Wrap Up:Young Author, Classic Controversy

Note: I have almost stopped doing news wrap up pieces because I’ve found that they take away time and energy from the purpose of this site, dealing with plagiarism online. Nonetheless, it would be remiss of me to not at least mention this story as it has gartered so much attention.

Updated 4/28: See end of story

Kaavya Viswanathan is, by all accounts, something of a prodigy. Born in India, the daughter of two wealthy doctors, Viswanathan, signed her first book deal, reportedly worth half a million dollars*, at the age of seventeen. Her first book "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life", was released several weeks ago to both rave reviews and financial success, climbing to 32 on the New York Times’ bestseller list.

All of this made the Harvard sophomore an almost instant celebrity. However, she’s now found herself embroiled in the most-talked about plagiarism scandal since the politically-charged Ben Domenech story broke a month ago.

While much of the story is still ongoing and the outcome very much in the air, one thing is for certain. This young author’s career, if it recovers at all, will never be the same again.

The Story So Far

Viswanathan’s plagiarism woes began Sunday when The Harvard Crimson, the school’s paper, published a report comparing passages in her book to previous works by Megan F. McCafferty, namely "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings."

Though the initial reports only listed a handful of similar passages, a more recent list released by Crown Publishing, McCafferty’s publisher, listed well over forty similarities between the books.

Viswanathan, in a statement released by her publisher, Little, Brown and Co., apologized for the similarities saying that she is a "huge fan" of McCafferty’s work and that she "internalized" McCafferty’s novels, which she claims to have read several times in high school. She went on to say that the similarities were "unintentional" and that she would rewrite the offending passages.

McCafferty and her publisher, however, spurned the apology and said that "it is inconceivable that this was a display of youthful innocence or an unconscious or unintentional act". The statement went on to call the similarities "nothing less than an act of literary identity theft."

While it is unclear what, if any, action Crown Publishing will take, Little, Brown and Co. has announced that they will not be suing Viswanathan for breach of contract nor will they be pulling the book off of the shelves. They do, however, plan to publish a revised copy of the book as soon as possible.

Still, it’s clear that the matter is far from resolved and, if the Dan Brown case is any indication, a court action is very likely in the near future.

Personal Thoughts

When I first heard about the plagiarism charges on Sunday, I brushed them aside. Seven instances of similarity in a 320 page novel is certainly not, by itself, unreasonable, especially when comparing books in the same genre. It seemed, at first, that the campaign against Viswanathan was motivated out of jealousy and a desire to bring down a popular writer.

However, as new passages came to the surface, the case against Viswanathan began to grow. What could have first been explained by "unintentional" plagiarism or even pure coincidence became something much more serious. As the case stands now, Viswanathan’s contention that it was all an unconscious accident has been stretched to the breaking point.

Worse still, Viswanathan’s apologies have not helped matters. No matter how sincere they actually were, they came across to most as being dishonest and, as Crown Publishing put it, disingenuous. People have accused her of trying to blame her subconscious and have chalked it up as just another plagiarist excuse. Other elements of her apology, specifically her blaming her "photographic memory" have only stoked the fires of jealousy that seem to be burning hot in some camps

In the end, that seems to be one of the central themes to all of this. Many writers feel, rightly or wrongly that Viswanathan did not pay her dues in the industry. Born into a wealthy household and given the opportunities of an ivy league eduction and an expensive book packaging service, which allegedly helped her with her plot but not her actual writing, she was given a six-figure contract before having published a single word. To talented writers making meager livings and taking second jobs to pay the bills, this can seem like an insult.

While this envy or distrust isn’t the cause of the scandal, it’s what has caused it to attract so much attention. Viswanathan’s book, though successful, is not a blockbuster or household name in the same caliber as "The Davinci Code" or "A Million Little Pieces" and Viswanathan herself is not, yet, a household name. If we replaced her with a more typical author (Older, middle class, more common education, etc.) then, suddenly it gets a lot less interesting.

Odds are, if that were the case, we’d be reading about this story in trade journals and specialized magazines, not the Washington Post. While the desire to see Viswanathan fall did not concoct the evidence or build the case against her, it has generated the widespread publicity that this has generated.

As a plagiarism fighter it’s a bitter pill to swallow, but most people, while thinking that plagiarism is wrong, only get truly riled about it when something else is at stake. Be it politics, jealousy or the desire to see the downfall of a celebrity, it usually takes something else to get the public truly excited about plagiarism charges.

Sad, but true.

Update 4/28: Several news outlets are now reporting that Little, Brown and Co. have pulled Viswanathan’s book off of the shelves. While this is clearly a reversal of previous statements indicating that they had no plans there is no word yet about any changes to the planned revision of the book or Viswanathan herself.

*Many sources have started to report that the contract is worth far less than the half a million it was rumored to be. However, none dispute, yet, it is worth at least six figures.

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