Monday, April 24, 2006

the year of the plagiarist

2006 could shape up to be a scandalous year in the writing field. the year began with the dual revelations that oprah-acclaimed author james frey's so-called memoirs were in fact a failed novel and that hot novelist jt leroy doesn't exist at all. (these stories, primarily frey's, were parodied in this week's otherwise-forgettable episode of south park.)

then there was last month's embarrassment at the washington post, when the post hired a new conservative blogger named ben domenech. liberal bloggers, who already felt that conservatives far outbalanced liberals at the post blog, started digging into domenech's past writing and immediately turned up evidence that he was a plagiarist. domenech confessed and resigned, and the post's red america blog was dead within four days of its birth.

now there's a new scandal brewing around hot young indian-american author kaavya viswanthan. viswanthan is a freshman at harvard, who started writing her just-published novel how opal mehta got kissed, got wild, and got a life while still in high school. thanks in part to her massive $500,000 book deal, viswanath has been generating a lot of buzz, especially among the indian-american community.

with her book just out and attracting attention (like this fluffy profile that appeared in yesterday's indy star), this should have been a happy time for viswanthan. but then the harvard crimson, viswanthan's school paper, published that how opal mehta got kissed contains a number of passages that are strikingly similar to passages from two novels by megan mccafferty. the crimson also published examples of these similarities, giving nine examples of material similar to mccafferty's first novel and four examples from mccafferty's second novel.

taken together, these examples are convincing. the first is definitely the strongest:

From page 6 of McCafferty’s first novel: "Sabrina was the brainy Angel. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: Pretty or smart. Guess which one I got. You’ll see where it's gotten me."

From page 39 of Viswanathan's novel: "Moneypenny was the brainy female character. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: smart or pretty. I had long resigned myself to category one, and as long as it got me to Harvard, I was happy. Except, it hadn't gotten me to Harvard. Clearly, it was time to switch to category two."

both contain the exact same string: "Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: Pretty or smart." of course, one or two examples could be a fluke, as the more banal a sentence, the more likely that someone else already wrote it. but 13 examples, several sharing very specific images or turns of a phrase? that's a clear indication of a pattern of literary dishonesty.

i suspect that viswanath's rising star will fall fast with these revelations.

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