14 May 2006

How Opal Mehta got stuffed

Apologists for Kaavya Viswanathan over her plagiarism case are crawling out of the woodwork: her youth, her presence at Harvard, her photographic memory (which obviously skips title pages), the way writers "internalize" other works, it’s formula fiction after all. KV had seemed to be curiously unrepentant herself before she made herself unavailable. No doubt, this is good grounding for a corporate li(f)e. The Grumpy Old Indian Man says it best.

According to Random House, the number of passages lifted from McCafferty was up from 13 to 45. However, someone's pointed out that KV was not the sole copyright owner of Opal Mehta. That was shared with 17th Street Productions/Alloy Entertainment who are book "packagers" and had been implicated in a wrongful copying case before. Another sees Little, Brown's $500,000 handouts as less of an advance, and more of a publicity stunt to exploit KV's youth and Harvard connections while yet another columnist suggests that LB fully deserved all it got. "Many parties had their fingers in this pie, and while Viswanathan is the public scapegoat, behind her are publishing professionals who are either complicit or ignorant — neither prospect appealing."

Little, Brown changed its mind. Kaavya Viswanathan's publisher announced that it would recall all copies of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life and that it wouldn’t issue a sanitized edition. Book collectors who have already snagged a copy must be salivating. Robert Zelnick argues that stiffer penalties be imposed on those who plagiarise, as students do. He says "banish them from jobs or contracts in their field for a year" but surely something stronger is merited. Since this misrepresentation was a commercial activity that Ms. Viswanathan would have profited by, it ought to be treated as fraud. However, Ms. McCafferty won't claim damages. One presumes that the advance will have to be returned. No news of the movie deal but there isn't any doubt that if Opal Mehta gets [verb of choice] anywhere, it won't be on the silver screen.

As if McCafferty and Kinsella were not enough, according to The Harvard Crimson, KV's now said to have pilfered bits from Meg Cabot and, gasp, even Salman Rushdie.

Some samples given by The Harvard Crimson:

Page 12 of Meg Cabot’s 2000 novel “The Princess Diaries” reads: “There isn’t a single inch of me that hasn’t been pinched, cut, filed, painted, sloughed, blown dry, or moisturized. [...] Page 59 of Viswanathan’s novel reads: “Every inch of me had been cut, filed, steamed, exfoliated, polished, painted, or moisturized."

Page 35 of Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories: “If from speed you get your thrill / take precaution—make your will.” On page 118 of Viswanathan’s novel: “If from drink you get your thrill, take precaution—write your will.”

It's time to give up on this chase and to start on another. How about DesiLit readers look for sentences in Opal Mehta that have *not* been copied? It's almost enough to make one buy the book.

"Kaavya was my student last spring (in a section where I was a TA). I was surprised to learn she had written a book, as her writing was awful-- I had given her low grades on her papers.

I feel bad for her, even though she was always falling asleep in section (as if you don't notice a snoozing person sitting at a conference table for ten). Plagiarizing from chick lit has to be some kind of double whammy against artistic integrity."

Read more reactions.

The latest is that DreamWorks has halted work on the film. But don’t feel too sorry. I am sure that, in the true American cultural tradition, KV is bound to get $$$ to go on a lecture tour on how she plagiarized her way to a huge advance. A TV spot later, anyone?

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