Saturday, April 29, 2006

Kaavya's Opalgate

At first, I was reluctant to blog about this issue, but ever since the plagiarism news got broken in The Harvard Crimson, the floodgates of comments and blogs opened, and Harvard Sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan has been pilloried uncessantly.

I am not writing this post to defend Kaavya here. Nor do I support any act of plagiarism (though copycat Bollywood does it all the time but no one touches its whiskers). Not 14 as initially reported but about 39 counts of plagiarism were found in Kaavya's novel, How Opel Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got A Life. Interesttingly, the novel was not selling like hot cakes. It was not on the NYT bestseller list. At Amazon, it was at some 300+ rank. Once the controversy broke out, Kaavya has hit the international headlines. She has become one of the top ten searches at Technorati.

Is this a story of getting all the glory (the USD 500,000 advance, a movie deal, international coverage) for an eighteen year old and then giving everything away, nosediving into the abyss of disrepute? Or there is something more to it than what meets the eye?

I guess people should pay attention to a NYT report that addresses this angle:

"Nobody associated with the plagiarism accusations is pointing fingers at Alloy, a behind-the-scenes creator of some of the hottest books in young-adult publishing. Ms. Viswanathan says that she alone is responsible for borrowing portions of two novels by Megan McCafferty, "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings." But at the very least, the incident opens a window onto a powerful company with lucrative, if tangled, relationships within the publishing industry that might take fans of series like "The It Girl" by surprise."(The NYT)

Look at these important facts and decide for yourself:

1. On the copyright page of Kaavya's novel — and the contracts — there's an additional name: Alloy Entertainment

2. The relationships between Alloy and the publishers are so intertwined that 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."

3. Alloy owns or shares the copyright with the authors and then divides the advances and any royalties with them.

4. The publishing contract Little, Brown signed is actually with Alloy, which holds the copyright to "Opal" together with Ms. Viswanathan. Neither Little, Brown nor Alloy would comment on how much of the advance or the royalties — standard contracts give 15 percent of the cover price to the author — Ms. Viswanathan is to collect.

5. After the breaking out of the controversy, both the books have gone up in the rankings. It means sales of these two books multiplied.

6. Ms. McCafferty, from whose novels Kaavya has stolen the phrases, has clearly said that she was not pressing any legal charges against the erring author.

7. Kaavya has gone on leave from her school. In a few week's time, the story will be forgotten, and Ms Kaavya will go on with her normal life.

Based on the above, please make up your own mind. And let me know if you have anything to say on this.


Read@Peace said...

Interesting points.

Have been following this story from the time I heard of the jaw dropping advance. Yes, it's true that Opal went through the hands of the spin doctors. But at last count over 40 passages bear striking similarities to the other two works. One or two passages could be passed as 'internalising' the process of another author, not 40!

At the end of the day, a writer is accountable for his or her work and should be able to take a stand against what the editors are doing to it. Kaavya obviously knew about it, but went ahead with her pronouncement on the Today show claiming it was all not 'deliberate.' Subsequent events would prove otherwise.

The fall-out has happened and in my view it is a pretty sad day to see 'A Million Little Pieces' repeat itself with an upcoming Indian author who was supposed to have shown so much promise.

Hopefully, there will be some lessons for the spin doctors in all of this - do let the written words speak for themselves, please...

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks for your comments Deepika. I also read your post at readalong. Well pondered. Here's more on Deepika.

Following on from claims of plagiarism, Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan's book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life has been permanently withdrawn and her two-book deal has been cancelled.

Last month Viswanathan apologised for extensive similarities between her book and works by another author and promised to change her novel for future print runs.

But publishers Little, Brown and Company decided that all the publicity was not good publicity.

The book had passages very similar to a book written by Megan McCafferty; and as well the Harvard Crimson newspaper reported on its website that Opal Mehta also contained passages similar to Meg Cabot's novel, The Princess Diaries.

And the 19-year-old's troubles aren't over either, with Viswanathan's former editor at The Record of Bergen County saying the New Jersey newspaper will review the articles she wrote when she was an intern there in 2003 and 2004.

Sharanya Manivannan said...

What's interesting is this: at the outset, it certainly seems like the book was the work of an assembly-line type of publisher. So it's almost easy to side with KV. But if that were really the case, why hasn't she come out with the truth -- if it is indeed the truth that she is just the face for a package -- yet, given that her fall from grace has left her with so little left to lose? Instinctually, I think something's odd about the whole thing. KV cannot be called a victim because of her willingness to be involved. But the fact that criticism has been so focussed on her alone, despite the fact that it's reasonably obvious that the book was a team effort, is somewhat too cruel. And too suspicious.

Sharanya Manivannan said...

Also, the media's been playing up on the issue so much that they've started shooting themselves in the foot.

Frankly, I don't at all get where this comparison makes sense as evidence as plagiarism:

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks Sharanya. Agree with you that all the blame had landed up with Kaavya whereas the work seems to be an assembl line product.