Tuesday, May 02, 2006
HALF-A-MILLION DOLLAR BABY CRUMBLES
It appeared too good to be true. At 16, Kaavya Vishwanathan had earned half a million dollars for a two-book deal from her publishers Little,Brown. A movie deal option from Dealworks. The chick-lit (designer labels,nasty girl gang,rebellious but cool boyfriends) and 'cliched' had fired the imagination of savvy marketeers. It had made sensational news and every Indian was justifiably proud of such a fantastic achievement. I had covered her in an earlier blog with Lavanya who too earned a huge anount of greenbucks with her debut novel. I was eagerly looking forward to read "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed,Got Wild and Got A Life". The shocking news arrived. For a moment I was stunned. Could it be true? Was it jealousy that was behind badnaming her? And what could be the consequences . It looked plain terrible to me.
The news first came out of Harvard itself. In their daily 'Harvard Crimson' as well as on the blogosphere. Kaavya after initially rejecting any such theft,quickly started making amends. She admitted to having read both the books and for having"internalised" some of the material she had read and blamed her photographic memory for its reproduction in her book. "I guess it's just been in my head". "I borrowed details from my life for the book-settings,descriptions,personality quirks from acquaintances-but the novel is entirely fiction".She didn't then say that she had helped herself generously from "Second Helpings". Later her PR machine swung into action to control the damage. She apologised to the author Megan McCafferty after admitting that she indeed had lifted several passages from teen novels "Sloppy First" and "Second Helpings" and the publishers Little Brown even agreeed to modify the next edition. The other side would have nothing of such compromise. Finally LB yielded and pulled the books out of the shelves. The last that I heard was that she may have to return some of the big bucks she received.
As a father of a child who went through the process of getting admission into a top US school,I know very well what it takes.Opal Mehta's story is very typical of an Indian family's obsession with admission to Ivy League,especially Harvard for their children.Marina Budhos has recently written a novel called 'AskMe No Question'. In that she says that Indian Americans have become very savvy at working the American system.They make sure that their kids go to the right schools,that they hire the right tutors etc etc. Kavya went through that process. Her parents spent apparently about 15,000 dollars on a private college counsellor. So she knew best what it takes and from all accounts she did a good job. It seems she was under tremendous pressure to complete the novel and that might have forced her to adopt such sharp practices. She literally had to pay for her folly.
Will Harvard continue to keep the sophomore student? The jury is still out on that. Probably yes,probably no. They cannot be seen to condone plagiarism. At the same time,she has apologised and even agreed to return some of the money. It is going to be a tough call for Harvard.
I feel sorry for Kaavya. She fell into a trap. It is easy to criticize her and say why did she cheat? Some would say she deserved it. How can you lifft 40 passages and similar situations from other novels? And do you expect to get away with it? I wish her publishers had done a check. Asked her these questions and made sure nothing was amiss. They failed to do that. Had they taken some trouble rather than pressurise Kaavya to get the manuscript out fastest,they could have saved all the eggs that have been thrown at their faces.
Soon, all this will be forgotten. The only way Kaavya can resurrect herself would be to write another novel. After all she is in good company. Hasn't Dan Brown of Da Vinci fame been charged for wordlifting? Martin Luther King pulled out one-third of his doctorate dissertation from other sources and even William Shakespeare has been accused of lifting whole plots from the classics.
And for all you know she may even get a better deal than half a million US dollars.