Getting Inside the Mind of a Plagiarist
Kevin Young Goes Deep Into the World of American Hoaxes
Plagiarism is always aspirational. In a wish to have someone else take their place, or supply their words, plagiarists generally steal something better than they might write themselves. In this way, though it may seem an anxiety about status or a nervousness about originality, plagiarism paradoxically displays privilege—the belief that I could’ve thought of it if I’d had enough time or desire. This is one reason that while the hoax regularly refers to race, plagiarism is about class. But it isn’t the class warfare those few “in favor” of plagiarism declare, seeing it as a radical recapturing or conceptual collage. the plagiarist is no Robin Hood of words. Rather, plagiarism is the very definition of work without work. While hoaxers want to be someone else, plagiarists want someone else to be them.
In the novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life (2006), Kaavya Viswanathan details the aspirations of the main character, who seeks to get into Harvard, and by implication, realizes her own wish to become both a best-selling author and a polymath. A Harvard undergraduate herself, Viswanathan was marketed as many things in the run-up to the book’s publication, especially as a young overachiever who resembles her title character. Despite the character’s perfect scores and extracurriculars, when a Harvard interviewer asks Opal why she wants to go there and she cannot answer, he insists she pursue having fun or “getting a life” with the same kind of fervor with which she pursued perfection. Opal’s parents are also in on the project of making her more commercial, you could call it, with a schedule for getting busy in another sense, trading what they called HOWGIH (How Opal Will Get Into Harvard) for HOWGAL (How Opal Will Get A Life). Dating and television, the American dream.
The review copy I tracked down of Opal Mehta has an extraordinary amount of supporting material—advance press, publisher statements, reviews, and copies of glossy magazine features—that first accompanied the book and continued to accumulate in the few weeks it was on the shelves. Focused on Viswanathan’s backstory as a Harvard undergraduate—“The Six-Figure Sophomore” the Boston Globe would coo on 22 February 2006—the book’s press packet purposefully confuses the author photo and front cover, Viswanathan and Opal: “One is a sophomore at Harvard, and one will do just about anything to get in. Meet Kaavya Viswanathan. . . and Opal Mehta.” The sheer preponderance of evidence surrounding the book is actually reminiscent of the kinds of proof marshaled only after a plagiarist is discovered—usually listing the kinds of parallels between passages that ultimately indict the thief—not to mention the passages the plagiarist herself amasses, or the de rigueur excuses a plagiarist produces to say she isn’t one.
The book’s advance publicity had certainly helped, as Opal Mehta quickly climbed the bestseller list—unfortunately for Viswanathan, it was climbing right behind the latest of Megan McCafferty’s series of young adult books that began with Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. Within days after the book was published in April 2006, the Harvard Crimson revealed that Viswanathan had plagiarized several portions from McCafferty. Reaching for thirds, Viswanathan helped herself to both of McCafferty’s books to cook up her own. One similarity soon spread to a baker’s dozen of exact wordings, and less than a fortnight later, after previously featuring the author in a fluff piece, the New York Times reported, “The Crimson cited 13 instances in which Ms. Viswanathan’s book closely paralleled Ms. McCafferty’s work. But there are at least 29 passages that are strikingly similar.” All this gives new meaning to the question posed in the press release: “How far would you go for that one thing you’ve always wanted?”
Why, when they steal, do plagiarists take from popular material? Why not stick to the obscure? Or is it that we only catch those plagiarists who become popular themselves? Most plagiarism cases, as with other hoaxes, include what amount to clues planted almost expressly to be found. In the midst of the mounting accusations, Viswanathan went on the Today show where anchor Katie Couric subtly undermined the book, asking the tough but obvious question just weeks after it had gotten published. I remember watching that episode at the time, cringing. Bravo for Viswanathan for keeping what appears to be a previously scheduled appearance; she’s in full damage control, saying she’s sorry and that it was unintentional. When discovered, many do what Viswanathan did at first: plead subconscious stealing. (Don’t try this at your local Walmart.)
This is the first defense of the plagiarist: I only did it once, and by accident. The second defense is plagiarized from the first: I only did it once. Yet as Mallon reminds us, “Plagiarism is something people may do for a variety of reasons but almost always something they do more than once.” The “unconscious stealing plea” goes hand in hand with the idea of only doing it once—not simply that I did it just that one time, but rather, in that one instance too, I was so unconscious as to be blameless.
To rewatch the episode now is to see the hoaxer plead innocence in a way familiar enough that it may seem plagiarized from some clichéd script. Indeed, all this was happening within months of James Frey, “Nasdijj,” and JT LeRoy implosions. Where the fake memoirist plays at suffering, the plagiarist, like the impostor, often performs innocence. In Viswanathan’s case this doesn’t mean just “not guilty” of the charges before her, but innocence as a permanent state—one feminine, youthful, American. Such enforced innocence—gendered and often raced—may explain why, in the press material of the young author, she is regularly referred to as a “starlet,” a term usually reserved for cinema. No matter her actual age, a starlet performs youthfulness—and matching beauty. Such youthfulness quickly if quietly signifies newness, freshness, and originality in turn, an approachable prodigy.
The early notices and prepress frame Viswanathan as a “girl wonder” a century after the iconic figure’s heyday. “A clever novel by a promising author. . . one of the hottest young talents in fiction,” says the Boston Globe. There’s a sense too of the author as somehow a new invention: the “young adult” (or YA as it’s known) Indian author; or more exactly, the Indian YA one. But by far the biggest suggestion of all is that the fictional Opal is true to life, a double who’s her and not-her. Opal Mehta is plagiarized from Viswanathan.
I don’t mean to substitute Freud’s couch for the Today show’s, yet we must be able to see the ways our culture’s cult of innocence and youth is also the culture of plagiarism. Newness at all costs yields pressure not just on the potential author but also on the culture that cannot be honest about its recycling, much less its trash.
The New York Times reported on 25 April, “In an e-mail message yesterday afternoon, Ms. Viswanathan, 19, said that in high school she had read the two books she is accused of borrowing from, “Sloppy Firsts” and “Second Helpings,” and that they ‘spoke to me in a way few other books did.’” The reports continues, quoting Viswanathan as saying, “Recently, I was very surprised and upset to learn that there are similarities between some passages in my novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, and passages in these books.” The press release goes on to reiterate that any borrowing was “unintentional and unconscious.” I didn’t do it; Opal Mehta must have.
Is such a story believable on its poorly made-up face? How can Viswanathan recall and rewrite, word for word, a book she claimed to have forgotten she even read?
The first rule of influence is that there isn’t any. The second rule of influence is that it is everywhere. In the case of Opal Mehta, it wouldn’t matter for much longer which was which. For Viswanathan’s book—a phrase we can no longer use—turns out to have filched from a number of other authors, including fellow writers of Indian descent Salman Rushdie and Tanuja Desai Hidier, who published a novel titled Born Confused (2002), dubbed “the first book with a US female teen desi heroine.” Desi, to quote the contemporaneous, now-defunct website Sepia Mutiny, is “slang for the cultures of South Asia and the diaspora. It’s similar to homeboy, paesano or boricua. Etymology: deshi, Hindi/Urdu for ‘from the country,’ ‘from the motherland.’ Pronounced ‘they-see,’ it’s the opposite of pardesi, foreigner.” Opal Mehta’s publicity claims of being a new, original voice are not even true in terms of Desi culture.
While traditional print and television media was involved in the promotion and publicity of the book, as well as its downfall, its afterlife exists online alone. Online is also where Hidier writes of the case:
Ironically I first saw firsthand these sections of Born Confused on the day Ms. Viswanathan was quoted in the New York Times as saying: “I’ve never read a novel with an Indian-American protagonist. The plot points are reflections of my own experience. I’m an Indian-American.”. . . And so I was extremely surprised to find that the majority, though not all, of the passages in Opal Mehta taken from Born Confused are those dealing with descriptions of various aspects of South Asian culture (food, dress, locale, even memories of India, etc.) and the way that culture is expressed in America; essentially every scene of Opal Mehta that deals with any aspect of South Asian culture in more than passing detail has lifted something from Born Confused.
Hidier knows well that the marketing of both her book and Viswanathan’s is predicated on their being this supposedly unusual thing, an Indian writer; but where Hidier embraces it, Viswanathan denies it at the same time she pleads it. How could she copy what doesn’t exist?
The number of accusations increasing and evidence of plagiarism mounting, the publisher recalled the book, offering refunds. But why would Viswanathan not only plagiarize from, but also claim never to have read a book by fellow Desi authors, when her book is riddled with many of their exact words? The answer might be found in that Viswanathan could be telling the truth, inasmuch as she may not have exactly written Opal Mehta at all. Rather, the book may have been assembled by committee.
As the first feature in the New York Times mentions, Viswanathan got the offer to publish her book through a series of stand-ins and hirelings—the author’s admission to Harvard too was due not just to some parental plan but to a, how we say, “college packager”:
Her parents were not immune to the competitive pressure, however. Because they had never applied to an American educational institution, they hired Katherine Cohen, founder of IvyWise, a private counseling service, and author of Rock Hard Apps: How to Write the Killer College Application. At the time IvyWise charged $10,000 to $20,000 for two years of college preparation services, spread over a student’s junior and senior years.
But they did have limits. “I don’t think she did our platinum package, which is now over $30,000,” Ms. Cohen said of Ms. Viswanathan.
Ms. Cohen helped open doors other than Harvard’s. After reading some of Ms. Viswanathan’s writing (she had completed a several-hundred-page novel about Irish history while in high school, naturally), Ms. Cohen put her in touch with the William Morris Agency, which represents Ms. Cohen. Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, who is now Ms. Viswanathan’s agent, sold the novel that eventually became Opal to Little, Brown on the basis of four chapters and an outline as part of a two-book deal.
The deal for Opal Mehta was reportedly for half a million dollars.
We may forgive the New York Times for rehashing the story as Viswanathan’s was unraveling: “Ms. Walsh said that she put Ms. Viswanathan in touch with a book packaging company, 17th Street Productions (now Alloy Entertainment), but that the plot and writing of Opal were ‘1,000 percent hers.’” Beware of people who say “1,000 percent”—they might not know just when to quit.
All this does bring up the problem of authorship—who quote-unquote wrote Opal? Is the packager responsible, presumably, for just the kinds of press the author garnered or for shaping the story? And what percentage do they take? (Presumably less than 1,000.) The book packager’s very invisibility signals its power. “The relationships between Alloy and the publishers are so intertwined that the same editor, Claudia Gabel, is thanked on the acknowledgments page of both Ms. McCafferty’s books and Ms. Viswanathan’s.” seems one key way book packagers differ from the ghostwriter, that figure paid to have his or her work officially plagiarized. Alloy with its series like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants functions in exactly the opposite manner: the author as an idea divorced from the writing; the author as owner. This is actually behind the charge, and the practice, of plagiarism—the plagiarist is she who claims she owns, borrows, and expands to fit another’s words.
The book packager’s invisibility extends to the press packet for the book, authorless as the slang that peppers it. Rather than “about the author,” we are told “the 411” on Kaavya Viswanathan. A glossary defines it this way: “411 (n.)—information. Usage: I met this cute boy last night, but he left the party before I could get the 411 on him.” An interview with her is called “Gettin’ down with our flygirl,” with flygirl defined as “a really hip and sexy chick.” I’m not sure how outmoded 1980s slang terms like flygirl with origins in black, particularly hip-hop culture—other definitions listed include crunk and, more fittingly, wack—prove relevant, especially as written by corny publishing types. What was originally black slang now is seen as mere teenage talk. “Ms. Walsh, the agent, said: ‘Knowing what a fine person Kaavya is, I believe any similarities were unintentional. Teenagers tend to adopt each other’s language.’” Black talk: the ultimate ghostwriter.
Where Viswanathan is portrayed as exceptional in all senses, Opal sets out to become ordinary. What Opal Mehta, the book and the titular character, seeks is not to be beyond category but well within it. This is how class often works in America—her ambition is like my 11th-grade history teacher’s in Kansas, who’d repeat to the entire classroom the wishful assertion, “We’re all middle class here.” Though Opal is certainly upper crust in the book, and Viswanathan well paid and well raised, Opal conveys a wish to emulate the American bourgeoisie, to be as middlebrow as the book itself. Only in this way can she “get a life”—by stealing her way into one. Part of its aspiration is assimilation.
At the same time there isn’t any tradition that she knows of, Viswanathan says, promoting the idea that she is sui generis, without precedent. It is strange how Viswanathan wants to see herself as unique in her Indianness—is this another remnant of the book’s spin cycle, whether by a company or her? For Opal Mehta to live, Indian American literature—indeed, Indian literature in English—must die. In contrast to the hoaxer whose bio is enhanced, with plagiarism the writing gets enhanced to match the extravagant bio. Despite the cliché suggested by the book’s title, life of course is not something you get; you live it. When you’re not wasting it.
To plagiarize another is to steal a bit of that person’s soul—almost as much as soul music was stolen. It is also to steal, in other words, a culture. Whether we think plagiarism a crime—the only crime in literature to some—or at best a minor offense, all depends on if we’re the ones being plagiarized. Or on whether we see writing as work. But why would Viswanathan steal her own culture? Why plagiarize in spirit and image, if not words, exactly those things that India-born Viswanathan may have actually experienced? It’s a puzzle—she seems to do so for ease, of course, but also perhaps as a way of becoming American, claiming an Americanness that, the book’s plot seems to suggest, is always at a remove. There’s a sense that Opal Mehta is somehow living a plagiarized existence, trying to own what doesn’t belong to her: Harvard, full-blooded humanity, a “life.”
Opal Mehta must become a type for Viswanathan to live.