Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Defending Opal Mehta

Kaavya Viswanathan, teen author of the best-selling How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, has been accused of plagiarism. She borrowed phrases and structure from other novels about young adult life, especially from Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts. Viswanathan, who is very apologetic and calls herself a big fan of McCafferty's work, said the plagiarism was inadvertent. Some commentators and legal scholars have been skeptical of this defense.

I believe her.

I live with teenagers, who borrow and sample phrases from so many sources that they have no idea where they came from. They will take a line – from conversation, from reading, from the radio, from a movie – and use it as their instant message screen name for a couple of weeks, and move on. In the mean time, everyone they communicate with reads the phrase, perhaps dozens of times, without knowing where it originally came from.

My daughters introduced me to the wonderfully silly novels of Louise Rennison featuring English teenager Georgia Nicholson. Georgia has a distinctive way of speaking, and I find myself using her constructions – "My heart leapt like a leaping thing on leaping pills" -- without thinking of sources or attribution. Therefore I fully sympathize with an actual teenage author who has fully absorbed phrases from teen fiction in her own writing without knowing it.

I bought Opal Mehta, and await the end of our busy school term to enjoy it.


Anonymous said...

Except the phrases she plagiarized weren't very distinctive in any way. Just copying, plain and simple.

Anonymous said...

And they were all from one source. So, was that the only book she had ever read?

Alison said...

The story about Viswanathan troubled me. I read an article in The Crimson, which compared her work to McCafferty's. Not all of what Viswanathan allegedly lifted was verbatim, but there was enough there to suggest plagiarism, for sure.

This bothers me because Ms. Viswanathan is so young. Perhaps I am projecting my feelings that younger generations (I'm 35) do not have the same sense of "work" that older people have. What kind of message does it send if Viswanathan's "apology" is accepted, without an investigation? Saying "But it was an accident" smacks of irresponsibility.

That said, I see your point about borrowing and sampling words and expressions. Recently I read an entry on a food blog in which the author told us that "[this] will kick up the flavor a notch." Sounds a lot like Emeril to me! Is it plagiarism? Probably not. This turn of phrase has entered the American pop culture lexicon.

If indeed Ms. Viswanathan did not plagiarize Mc Cafferty, then she needs to learn to take a step back from her own work; she needs to learn to recognize when she is mimicking another author's writing.

A good writer is able to do this.

Gruntled said...

The phrases are quite close, but they are distinctive enough to be memorable. And they are not drawn from the same book, but from several books by the same author, who Viswanathan says was a big influence. For example, the Harvard Crimson article cites this parallel:

From page 237 of McCafferty’s first novel: “Finally, four major department stores and 170 specialty shops later, we were done.”

From page 51 of Viswanathan’s novel: “Five department stores, and 170 specialty shops later, I was sick of listening to her hum along to Alicia Keys....”

That is a distinctive phrase -- but is McCafferty the only source? A quick Google of the first clause of Viswanathan's sentence yields this:

University Square Mall
Tampa, FL 33612
Features: 5 department stores, 170 specialty stores, restaurants & eateries, Regal Cinemas

Memorable phrases stick in mysterious ways. Some of the parallels are remarkably close, but not the same.

Anonymous said...

Why do you believe her without reading the books first? You can't go on her word just because teens borrow phrases. You have to look at the passages and evaluate them.

These aren't just phrases, they are whole paragraphs reproduced almost word for word with just small changes here and there. You get the feeling she had McCafferty's book right next to her laptop as she typed.

McCafferty's publisher and a number of bloggers have now documented over 50 similarities, not just 50 words, but 50 "chunks" of text. Check them out! They are downloadable from the publisher's site.

By all means defend her, if she's done no wrong. But don't defend her without looking at the evidence first.

Bhamini said...

I'm completely with you there. Plus I feel she's become a scapegoat & that the real viallains...her publisher & her agent...have got off with a lighter sentence!

Bhamini said...

I mean I'm not with anonymous but with villains.

Bhamini said...

Do check out my take on the issue at

Anonymous said...

from what i read, kavvya is rich. her parents are intellectuals. she's also intellectually smart, she's at Harvard. and yet.. u guys are the naive ones to assume her stupid enough? why.

i admit, based on news reports, i do think the obvious. first she said borrowing. which of course she can't return, so she should've said stealing. then it's internalizing. so many internalizing is simply curious.

if you let her go, or her book go, then you'll unleash more young writers who will plagiarise as they like, and earn a lot.

Gruntled said...

It isn't really in my power to "let her go" or not. The publisher has pulled the book from the shelves, and will release a rewritten version later. I think her reputation has been tarnished. I am sure her later books will be scrutinized carefully. I think other writers, especially writing for the youth market, will be examined more thoroughly, and will get no slack at all, because of this incident.

(And I don't really see what her parents being rich, or really upper middle class, has to do with it.)

Anonymous said...

no way. they cancelled it.

& her parents had paid thousands to her counsellor. it would be speculations, but still it would be of no surprise too if rich people buy "help" to get their beloved children that outstanding credentials. i've know university kids pay others for their thesis. don't be naive.

if she's real good, she should have written that novel with her own original ideas. she got Harvard, the book deal, the money. all she has to do then is just write an original story. if only she had done that -- she could've rule the book world.

i don't support plagiarism.