Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Opal Mehta, Redux

Despite lots of temptation, I've manfully--womanfully?--resisted the temptation to return to the Opal Mehta plagiarism scandal since my last post on Friday. Even when both the New York Times (NYT) and the Harvard Crimson (HC) did follow-up stories, I refused to be seduced over to the dark side. Frankly, I didn't want to dedicate any more virtual ink to slamming a 19-year-old who'd done wrong.

However, when I got a special "Alert" from Publishers Weekly a few minutes ago, I knew I was fighting a lost cause.

Let me bring you up-to-date. Saturday's Los Angeles Times (LAT) had a story confirming that DreamWorks, which had optioned Kaavya Visawanathan's novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life (HOMGKGWAGAL), had halted work on the project following admission that the Harvard student had plagiarized from author Megan McCafferty.

Over the weekend, rumors began popping up that Kaavya had plagiarized other writers' works as well. Today's NYT story focussed on similarities between HOMGKGWAGAL and a novel by chick lit author Sophie Kinsella.

The Times acknowledged that "The plots of the two books are different . . . but the phrasing and structure of some passages is nearly identical." They point to a passage in Kinsella's Can You Keep a Secret? as follows: "her friends [were] 'in a full-scale argument about animal rights' and "'the mink like being made into coats.'" The corresponding passage in HOMGKGWAGAL is about "two girls having 'a full-fledged debate over animal rights'" and says, "'The foxes want to be made into scarves.'"

I was not overly impressed with the examples that the Times gave--especially in view of the similar (cynical) voice utilized across the chick lit genre. The newspaper itself admitted that, "The copying from Ms. Kinsella's book does not seem to be as extensive as Ms. Viswanathan's borrowing from two novels by Megan McCafferty..."

Personally, I think both authors borrowed the idea of animals wanting to be killed from Al Capps' Li'l Abner series. Capps had cartoon characters called the Schmoo who lived to make humans happy. When someone looked at them with hunger, they would flop over dead with joy at the idea of being eaten.

Meanwhile, the Harvard Crimson was fairly frothing at the bit. The HC originally broke the story, and its staff are obviously doing their best to keep the momentum going. Their article included an early balanced comment: "While the newly-uncovered similarities between 'Opal Mehta' and works by Salman Rushdie and two other authors [Kinsella and Meg Cabot, author of The Princess Diaries] are not as striking as the previously revealed parallels to Megan McCafferty’s books, the allegations raise fresh questions about the originality of Viswanathan’s novel." The school paper went on to give examples from Cabot, Rushdie and Kinsella's works.

The really interesting thing today was the "Alert" from Publishers Weekly (PW). Arriving late this afternoon, it confirmed that the copy of HOMGKGWAGAL that I bought on Friday afternoon may be going up in value. Little, Brown issued a press release stating that, not only will it not be reissuing HOMGKGWAGAL without the plagiarized sections, the publisher will also not be releasing a second book by Kaavya.

Little, Brown refused comment on Kaavya's $500,000 advance. However, PW sought comment from agent Robert Gottlieb who indicated the publisher might seek return of the advance. "'Technically the author is in breach of her contract...If the publisher decided that they wanted to demand the advance back, they could.'"

So, first, DreamWorks pulled the plug on Kaavya's film and, now, Little, Brown ends its relationship with her. It's getting to be a cold, dark place where that student lives.


Sherrill Quinn said...

You know, I still feel sorry for the girl. What an expensive lesson--let's hope she learned it.

Emjay said...

Sherrill, you and Maya are way too tolerant.

Way, way, way.

I'm not sayin' I wouldn't have been tempted; not even sayin' I wouldn't have done it, but then I wouldn't have expected you bleeding hearts to cry all over my rich, bloated corpse.

(I think I stole that phrase somewhere)

Maya is right, though--this search through everyone but Tolstoy and Dickens to find similar phrases in her book is just getting way nit picky and indicative of too many people with not enough to do.

Also, gotta say--really proud of Maya for admitting her familiarity with the schmoo. I don't even admit to knowing what a Sadie Hawkins day is. But, then, she's just a kid.

Maya said...

Sherrill: I'm with you rather than with our cold-hearted Emjay.

Emjay: I was lucky. I had a grandfather who loved Al Capps. He had a bunch of old Li'l Abner comic strips he shared with me. The Schmoo stuff was the first time I was old enough to realize that Capps was being satirical rather than just humorous.

I just googled Capps and found that I misspelled Schmoo. Correct spelling is "Shmoo." Apologies to the spirit of Mr. Capps.