01 May 2006

How Kaavya Viswanathan Got a Book Deal, Got Good Reviews, and Got in Trouble

First off, let me say that I loved How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life by Kaavya Viswanathan. I didn't view it as Great Literature, but found it entertaining and worth my time. Our library system bought it as an adult title, but we talked about how it might be a great book for teen groups.

Then the Harvard Crimson reported that Viswamanathan had apparently plagarized parts of her novel from two Megan McCafferty novels, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. The media pounced on the story. Many outlets, including the Boston Globe, ran passages from the works of both authors next to one another, showing that there are, indeed, striking similarities between the two works and the question of plagarism is valid.

Kaavya Viswanathan responded to the accusations with apologies. She said she had read McCafferty's books and had internalized them, that any plagarism was "unintentional and unconscious.".

The New York Times ran a story on book packaging, whereby editors "craft proposals for publishers and create plotlines and characters before handing them over to a writer (or a string of writers)." In fact, in this particular case, "the same editor, Claudia Gabel, is thanked on the acknowledgments pages of both Ms. McCafferty's books and Ms. Viswanathan's How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. Ms. Gabel had been an editorial assistant at Crown Publishing Group, then moved to Alloy, where she helped develop the idea for Ms. Viswanathan's book."

So, the same woman who helped along on McCafferty's books also worked on Viswanathan's book? And didn't notice any similarities?

I am not defending intentional plagarism, but I am also not shocked that a 17-year-old girl (which is what Viswanathan was when she got her publishing deal) might use words from other books she had loved, without really realizing it. As an adult writer, I have caught myself once or twice thinking, "Wow, that sounds great! Hey... Isn't that awfully close to something I read a few weeks ago...?" Then I try to ascertain if it *is* similar to something else I read or if I'm just being paranoid. So far, I've kept myself out of trouble.

My point is... Where the hell were Viswanathan's editors during all of this? Doesn't it make sense that an editor -- especially one who seems to have worked on the book Viswanathan is accused of copying from -- would, um, I don't know, maybe notice the similarities? Doesn't some of the responsibility lie with them?

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Tipping Point and Blink, has an good post on the whole affair on his blog. His stance is that in teen fiction, certain themes and plots are staples. He says, "It is worth reading, I think, the actual passages that Viswanathan is supposed to have taken from McCafferty. Let's just say this isn't the first twenty lines of Paradise Lost. My question is whether it is possible to write a teen-lit novel without these sentences... Calling this plagiarism is the equivalent of crying 'copy' in a crowded Kinkos."

There's another defense, from a more legal standpoint, at Language Log.

I don't know. Maybe I am wrong. But, for the record, I really think Viswanathan is the better writer... I hope this doesn't destroy her writing career, because I was really looking forward to what happened to Opal Mehta next...


Clare said...

Oooh...*is really interested* I find myself agreeing with you and with Viswanathan's "supporters". My first thought when reading the first two paragraphs of this entry were about human experience and how though we all would like to think that we all have extremely different ventures into the realm of love, dating and relationships - the truth is, is that books centered around these themes would not be so well-read by the public if we all couldn't identify - so there is bound to be "striking similarities" in topics and situations. Would like to say much more, but feel myself getting rambly.

ebbye said...

I read so many books and sometimes I cannot believe how similar some of them end up sounding. Although a lot of authors like Jodi Picoult and Bryce Courtney and a lot of crime fiction authors are somewhat formulaic; I have also read some books that are uncannily by two different authors and sound very very similar! I do believe that we all internalise and if we read a lot and are exposed to a lot of the media, like song lyrics, books, art, plays etc we will embrace and use some of the words as our own! But the worst thing is to be exposed with questions of plaugeurism and not to have noticed but just influenced by other writings. That must be very difficult to disprove and I am sorry to say but we are constantly surrounded by books, newspapers and magazines plus the media, speeches, reports, in fact inundated - my question is how can we not become influenced!? Phew