There is not much to be said in defense of 19-year-old Kaavya Viswanathan, the Indian-born Harvard student whose first novel was pulled from bookstores worldwide last month after she failed to disprove charges of plagiarism. But there is something.
Salman Rushdie summed up the critics’ case shortly before Ms. Viswanathan’s publisher announced Tuesday that it was scrapping plans for a revised version of her embattled “chick-lit” tale. “I know when I write a book, it’s my name on the book, so I stand or fall by what I sign,” the Indian-born British novelist said. “And so must she.”
In a way, that should be the last word on what the young writer did. It doesn’t really matter whether you call it theft, as the victims do, or “unintentional” reproduction, as Ms. Viswanathan did when confronted with dozens of similarities between her book and another writer’s work. (Now that people are poring over “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life” with magnifying glasses, traces of at least three other books have been detected in it, including Mr. Rushdie’s “Haroun and the Sea of Stories.”) You pass off someone else’s work as your own, and you pay the price — usually fame of a kind you never wanted, followed by professional oblivion.
Yet somehow it seems disgrace shouldn’t be quite the last word in this case. Ms. Viswanathan’s youth contributes to that feeling, as Mr. Rushdie himself has conceded. He felt sorry, he said, that “this young girl, pushed by the needs of a publishing machine and, no doubt, by her ambition should have fallen into this trap so early in her career.” And he added: “I hope she can recover from it.”
That seems closer to a fair response. The truth is, Ms. Viswanathan appears to have been almost as much victim as miscreant, caving in to enormous and disparate pressures that converged on her in a sort of perfect storm. Observers in this country might well ask how many of those pressures are brought to bear on young people here, where prestigious educations and professional success are also huge priorities.
Ms. Viswanathan is the only child of wealthy parents, both doctors. After the family emigrated to the United States, their goal for her — as with so many parents, but especially many high-achieving Asian Americans — was an Ivy League college, preferably the perceived U.S. gold standard, Harvard. To that end, they hired a college admissions adviser, who found the young writer a literary agent, who in turn referred her to a “book packager” — all of whom not only got her into Harvard but also helped her land a two-book contract, a half-million-dollar advance and a movie deal before she turned 18.
And what was her first novel about? A pretty Indian American teenager so anxious to please her parents and get into Harvard that the admissions dean advises her that she will be rejected if she doesn’t lighten up. Hence the elaborate plan for Opal Mehta to “get a life.”
Not to demonize anyone, but two elements of Ms. Viswanathan’s success story are disturbing: the parents, with their misguided expectations, and the gaggle of advisers bent on shaping an eager, promising kid into a “marketable” writing machine.
Parental pressure is old news, and this case offers one more reason for those who suspect they might be overdoing things to pull back. But the role of the people who “helped” Ms. Viswanathan launch her brief literary career is a new one to most of us. Nothing about it seems good. The packagers, it seems, had so much input as regards plot, characters and language that it is often unclear where their contributions end and the supposed author’s begin. Ms. Viswanathan herself said before the scandal broke that her original book concept had been “darker,” but she was told it would not sell. She was steered instead into crafting the slick, airy bubble eventually published in her name.
This is just sad. For one thing, Ms. Viswanathan might have felt less need to plagiarize had she not been discouraged from using her own voice. She might even have produced something of actual literary merit. Will we ever know now? For another, it is obvious that such practices will breed plagiarism the way a swamp breeds mosquitoes.
If a publisher is so comfortable with a packager’s creative role that it puts the firm’s name on the contract, as happened in this case, it’s not surprising if a young author starts to feel words are all just common property, part of the “process.” Who knows, indeed, whether it was Ms. Viswanathan or her packagers who did the original plagiarizing?
None of this is an excuse, as we have said. But it is an explanation. And a timely warning to over-eager parents everywhere not to project their ambitions onto their children — or to push them too soon into the corrupting maelstrom of the market.
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