Kaavya chameleon: Investigating the scandal
I feel bad for Kaavya Viswanathan. Whether or not the 19-year-old author consciously plagiarized passages in her novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, she’s really had to run a gauntlet over the past two weeks. She got grilled by Katie Couric, had her book yanked from shelves, lost her movie deal, and lost the rest of her two-book publishing deal. Most harrowing of all (since Harvard is unlikely to expel the sophomore over work not submitted for class credit), she’ll have to endure the aspersions of her fellow Harvard students for two more years.
Which means more articles like the ones that have run in the past couple days in the student newspapers, the Crimson and the Independent, which have owned the Kaavya story since Day 1. In addition to similarities already unearthed between her prose and passages by Megan McCafferty and Sophie Kinsella, the student journalists also discovered alleged borrowings from Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused (the Independent’s compare-and-contrast guide has helpfully color-coded the similar phrases), Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries, and (stepping outside the teen chicklit genre), Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. (It’s worth noting, however, that the Independent article doesn’t indicate any attempt to contact Viswanathan for explanation; the Crimson says she did not respond to its reporters’ request for comment.)
The sad thing is: It didn’t have to go down like this. Chalk it up to poor marketing; imagine if the book had been sold instead as a postmodern literary bricolage. What an act of belle-lettrist boldness to pay homage to such a diverse range of authors, from the high-brow (Rushdie) to the teen-appeal (Cabot). The literary mandarins and gatekeepers would be comparing her to Jonathan Safran Foer and David Foster Wallace instead of James Frey and Jayson Blair. She’d be sitting on Oprah’s couch instead of Couric’s.
At least there’s one Kaavya-Gate rumor we can safely put to rest: She did not plagiarize the double-a in her name from Peter Sarsgaard or Maggie Gyllenhaal.