The Cheating Culture, part 2
She was a 17 year old who got a half million dollar book deal without ever having written the first page of the anticipated first novel. She's now a student at Harvard. The first novel was finally published to great fanfares of publicity. Kaavya Viswanathan's book is entitled How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. The title immediately alone sets off internal alarm bells in my head warning that this is the literary equivalent of Turkish Delight which can only lead to immediate atrophy of synapses, and after reading some of the novel in question, you've gotta judge that book by its title.
The problem? Chunks of Viswanathan's book apparently plagiarized passages from a fellow chick-lit artiste.
Yes, that's as American as an ice cream cone. But you gotta love her excuse:
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."
"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," she said.
Calling herself a "huge fan" of Ms. McCafferty's work, Ms. Viswanathan added, "I wasn't aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty's words." She also apologized to Ms. McCafferty and said that future printings of the novel would be revised to "eliminate any inappropriate similarities."
Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little, Brown, said that Ms. Viswanathan planned to add an acknowledgment to Ms. McCafferty in future printings of the book.
In her e-mail message, Ms. Viswanathan said that "the central stories of my book and hers are completely different." But Ms. McCafferty's books, published by Crown, a division of Random House, are, like Ms. Viswanathan's, about a young woman from New Jersey trying to get into an Ivy League college — in her case, Columbia. (Ms. Viswanathan's character has her sights set on Harvard.) Like the heroine of "Opal," Ms. McCafferty's character, Jessica Darling, visits the campus, strives to earn good grades to get in and makes a triumphant high school graduation speech.
Well, she's definitely creative: she didn't steal the words of an author she read less than five years ago; no, she "internalized Ms. McCafferty's words"-- and against her own will!
Ohhhhhhh, that's okay then. And her agent says to blame teen culture: "Knowing what a fine person Kaavya is, I believe any similarities were unintentional. Teenagers tend to adopt each other's language."
I guess this has struck a chord in me because I had to call a parent recently and inform him that his child was taking a make-up exam with me and was surreptitiously (is it really surreptitious if you're blazingly obvious and you're caught?) using notes to try to raise his grade. The poor parent apologized over and over again. It made me cringe, because it's not the parent who should be apologizing-- I know he's been trying to do the right thing. "Kiddo" is plenty old enough to know better. But our culture admires people who "get away with things." Even though the kid admitted that he was cheating, he claimed he didn't recall his parent's phone number at work-- until I called home and explained that to grandma, who put the kid on the phone. Within seconds, a miracle happened and the number was recalled. Well, one attempt at honesty out of three chances isn't bad, I guess.
This is not a rotten kid-- just an incredibly polite but disorganized one who needs some reinforcement of study skills and a big dose of accountability. Kid comes to class late, asks to go the restroom in the middle of class about three times a week, leaves the second the bell rings, and refuses to get help from me or a tutor or a study group, even during free time during the school day. Apparently, Kid has been claiming that he has been coming to me for tutoring for months now. Kid has been telling me, meanwhile, that his coach won't let him miss practice, even when that sport is not in season, because, apparently, I am THAT gullible in this kid's eyes. Meanwhile, Coach hyperbolically emails me that Meanie Me may cost the kid a college scholarship (carbon copied to half the building) and then provides as supporting evidence every racial stereotype you can imagine. Does this guy not realize that he is implying that the kid can't do the work because he's a minority? And aren't there SOME KIND of academic requirements for athletic scholarships-- unless, of course, you play for the Nebraska Cornhuskers? (Kidding!-- a bit...)
I appreciate the fact that the kid eventually apologized. I appreciate the fact that the parent actually supported the contention that cheating is wrong-- it could certainly have gone the other way. But hey, everyone cheats, right?
****Saturday Update: the book has been pulled from the shelves, supposedly to be "revised." No word on when or if it will be reissued.