Wednesday, April 26, 2006


You didn't seriously think I was going to let this whole Kaavya Viswanathan thing go by without comment, did you [1]? According to the New York Times, Ms. Viswanathan now claims that the copying was "unintentional and unconscious" and that she wasn't aware of how much she had "internalized Ms. McCafferty's words." Let's leave aside, for a moment, the implausability of this argument (I mean okay, so we've all borrowed a phrase or two from Shakespeare without realising it, but 29 whole passages? Unconsciously? Come on! Forget the ethics of the thing, Harvard should throw her out just for coming up with so flimsy an excuse. I mean even Harvard's most incompetent graduate has managed to come up with a more convincing story than that; true, Ms. Viswanathan doesn't have Karl Rove on her team, but still!). The real question to me is this:

Is it better to be a manipulative little vixen who fooled everyone into thinking she was this hotshot teen phenomenon (I especially love the 'high pressure Asian and Indian families' pitch - so eminently marketable), conned her way into Harvard, got herself a sweet book deal and an option from DreamWorks, all at an impossibly young age, and almost, almost got away with it OR the kind of ditsy teenager who internalises a book called "Sloppy Firsts"[2] by someone who's a (former) editor at Cosmo (can it get more cliched than that)?

Personally, I'd cop to the plagiarism charge any day of the week. After all, law suits are one thing, but if you don't have taste what do you have? Being a chick-lit writer (I believe the term is 'young adults'. Ya, right.) is bad enough, but at least you can point out that you get paid for writing the stuff (which is more than I can say for my dissertation, for example, which is almost certain to arouse no interest whatsoever from Dreamworks). Actually paying to read this stuff, however, and then lapping it up as it were God's own gift to the written word, is just unforgivable.

It's at times like these that I'm reminded of the words of that greatest of all mathematicians to come out of Harvard.

P.S. I particularly love the agent's defense of Kaavya at the bottom of the NY Times piece. Apparently, it's just that "teenagers tend to adopt each other's language"!

[1] As someone who's literate, I must, of course, strenuously deny any suggestion that I might actually have considered reading or even so much as heard of Ms. Viswanathan before the current controversy broke out. As far as I'm concerned she's just a silly nuisance who's taking up space in the Books section of the Times which by rights should be going to Philip Roth.

[2] The other books are called, apparently, 'Second Helpings' and 'Charmed Thirds', thus combining deathless prose with what, for their readers, is doubtless advanced mathematics. One wonders what the next book in the series will be called. 'Holding Fourth', perhaps?



maverick said...

hehehe, good she might even try playing a 'victim' - how on earth is cogging close to 40 passages 'unintentional and unconcious'??? Thats the lamest excuse she could have come out with!

Cheshire Cat said...

Go easy on the girl, will ya? She's, like, nineteen. It's a sad story, really. Her parents sound perfectly awful - did you read about the rose petals?

Anyone else find the relish with which the NYT exposed her a bit off-putting? But I must confess I'm glad she didn't get away with it.

Alok said...

Did you read about her parents?

she first says

"They've always been very good about not putting pressure on me," she said of her mother and father. "I mean, I adore them."

and then the article has this...

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.

Umm. that doesn't sound like putting pressure on the kid. hahaha :)

Anirudh said...

I've been trying not to read about Kaavya. So much praise for somebody who can't write- it reminds me of Chetan Bhagat and his books.

Anirudh said...

By the way, are you doing mathematics?

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

You did it again. Every time I shy away from your discourses, you come back with something like this. Especially the Lehrer reference. I was reminded of Groucho's letter to the Warner Brothers, though.

Btw, that Graham bloke you linked to writes that "Tom Lehrer is a schoolteacher". Right, and the USS Enterprise was a gunboat.


Veena said...

Well, by rights the space on this blog shouldn't be going to this kid either. But I am willing to be convinced that you wrote all this only to make a reference to Lehrer. :)

Falstaff said...

maverick: actually, I think the 'victim' play is the one to go with - partly because I suspect it's a lot closer to the truth, and partly because the whole "I once was lost but now am found" plea is so much more likely to work.

cat: ya, I know. It's one of the finer ironies of this whole episode that the controversy surrounding the book may actually tell us more about the real pressures of growing up with super-driven Indian / Asian parents than the book itself. As for the NYT coverage - you had to expect that. One of the lesser known joys of going to Harvard is that it amplifies the glee with which people attack you when you get it wrong.

That said, I'm reluctant to let her off the hook too easy, however awful her parents. That's just not an excuse.

In general though, I can't help feeling (and being amused by) the way this is getting blown out of proportion. I mean okay, plaigarism is just wrong, but the woman writes chick-lit for god's sake - the whole premise of which, from my admittedly limited experience, is: girl is just like you and me, girl has issues with relationship / career / parents / all of the above, girl overcomes. It's hardly a genre prized for its originality and subtlety. I mean okay, so the specific paragraphs are pretty damning. But then people talk about similarities in the plot and I wonder - are we seriously to believe that these two books are the only ones ever written in the YA space to feature high school girls struggling with parental pressure to get into college?

alok: I don't know. That by itself doesn't mean her parents were pressurising her - I suspect that's true - but she may have wanted to be in the program herself. I'm betting the folks at IvyWise are enjoying the free publicity though

anirudh: I don't know enough about her or her writing to comment. I honestly had never heard of her or her book till three days ago. And no, I'm not doing mathematics.

JAP: Huh? Why are you trying to shy away from my discourses (a word that makes me feel like one of those saffron robed mavens conducting somnambulant prayer sessions on TV 24x7). And I hadn't noticed the schoolteacher bit. Aargghh! people with PhDs are not schoolteachers, dammit!

Falstaff said...

Veena: That and making fun of chick-lit / Cosmo. Besides, if I could get an interview with Roth, or could even get my hands on his new book, you can bet your life I wouldn't be blogging about this twinkie.

Anand Sridharan said...

Reminds me of Anu Malik, whose tunes are "inspired", not "copied".

Falstaff - that's probably the only reference to Anu Malik on your blog (and one more than you'd wanted)!

Veena said...

Falstaff: I don't think Lehrer actually finished his Phd. Will look that up.

Heh Heh said...

Yes, he never finished his PhD.. He bever became a professor.. he was only an instructor at Harvard. He's still around, teaching at UC Santa Cruz, btw.

anantha said...

thanks for the lobachev link. i have a word for this whole business:

? said...

true . . . the - it was unconscious 'cos i had internalized the original books . . . was a bit much !!

The Man Who Wasnt There said...

ha is indeed amusing (ofcourse to everyone it would be as long as one is not part of what-was-it-again publishing house and ofcourse as long as you are not Kaavya (numerology?!!) Vishwanathan...:p

But really 500 hundred thousand dollars and a Dreamworks contract for chik-lit??? Who really reads them anyway? I still have horrendous memories of cringing away from 'Chicken soup for the teenage soul xxx '...couldnt believe ppl were lapping it up even after know it was pure fiction...!!

Falstaff said...

Anand: Ah yes, Anu Malik. Another example of someone who not only has no ethics, he also (and more regrettably) has no taste.

Veena / heh heh: Ya, ya, okay - so the man's still on dissertation status. Has been for a few decades. So what? A thesis is a hard thing to write. Heh - you of all people should know that.

Anantha: nice

?: Yes. I'm guessing it's not going to work. If it does, I'm so copying my way through all of Dostoyevsky.

Girish: Yes, it's tragic isn't it. Though I can't say the juxtaposition of chick-lit and Dreamworks is suprising. Or that Dreamworks contracts are particularly desirable. I'd settle for less money and the assurance that Tom Cruise will not be playing one of my characters.