The BS columns: The Kaavya affair

(The first column was written the day before news of the Kaavya plagiarism scandal broke, and was carried the day after…)

The really interesting thing about Kaavya Viswanathan’s novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life , has absolutely nothing to do with the book itself. The story of Opal Mehta, serious American teenage nerd with a one-point agenda—Get Into Harvard—is sweetly and funnily told.

Opal’s Harvard interview goes off the rails when her interviewer asks her: “So, what do you do for fun?” She drops the ball, forcing the Mehta parents to switch track from HOWGIH (How Opal Will Get Into Harvard) to HOWGAL (How Opal Will Get A Life). Kaavya Viswanathan understands teenagers, which might be because she was one herself not so long ago—she is now in Harvard, preparing for a career on Wall Street.

It’s a book I was perfectly happy to pick up, and just as happy to put down: until the warm-hearted, fun-filled film version is released, I won’t have to think of Opal Mehta again, though it was nice knowing her while it lasted. But what puzzled me was How Kaavya Viswanathan Got Agent, Got Advance and Got the Big Hype Machine rolling.

In her interviews, Viswanathan comes across as a bright, interesting, self-assured young woman who lucked into the kind of book deal many older and more literary authors can still only dream about. But she and her interviewers actually have very little to say: the story is self-explanatory, there are few deeper meanings you can dig around for, and Viswanathan’s own life is pleasantly ordinary. The interviews can only celebrate her success; we reviewers can only be pleased that Opal Mehta is kind of cute, kind of fun, the book kind of a good read.

The puzzling thing is that there are several authors writing for the same market who have produced work at least as good as Opal Mehta –Anjali Bannerji with Maya Running , for example—who haven’t cracked the same deal. Kaavya Viswanathan is, at the very least, a competent writer: but she is also very much a product of today’s market, a contemporary success story where the key elements are packaging and media managing, and where the book itself is just the content.

This is usually the point at which a reviewer is supposed to snort, paw the ground and tear into the bad, bad marketing machine that treats literature like burgers: all bestsellers have the same basic formula, tweaked a little bit for local palates. And I do understand Amit Chaudhuri’s impatience with the Indian literary world for treating books as success stories, yet another mark of the India Shining brand conquering the world, the author as the son-in-law who’s done so well.

But for the first time in publishing history, as several commentators have been pointing out recently, it has actually become possible for anyone to be a writer. There is no formula for great literary fiction, which is a bit of a problem; but then the market for literary fiction is a niche market, a boutique market, so the mainstream reader doesn’t have to worry her head over that particular issue. It is often seen as a bad thing that more and more novels are being produced—I use that word deliberately—today; that creative writing courses allow anyone with a smidgeon of talent access to a wider market, once they’ve polished their skills; that any reasonably bright person can hammer out a book in six months and have a decent shot at being published.

The obvious argument against applying the laws of the marketplace to literature is that sales are far more important in publishing terms than quality. If you look at what’s been resold to India as the great Indian novel in recent years, if you look at the world’s bestseller lists, it’s hard to disagree that publishing is no longer about looking at the literary qualities of a book.

But there’s another way of looking at this: for the first time in the history of writing and publishing, it is possible for everyone to be, or contemplate being, an author. In the initial stages of this exercise in democracy, books will almost by definition be written for the moment; a lot of what “succeeds” will be only average; a lot of books will be written by many for a very few readers. Give it time, though, and if novel-writing becomes as much a pastime or occupation as music lessons once were, we could end up with strange and compelling new stories. I’m willing to applaud the Kaavya Viswanathans of this world while we wait to see exactly what the new democracy will bring—a wave of well-written trash, or something rather more lasting, more durable.

(…which meant interrupting a vacation in order to write an update, which Business Standard kindly published in the same week.)

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 pummeled 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 plagiarized 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 spiraling 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.





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