By April 24, 2006 5 Comments Read More →

The Food Court of Public Opinion

I don’t usually patrol the Books for Youth beat, but while I was speed-eating a bowl of cereal this morning, I spotted a bit of literary news in the pages of the Chicago Tribune (yes, I read it the old-fashioned way, on paper). When I got to work, I found the original story in the Harvard Crimson.

In short, it seems that Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan, who made a splash when she signed a two-book deal for a cool half million while she was still in high school, may have cribbed passages in her recent book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life (2006) from two Megan F. McCafferty novels, Sloppy Firsts (2001) and Second Helpings (2003).

For the uninitiated, these are young adult (YA) novels that treat “the inherent humor and drama of the teen experience” (full disclosure: I cribbed this quote from the publisher’s copy posted on Amazon for Sloppy Firsts). Characters make electrifying critiques of the teenage experience like, “My parents suck ass.”

The Crimson article cites 13 passages – providing side-by-side excerpts – in which Viswanathan’s language is strikingly similar to McCafferty’s. And it does appear that the similarities are so great as to be beyond the realm of coincidence.

An example:

“…but in a truly sadomasochistic dieting gesture, they chose to buy their Diet Cokes at Cinnabon.” (McCafferty’s Second Helpings)

“In a truly masochistic gesture, they had decided to buy Diet Cokes from Mrs. Fields…” (Viswanathan’s How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life)

Even high-school or undergraduate authors should understand that plagiarism is a serious offense, and if Viswanathan did intentionally copy these passages, she should be held accountable. (A nice way of making amends might be to donate some of that enormous advance to a charity that promotes literacy or ethics.)

On the other hand, it’s hard to get too excited about this particular instance of plagiarism. I love a good literary dust-up as much as the next guy, but it’s much more fun when a venerated professor is revealed to have stolen from a student’s thesis, or when a writer’s autobiography turns out to be pure fiction (too many to hyperlink here; I’m working on a list). Especially when the line between truth and fiction is blurred, these things matter.

But when one teen-novel-of-the-month appropriates a few lines from another teen-novel-of-the-month – well, isn’t teenage life an endless cycle of innovation and emulation, anyway?

Maybe we should allow the authors settle to it in the food court of public opinion.

McCafferty: You, like, so copied me!

Viswanathan: As if. I’m so sure.

McCafferty: You did! You just swapped Cinnabon for Mrs. Field’s.

Viswanathan: Well, you would go to Cinnabon, wouldn’t you? And are you telling me you trademarked the words “Diet Coke”?

McCafferty: What about here, where I say he smells “sweet and woodsy” and you say he smells “sweet and woodsy and spicy”?

Viswanathan: Look, I go to Harvard. Like a Harvard student would bother to copy some Columbia alumna’s stupid book.

McCafferty: At least I graduated. Harvard is so totally going to kick you out for this.

Viswanathan: That’s right, you graduated sometime last century. You shouldn’t even be writing young adult novels. You should be writing old adult novels.

McCafferty: I’ll show you old!

Et cetera, et cetera.

(Careful readers will note that my own ear for teenage dialogue gets tinny in the late 1980s.)

Meanwhile, I’ll scan the headlines looking for a scandal with a little more meat on it. Why don’t we ever hear about any up-and-coming writers who literally kill for a good manuscript? Now that would be a story.

At least we’ll always have James Frey.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.