How different everything sounds in retrospect.
As a senior in high school, the well-to-do girl from the swank New Jersey suburb of Franklin Lakes explained to Forbes how hired experts had refashioned her paper self to appeal to Harvard. “They take all the raw material,” she said of IvyWise, a college-application consultancy on West 57th Street, “and help you put it together in the way that an admissions officer is going to be most impressed by.”
Last summer, between her freshman and sophomore years at Harvard, she published a Times op-ed piece, “Growing Up With a Dose of Magic,” about coming of age in thrall to Harry Potter. She loved the stories’ “promise of hope, sustaining the fundamental childhood belief that in the end, good really does triumph over evil, and justice is meted out to those who deserve it.” And yet in the same piece she confessed that as a middle-schooler she bought The Prisoner of Azkaban, read it in one night, and returned it the next day to the bookstore—“unethically”—to get her money back.
Earlier this year, when an interviewer asked which authors most “inspire” her, she didn’t mention J. K. Rowling—nor a well-known novelist in the teen-romantic-comedy genre, Megan McCafferty. No, the novelists Kaavya now loved best were impressively literary—Amitav Ghosh, who also happens to be her creative-writing professor, and Kazuo Ishiguro.
When another reporter asked, a few weeks ago, if any particular book had inspired her to write How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, the answer was unequivocal. “Nothing I read,” she said, “gave me the inspiration.”
“We encouraged her to slow down,” her proud mother said on the eve of publication. “She’s very driven.”
Poor, perfect Kaavya Viswanathan. When the first reporter, a kid from the Harvard Crimson, called about the dozens of cribbed passages, Kaavya stonewalled. “I have no idea what you are talking about.” Later, her continuing, elaborate disingenuousness made it harder to pity her. McCafferty’s books “spoke to me in a way few other books did . . . [I] can honestly say that any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious.” Why’d she go on the Today show? To tell “the truth.” Such chutzpah. But last week—as Little, Brown canceled the novel—the Times unearthed more appropriations from another girlocentric romantic comedy. And the Harvard Independent found that parts of Opal Mehta were also lifted from Born Confused, a novel about an Indian-American girl growing up in New Jersey. Such over-the-top chutzpah; no wonder she got into Harvard.
Everyone relates to plagiarism stories because everyone lies at least a little. But why is this episode so especially compelling? For one, because a fiction writer caught stealing from fiction is rare. The last big American case was a decade ago, when the best-selling romance novelist Janet Dailey was discovered to have repeatedly ripped off the best-selling romance novelist Nora Roberts.
And then there’s Kaavya herself. All the reasons an unknown girl got such a large advance for a slight novel—her promotability: extreme youth, voguish ethnicity, good looks, public poise, and Harvard imprimatur, as well as the book’s autobiographical verisimilitude—are the same reasons her downfall is so riveting. The story also has a crossover appeal, pleasing both young people envious of their mega-successful peer and older people who enjoy imputing moral inferiority and too-clever-by-half stupidity to the younger generation.
The schadenfreude also has a righteous tint: Just as the Duke-lacrosse-team case confirms ugly stereotypes about privileged white jocks, Kaavya Viswanathan, the only child of a brain surgeon and gynecologist, confirms the invidious stereotype of privileged meritocrats gone wild. She is a flagrant example of the hard-charging freaks that our culture grooms and prods so many of its best and brightest children to become, a case study in one sociopathology of the adolescent overclass.
Plagiarists almost never simply confess. There are always mitigating circumstances. Nonfiction offenders often chalk it up to carelessness—they mixed up their notes. This was part of Raytheon CEO Bill Swanson’s alibi when he was busted last month for his management guide copied from a 1944 book.
Kaavya told the Times that she “never take[s] notes,” ruling out that alibi. The ultimate act of chutzpah for a Harvard English major would have been to say that the similarities were part of a deliberate postmodern intertextual take on “real” genre novels. But it’s probably too late to mention Barthes now.
Janet Dailey pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. “I recently learned,” she said in 1997, “that my essentially random and non-pervasive acts of copying are attributable to a psychological problem that I never even suspected I had.” Kaavya, conversely, suggested that it isn’t a disorder but a mental superpower that explains her unconscious copying, not kleptomania but a photographic memory.