren’t. I really can’t say. I will say this, though: it is very clear indeed that Kaavya does not have it in her to produce a work of sufficient originality to be considered a literary novel. Most people don’t. She should give back the money, or give it to charity, and do what she always wanted to do, be an investment banker. That way she can buy and sell all the authors she wants.