Kaavya’s Opalgate

by Zafar Anjum

Fame is a double-edged sword. One wrong move and the famed head is rolling on the ground.

And who would know it better than Kaavya Viswanathan?

This 19-year old Harvard sophomore shot to fame last year when her debut novel, How Opel Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got A Life was picked up by US-based publishers Little, Brown & Co. for a whopping USD 500,000 in a two book deal. On top of that, Kaavya got a movie deal from DreamWorks.

When her chick-lit novel was released in April, she was on cloud nine, until The Harvard Crimson published a report (April 23) alleging that she had plagiarized about a dozen-odd passages from two other novels, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings by novelist Megan McCafferty.

Later, The New York Times reported that the similarities between Kaavya’s and McCafferty’s novels are fare more extensive, totalling about 39 passages. After initial denials, Kaavya confessed that she might have done it but only unconsciously, that she may have “internalized Ms McCafferty’s words”.

As the saga unfolded, Kaavya’s novel was yanked off the book shelves. Dreamworks also dropped the movie idea. Her publisher has, amid allegations of plagiarism from more sources, cancelled the publishing contract for good. A corrected edition of Kaavya’s novel will never see the light of the day.

The question in people’s mind is this: Is “unconscious” plagiarizing of expressions and structures a fair excuse to pass somebody else’s work as one’s own? And can Kaavy be excused just because she is too young an author?

In my opinion, nobody can condone plagiarism just because one is a young and budding author or one was under pressure to deliver the manuscript to the hungry publishers in a hurry to belt out another sensational bestseller.

Interestingly, Kaavya is not alone to face plagiarism charges in recent years. Novelist Dan Brown, of The Da Vinci Code fame, has been twice accused of plagiarism. The charges, though, were never proved. American historian Stephen Ambrose has been pilloried for copying passages from other works. Ambrose at least had the guts to acknowledge his errors. Indian novelist Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen’s novel Crane’s Morning was found to have copiously reproduced passages from Elizabeth Goudge’s The Rosemary Tree. The shamed novelist later on committed suicide.

Even journalists and columnists of reputed publications who have been found to indulge in rampant plagiarism have faced grave consequences. The New York Times reporter Jayson Blair plagiarized several pieces and even faked quotes in his reports, leading to his downfall. After being accused of plagiarism, Michael Olesker, a Baltimore Sun columnist had to resign early this year. The list is long.

So, what do we make of Opalgate and of other cases of plagiarism?

Perhaps Kaavya, however naive, did not figure out that her crime will be found out and exposed. Regardless of the excuses, her punishment came soon enough. I guess her publishers did the right thing by yanking off her novel from the book shelves. Dreamworks also dropped the movie idea.

In the light of the above cases, how long will it take for our plagiarism-prone writers and journalists to digest the fact that plagiarism is a dangerous and shameful act? How can they forget that we are living in the age of instant communication where everything is so ‘googleable’ and their originality can be easily verified?

At the same time, in cases like Kaavya’s, should the author alone be held responsible for plagiarism? Isn’t it high time that publishers too put some checks and balances in place to assure originality of content and protect their reputation?

Hopefully, Kaavya’s case will have some eye-opening lessons for the “unconsciously” motivated writers and spin doctors in the publishing industry.

May 6, 2006
Zafar Anjum is the founder editor of Kitaab.org.

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