So as you probably know by now, I have been obsessed with the scandal surrounding Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan's book "How Opal Mehta got kissed, got wild, and got a life" for the past week. It's truly awesome. The gist of it, in case you have missed the hype or are not a YA book nerd like me, is that this Harvard sophomore published a book which was high on the NYtimes bestseller book, was optioned for a movie by Dreamworks even before its publication, and which apparently, according to recent news (and hence the scandal), jacks significant portions from previously published books "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings" by former Cosmo writer and novelist Anne McCafferty. (Here is a pretty comprehensive list of the most obviously copied passages. And yes, I think they were copied. There is no way that you can read McCafferty's books several times - which Viswanathan admitted to doing in high school - and be dumb enough to accidentally make your primary male character wear a T-shirt with the wrong day written on it.)
First of all, let me just say that I read the Sloppy First books years ago, and they are freaking awesome. (Let me also say that McCafferty recently published the third book in the series and it is not so awesome, but I will get to that.) Second, let me say that I was predisposed to hate Kaavya Viswanathan the second I read the profile about her on New York Times, and how she was such a promising young author. She's also annoying as hell. The evidence: her parents paid somewhere in the vicinity of $10,000 and $20,000 for a private college counselor for her. This counselor happened to be a published author, and she finagled some deal between Kaavya and the publisher Little, Brown. Then, Little, Brown handed over $500,000 in exchange for a two-book contract. Oh yes, and she is rich and she's pretty and she goes to Harvard. fjdkalfjdkfdjfklafjalfa. I think that sums it up. It's not surprising then, that every single news article written about her cleverly inserts the otherwise unused word, Schadenfreude (look it up), just because it's awesome to see the mighty fall.
Last week, I read that the publisher was going to pull her book from shelves (and remove all the plagiarized passages and republish it) and so of course I went out and bought it. I just finished reading it today, and so now I get to share my opinion.
The sad thing is, this book could have some potential, if, say, it wasn't stolen from Mean Girls combined with "Sloppy Firsts" and instead played up the sort of "Bend it Like Beckham" angle - contemporary Indian teenager dramedy. Seriously.
Fact: This book would probably never have been picked up if it weren't for the slightly unusual cultural angle. There are a million YA/chicklit novels out there that are almost all about white girls, at least all the ones I've heard of and all the ones I've seen made into movies (i.e. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Princess Diaries). I would venture to say that Indian culture is gaining ground in popular media, thanks to the aforementioned "Bend it Like Beckham" and moving on up through movies like "Bride and Prejudice." It's very in vogue, and I'm 100% sure that when Kaavya's college tutor pitched the idea of a young Indian Harvard student writing a chick-lit book, some publicist somewhere went nuts.
Fact: Viswanathan has said several times that her original script was somewhere along the lines of Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," but that the publishing company (and packaging company, Alloy Entertainment) wanted to make it less "dark" and more "marketable." There's actually some speculation that the packaging company and its writers sat down with pages full of examples from "marketable" teen lit, and that it was their fault that so much of the book is stolen. Viswanathan did admit to "unintentially internalizing" (or possibly memorizing with her "photographic memory" - she claims she "never takes notes) the book and to reading it several times in high school, so I am pretty sure that the plagiarism was hers. However, all of that doesn't mean that she wasn't heavily influenced by Alloy Entertainment to steer the book in a certain direction.
My question would be if making it marketable didn't make it worse. People say that the "anxiety of influence" is at work in Viswanathan's "unintentional internalization" of McCafferty's book - I would suggest that it might be, in part, the anxiety of audience.
While I read "Opal Mehta" (or in the spirit of the book, HOMGKGWAGAL), the parts about her family or Indian neighborhood in New Jersey or her mom's "ladies who lunch" always intrigued me and came off quite naturally, whereas the other 99% of it reeked of trying too hard. There were usually about 10 brand names per page - like Viswanathan's research involved spending her entire advance at Bergdorf Goodman - and they creaked and rattled. I literally cringed every few pages, and if I had to read one more verbatim list of makeup names (not brands - NAMES, like lipstick names), I might have thrown the book in the middle of the road, except that I plan on hanging on to it in case original editions are ever worth money on Ebay.
Ironically, McCafferty's latest book, "Charmed Thirds," was also riddled with (and in my opinion sort of ruined by) poor examples of teen life, like when her heroine, Jessica, goes to a party in New York thrown by "Beautiful People for Democrats" or something like that and she describes her outfit, making sure to let all the readers know that she was wearing "kitten-heeled flip-flops." Which first of all is totally out of character because the Jessica Darling of the first two books wouldn't have been caught dead in such terrible shoes because she's too practical and too anti-social to concede that flip-flops and kitten heels belong together (which by the way, they don't). You just get the feeling that McCafferty realized that she was slightly out of touch with the way college kids live today, so she had a whole chat with people about Facebook and short-lived fashion faux pas and Collegehumor.com and then carefully inserted these clever marks of the age in her book wherever she could. (The first books she managed to escape this pitfall, I think because she made Jessica a fan of exclusively 80's music and movies, and therefore McCafferty was working with information from her own era.)
I'm sort of going off topic here, but suffice it to say that what made McCafferty's third book worse than her first two was exactly the same as what made Viswanathan's book suck in the first place (and isn't it ironic, don't you think?). And I think it's the anxiety of audience - of trying to "connect" with readers by dropping in pertinent details, instead of trying to connect by making a real, unique character or a strong, original plotline or writing subtle, good prose (like Prep for example). Basically what I'm thinking is this: Regardless of how good or bad Viswanathan's book was in the first place, there is no way it could have been improved by making it "marketable" - because that would mean taking out the few interesting cultural markers and adding in terrible references to OPI nail polish and designer jeans. And marketing is a product of the audience - designing something for its recipients, which, if not done extremely well, falls flat. The trick is to make something appealing but not stale and wooden, and, well, done, and Viswanathan (or her pals at Alloy Entertainment) failed to do that. Clearly, in more ways than one.
However that's what it comes down to - was Viswanathan writing this book because she wanted to write a great teen book, or was she writing it because that was the right thing to do, the Harvard thing to do, what people would expect her to do- to do everything, so much so that she may have overstepped her abilities and, subsequently, other boundaries as well. This is a girl who has always wanted to be an I-banker. Not a writer. What inspired her to focus on a new kind of success? I would suggest that she has the same problem as her heroine, Opal, who tries to become popular because she thinks that's what Harvard wants, and then in the process loses sight of everything (ok, not everything because in the end, even with all her slacking, it seems that she still manages to get every award her school offers and get into Harvard), before discovering in the end that maybe doing everything (being popular AND being smart AND welding a spice rack AND... you get the picture) is not the best way to go. There is a harsh lesson there and Opal learned it, sort of, in a haphazard, poorly written way. Maybe for Viswanathan, she's just not quite at the end of her story, and she hasn't learned her lesson yet - that it's better to be yourself, and write your own book while you're at it.
On the plus side, all of this means I can still write the Anne of Green Gables of the 90s, like I've always wanted to. None of you bitches better steal my idea.
Gawker's coverage (especially read "Indians on Indians")
A little bit about Alloy
"Book packaging" at Slate
Cool thoughts from Harvard kids (hopefully their own) - I especially like the one from Emma Lind, but I think the Xenophobia one is not so true)
McCafferty wins in sales!! (Thank God, because I still thought "Charmed Thirds" was better)
"Nothing less than an act of literary identity theft"
Original review at NYtimes
I love it
More about why people plagiarize (although I still think my theory is right on Kaavya)