Sunday, April 30, 2006

What with all the controversy in the news this week, I had to read Sloppy Firsts (again) and How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and got a Life for myself. If you haven't heard about it, the short version of the story is that Kaavya Viswanathan, Harvard sophomore and the author of Opal Mehta, has been accused of plagiarizing Megan McCafferty's novels Sloppy Firsts & Second Helpings. For details, see the original article in the Harvard Crimson and this clip from Viswanathan's Wednesday morning appearance on the Today Show: Teen author denies intentional copying.
Both books are considered "crossover" books; although Jessica Darling, McCafferty's heroine, is only a sophomore at the beginning of Sloppy Firsts, the language & themes make it a good book for an audience of 15 - 25 year olds. By the time she hits Charmed Thirds, the recently released third Jessica Darling novel, Jessica's in college.
Jessica is one of those cynical, intelligent teens with a type A personality who doesn't fit in anywhere because she's years beyond her classmates in so many ways. The one person she connected with, her best friend Hope, has moved away, and Jessica is lost without her. Things get complicated when Jess gets involved with Marcus Flutie a delinquent drug user whom Hope blames for her brother's death. Suddenly Jessica is keeping secrets from the one person she could always talk to.
Opal Mehta is a completely different story, athought Opal is also a type-A, super smart teen. Indian American, Opal and her parents have spent the last seventeen years following HOWGIH - How Opal Will Get Into Harvard - their plan for reaching Ivy League success. Strait A's, multiple science awards & several months worth of welding classes later, on paper Opal is the most qualified applicant Harvard could ask for. But at her early admissions interview, the Dean of Admissions throws Opal a question she isn't ready for - what does she do for fun? When Opal can't answer, the Dean tells her Harvard wants well rounded students with "life experience," and encourages Opal to get a life & apply again regular admission. So begins HOWGAL - How Opal Will Get A Life - the Mehtas' most comprehensive strategic play yet.
There are some immediate similarities between the books - both characters are from New Jersey, both are super-smart, both lack a large group of friends. In McCafferty's second book, Jessica Darling is trying to get into Columbia, while Opal's entire life centers around getting accepted to Harvard. But less apparent similarities were noticed by one reader, who sent a letter to the Harvard Crimson advising them to compare Opal Mehta to McCafferty's works. Reportedly, somewhere between 29-40 passages of Opal Mehta were nearly identical to passages from McCafferty's first two books.
The similarities are definitely there - not even Viswanathan or her publisher denies it. But Viswanathan claims the plagiarism was unintentional, that she read McCafferty's books repeatedly while in high school (though not while she was writing Opal Mehta) and must have "internalized" McCafferty's language and unintentionally copied it when writing her own book.
This explanation has of course stirred up much discussion in the book world. If what Viswanathan is claiming is true, shouldn't authors be plagiarizing others left and right? Or is this a genuine mistake made by someone with a near photographic memory who, upon finding a voice for her character, didn't realize the voice had come from someone else?
Here's my opinion. I'm not sure if Viswanathan did it on purpose or not. But I think she probably identified strongly with Jessica Darling's quick intelligence and intense loneliness. She probably did internalize much of McCafferty's character, including her voice, because they had much in common. The plagiarized passages are striking, but even more striking to me were the similarities between Jessica & Opal's worlds - it's like Jess Darling & Opal live in the same town. Their dream guy/bad boy love interest are nearly identical, the cliques at their school are nearly identical - etc, etc. It makes me wonder if Viswanathan forgot that Jessica Darling didn't belong to her, but to Megan McCafferty. After all, how many of us who are readers have identified so strongly with a character and become so caught up in a book that we forget that millions of others share that same world through the pages - it seems like it belongs only to us.
None of this excuses Viswanathan's actions, even if she didn't do it on purpose. But I do feel sorry for her. She was only 17 when she was offered a 2 book deal with a $500,000 advance from Little, Brown. Much has been made of Viswanathan finishing her novel while she was taking her Harvard exams last spring - a great story, but the reality is that the girl must have been under an immense amount of pressure. I'm sure this probably contributed to the plagiarism, intentional or unintentional.
Viswanathan's publisher has announced it is recalling all unsold copies of Opal Mehta. Viswanathan is going to rewrite the questionable passages and include an acknowledgment to McCafferty in the new edition (something that probably won't make McCafferty feel much better at this point). There's been some discussion about who will buy the book after it's re-release, but I think we should have learned from the whole James Frey debacle that negative press doesn't always hurt - many will buy the book because the read about the whole thing in the paper.
What's really sad (aside from the fact that this will follow Viswanathan forever) is that Opal Mehta is a great story. Opal herself is a fun character, but the best part of the book is Opal's parents. They are wonderfully over the top in their determination to see their daughter get into Harvard, and Opal's close relationship with them is refreshing in a YA lit world of absent parents.
The good side, however, is that this is also providing some exposure for McCafferty's novels - although I'm sure she would have rather it happened in another way. Still, her newest Jess Darling novel, Charmed Thirds, was released earlier this month, and more people than ever before are going to recognize McCafferty's name. And there is a sort of dubious honor in having your work plagiarized - it means someone admired it that much. McCafferty's books are great - they're laugh-out-loud funny, true to life and full of insight.

My advice? Definitely read the originals. Pass on Opal out of principle.

McCafferty, Megan. Sloppy Firsts. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001.
--. Second Helpings. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003.
--. Charmed Thirds. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006.

Viswanathan, Kaavya. How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2006.

On My Bookshelf: Marly's Ghost by David Levithan; Second Helpings & Charmed Thirds by Megan McCafferty, King Dork by Frank Portman.


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