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The rise and fall of Kaavya V

But after the plagiarism charges, comes the question: why does the publishing industry create so much of hype around young untested writers? Asks Cyrus Mistry.

india Updated: May 01, 2006 13:59 IST

Now that Kaavya Vishwanathan admits to having been a “huge fan” of Megan McCafferty’s, I suppose there need be no bad blood between the two authors. Lawyers of their respective publishing firms will work out some face-saving compromise, more moolah will exchange hands. Already Little, Brown & Co, publishers of Kaavya’s debut novel, have announced a forthcoming edition of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed with the plagiarised portions excised. And why not? Too much has been invested in it, that’s starting to show returns: it had been on the best-seller list for weeks [till it was withdrawn on Friday], the film rights have been purchased, and now, in addition, all this publicity over what, in my opinion, is no more than a storm in a tea-cup.

For those who tuned in late: Kaavya V is a 19-year-old fresher at Harvard who, two years ago, signed a two-book deal with a publisher (Little, Brown & Co) for some half-a-million dollars. Recently, her novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life made the news for different reasons, when a website called Harvard Crimson published several passages from it which in style and substance are lifted from the work of another recent author, Megan McCafferty. At first Kaavya denied the charges but, subsequently, admitted to “unintentional and unconscious” plagiarism. She claims to have been so influenced by this writer to such an extent, that she was “surprised and upset to see how much she had internalized Ms McCafferty’s words.”

Only a behavioural psychologist could authoritatively opine on whether such verbatim “internalization” is feasible or not. But the point of this piece is neither to condemn, nor to absolve Kaavya. (Though what an opportunity it does give the rest of us to grandstand, to assert our collective moral superiority. We could never have stooped so low!) Pity Kaavya, the poor lass who was found out. All those crores of rupees in advance royalties couldn’t save her the humiliation of being denounced as a plagiarist. But there are degrees and degrees of plagiarism, and there must be hundreds of writers whose culpability in this respect is never discovered or exposed.

Kaavya was unfortunate in that she didn’t even make an effort to change the language of the writer she was copying. And, the line between being ‘influenced’ by a writer, by his language, his style or his ideas, and imitating them, is arguably thin. Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian writer believed that all the stories in human memory or literature can be enumerated in a list of some 213 plot outlines; and that the rest are all permutations and combinations of the same, a sort of recycled and embellished ornamentation of the imagination’s products!

Which is not to claim that there is no such thing as originality or genuine freshness of talent, or even genius. Kaavya V, as her name indicates, is one of us. A second-generation Indian settled in America, but nevertheless an Indian. And don’t we, as Indians know there’s no big deal about plagiarism? Every Hollywood blockbuster finds it’s way to our shores as a pirated DVD that every successful producer will give his teeth to get his hands on. And if found suitable for indigenous consumption, the re-created version will not be a creative adaptation: for fear of losing out on any of the original film’s success and appeal, they will replicate it scene by scene! And audiences never seem to mind.

Do we as Indians have no difficulty with plagiarism? Are we a nation of conscience-dead plagiarists? I know I have made a paradigm shift from literature to a popular Indian cinema, in which anything goes as long as the audiences are lapping it up. But then How Opal Mehta… by its own description hardly seems to merit admission to the category of literature.

Both this novel, as well as the one it is allegedly plagiarised from, belong to a new genre of teeny-bopper popular writing that describes itself as ‘chic-lit’, a kind of refurbished Mills and Boon. Moreover, Kavya V makes no secret of the fact that, in its writing, she sought the help of 17th Street Productions, a New York agency that specialises in “book packaging” especially for “teen narratives”, and whose operatives helped her develop the story.

The publishing industry must hold itself to blame for creating so much hoopla around young, untested writers, for handing out astronomical sums of money to them, and then manipulating both markets and readers to cut their losses or make enormous profits. While all of us would have to admit to a surge of envy when we read about the vast sums these young writers often get, there may be something in this very phenomenon which is their undoing. The large advances may create a great deal of publicity and promotional gas for the writer but, generally speaking, I believe it undermines and cuts short his/her career. Which must surely be one explanation of what drives an aspiring writer to take desperate recourse to plagiarism.

Maybe being subject to colonial rule did rob us of something very important: besides, our nation’s wealth, of course, and the loss of facility in the use of our mother tongues, we lost a belief in the validity of our own experience. Kaavya is no longer one of us, but in a way she remains that, an Indian. If only she had paused to listen to her own voice, tried to plumb her own feelings, tell her own story, something valuably original and touching might have ensued. And there would have been no impulse to be a copycat.

Kaavya, as much as every other aspiring young writer, must learn to face the emptiness, the silence, the occasional bursts of stuttering, as she waits patiently for her own unique voice to ring out, true and clear. We need to remind ourselves of Nissim Ezekiel’s inspiring lines, understanding them not so much in a geographical sense, as in a personal one that signifies knowing the self: “I have made my commitments now/This is one: to stay where I am,/As others choose to give themselves/In some remote and backward place,/My backward place is where I am.”

(The writer’s last book The Radiance of Ashes was published last year.)

First Published: Apr 29, 2006 23:58 IST