Wednesday, April 26, 2006

How Opal Mehta Got Caught!!, Part II

So, where do we stand on the fourth day of the Kaavya Viswanathan scandal?

I first posted about this alleged case of plagiarism yesterday. Quick recap: Last year, then 17-year-old Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan received a $500,000 advance for two YA novels. Earlier this month, the first of those two books--"How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life" (HOMGKGWAGAL)--was released.

According to the Harvard Crimson, a fan of popular YA author Megan McCafferty noticed similarities to McCafferty's work and contacted McCafferty by email on April 11. McCafferty then contacted her agent who, in turn, notified publisher Crown (a division of Random House). Crown reviewed HOMGKGWAGAL and immediately sent a letter to Kaavya's publisher, Little, Brown (a division of Time Warner).

When contacted over the weekend, Kaavya initially denied the charge. However, on Monday, she issued a statement in which she acknowledged the plagiarism, but claimed it was "unintentional and unconscious."

There have been a couple of new developments since my post yesterday. First, Publishers Marketplace obtained a copy of the document in which Crown now summarizes the 45 passages that are questionable. That's right. I said 45 passages.

Lest you be thinking that these passages are just accidental similarities, I'm going to list a few examples:

McCafferty's "Sloppy Firsts"
"Bridget is my age and lives across the street. For the first twelve years of my life, these qualifications were all I needed in a best friend. But that was before Bridget's braces came off and her boyfriend Burke got on..."

Viswanathan's "HOMGKGWAGAL"
"Priscilla was my age and lived two blocks away. For the first fifteen years of my life, those were the only qualifications I needed in a best friend...But that was before freshman year, when Priscilla's glasses came off, and the first in a long string of boyfriends came on."

McCafferty's "Sloppy Firsts"
"Marcus finds me completely nonsexual. No tension to complicate our whatever relationship. I should be relieved."

Viswanathan's "HOMGKGWAGAL"
"Sean only wanted me as a friend. A nonsexual female friend. That was a good thing. No (sic) there would be no tension to complicate our relationship and my soon-to-be relationship with Jeff Akel. I was relieved."

McCafferty's novel
"They could've bought Diet Cokes at any one of the 38 eating and drinking establishments in the Ocean County Mall, but in a truly sadomasochistic dieting gesture, they chose to buy their Diet Cokes at Cinnabon."

Viswanathan's "HOMGKGWAGAL"
"In a truly masochistic gesture, they had decided to buy Diet Cokes from Mrs. Fields."

There are 42 more examples like this in the Crown document. Kind of explains why Kaavya didn't maintain her initial "I have no idea what you are talking about" stance. Instead, she went on The Today Show and publicly apologized, continuing to insist the copying was unintentional.

Now starts the posturing. Today's Publishers Weekly included a response from Steven Ross, publisher at Crown. "The media storm has derailed Crown's plans to promote McCafferty's just-released third title, 'Charmed Thirds.' After a strong couple of weeks, the sales momentum has slowed, Ross said, as the focus has shifted to the plagiarism issue. 'We can't book anything,' Ross said."

Okay, now let's stop here and think for just a moment. There have been lots of plagiarizing scandals (and even a lawsuit over "The DaVinci Code") in the last four months. Not one single time, did the sales of books go down as a result of a scandal. If anything, mediocre books got more press (and more sales) than they would have accrued naturally.

Methinks this is Crown giving Little, Brown fair warning that they are going to expect substantial compensation and, maybe, even demand that HOMGKGWAGAL be pulled off the bookshelves so that "corrections" can be made. Side benefit: McCafferty's latest book won't have to compete with the newbie writer's novel.

Publishers Weekly sort of confirms that viewpoint: "Ross said he is hopeful the dispute will move out of the media and into the hands of lawyers, where a resolution can be reached. Asked if Crown was pushing for an immediate recall of the book, Ross said, 'no remedy is off the table.'"

Little, Brown was expected to issue a statement today.

I've been thinking. If I were Kaavya's parents, I'd be looking to Alloy Entertainment, the book packager that contracted to help Kaavya produce her book. I'd be asking them some serious questions. After all, the book packager shares the copyright with Kaavya.

Think about the pressure the 17-year-old was under. She was a freshman at Harvard, and she'd just been paid a $500,000 advance. Yes, she was wrong. Yes, she should never have done it. But she was only seventeen. Someone should have been keeping an eye on her. Knowing her age and the enormous pressure to perform she was under, someone should have thought to ask her the hard questions.

Guess those questions will get asked now.


Hyperbole said...

Well, an apology won't do. Unintentional? Unconscious? I don't think so. There has to be compensation.

Wonder if Kaavya will ever publish another book ...

Sherrill Quinn said...

You know, I think of my niecees when they were 17... I feel sorry for the girl. Yes, she was wrong. But the normal, every day pressure kids are under, even (or especially!) at 17 are enormous. Then you factor in the pressures particular to Kaavya's situation... yikes. Where was the parental oversight? And adult supervision on the process?

omar said...

in recent article at the new york times we learn this:

Some of the plagiarism may have happened because she has a photographic memory, Ms. Viswanathan said. "I remember by reading," she said. "I never take notes." In high school, when she had to learn to recite a poem, "I read the poem three or four times and I remembered it."

now if you have a photographic memory, when you see something you've already seen before you know you've seen it before! you might not remember from where, but if you're writing a book you'd give a little thought to make sure you weren't plagiarising.

now she's in deep, and can't be honest about this for fear of lawsuits. she really needed some supervision. when i was that young i could've used more supervision myself!

Maya said...

Hyperbole: I agree. While I sympathize with Kaavya, she has committed plagiarism, and there's a price to be paid.

Sherrill: These were parents that hired a specialist to get their daughter into Harvard. I'm guessing that they thought the book packager would provide supervision over the writing process in exchange for a share of the copyright. Oh, well.

Omar: I agree. Kaavya's in deep. She's about to get an in-depth education in our legal system.

Emjay said...

Sounds like the little gal had some major parental pressure going to succeed.

The stuff they did to get her into Harvard was pretty out there.

Fortunately, my parents looked at me and decided not to expect much, so I didn't experience that.

I think a lot of kids experience it in sports, for example, especially the daddy on son pressure to be a sports star.

That being said, I knew when I was 17 that I was wrong to go out with my roommate's boyfriend. She really liked him, and I just went because of my principle of going out with anyone who asked me.

This later resulted in my going to a big college dance with a dwarf. However, he was the only guy I ever dated who I could tower over

But, couldn't anyone do a better job of swiping the sentence than she did.

Come on.

"Having finally realized that deliberately doing the unconventional was, in itself, a form of convention, the group decided to forgo their usual decision to buy double latte at the 7-11, and instead went to Starbucks. Even though it hurt to get the latte where everyone else got the latte, the latte was actually better at Starbucks than at 7-11.

Vivienne King said...

At 17 you're still old enough to know that what you're doing is wrong. Especially when you factor into the equation that she's a Harvard educated student. She's got sense enough, and logic enough to know it's illegal. Period.

I don't honestly feel much sympathy for her, she's obviously smart, she should have known better.

All in all though, she made herself a cool 500k she'll never have to pay back and unfortunately for all, publicity, whether good or bad, is usually a great selling tool.

As a writer, it gets to a person, it makes me sad.