Tuesday, May 02, 2006

How "Opal Mehta" Got Published, Got Revealed, and Got Yanked Off the Shelves

By now you've heard about 19-year-old Kaavya Viswanathan and her novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. The big news is that Viswanathan plagiarized sections of her book from another writer, Megan McCafferty. Now it turns out she also lifted a few chunks from Sophie Kinsella's The Princess Diaries and Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

That's the big news. But let's talk about the smaller, but still interesting, parts of the story.

First, money. Her publishers paid Viswanathan something like $500,000 as an advance. She's 19 years old. There are some very, very good writers in this country who never earn a dollar for their work, and many of the best never make a living at it. So whose bright idea was it to ante up half a million dollars for a teenager's first novel?

Second, Harvard's literary standards. I hope her English professors take note of the fact that she's ripping off crap. (Not you, Salman.) If you're going to steal, baby, why not steal from Flaubert?

Third, Harvard's ethical standards. (And everybody else's.) I recently taught course at an up-and-coming third-tier private college. Two sections, 25 students each. I had four cases of plagiarism. In each case, the boneheads had simply pasted in material they copied from the Internet -- Wikipedia, mostly, and one Wiccan site. (Something about that "wick" sound, I guess). They cried crocodile tears when I gave them "D"s, not seeming to understand (despite my rather stern comments and repeated references to both Turabian and the student handbook) that the normal punishment for plagiarism on a college term paper is expulsion. Or at least it was when I was a young 'un.

"What do you expect from these kids," I said to myself. "They're studying at Party U.; it's not like this place is ... I dunno ... Harvard." Except it turns out that it IS as though that place were Harvard, with less money.

My students claimed, without exception, that nobody had ever explained to them why it is wrong to take credit for things that somebody else has written. They had, by the way, gone to good high schools, several of them church-affiliated. So from the middle of American higher education to the top, it appears that there is a student culture which takes for granted what we old fogeys still call plagiarism. Call it hommagerie, or the age of sampling. Call it by the polite Biblical-studies term of pseudepigrapha. But either way, look for many sequels to Opal Mehta.

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