She clearly did go a little crazy under the pressure, desperate to keep impressing all the important adults who had invested in her. A year ago she told a reporter that her manuscript was due in six weeks, but that she still had almost two-thirds left to write. Authors renegotiate deadlines all the time, but she evidently couldn’t even permit herself that failure. However the plagiarism happened exactly, she had already come to understand that her success so far was not just a matter of talent and discipline but of buying the right connections, cutting deals for behind-the-scenes assistance, cunning. She was hooked up with her packager, Alloy Entertainment, by the agency William Morris (which also represents me), and hooked up with William Morris by her college-application consultant, Katherine Cohen.
Cohen may be worth the $33,000 she charges for her “platinum package.” But there’s something fundamentally untoward about the cynical lessons that such a makeover process teaches the kids who go through it—especially when it seems to work. Until a week ago Kaavya’s testimonial was on the firm’s Website (“More than just my counselor, Katherine became my role model and my friend”), and she freely mentioned IvyWise in interviews. It’s like a 17-year-old beauty queen bragging about her fake boobs and thanking the plastic surgeon in her remarks to the judges.
Youth may not be an excuse here, but it is an explanation. Omnivorous ambition and risk-taking pathology burn hot and blindingly in late adolescence and early adulthood. Most of the best-known recent plagiarists and fabulists were 25 or younger when they committed their thefts or fabrications: Stephen Glass, Ruth Shalit, Jayson Blair, and so on. All were precocious up-and-comers, and two of those three were Ivy League graduates.
And, of course, there’s Jacob Epstein. He wrote Wild Oats, his first (and only) novel, as a senior at Yale; it was among the Times’s “best books of 1979.” But then Martin Amis discovered that 50-odd passages had been stolen from his own first novel. Like Kaavya, Epstein said he had accidentally copied a writer he adored. In both cases the plots were as brazen as the ripoffs: Wild Oats concerns plagiarism, and Opal Mehta becomes a “master liar” to win Harvard’s approval. “The psychology of plagiarism is fascinatingly perverse,” Amis said apropos Epstein. “It risks, or invites, a deep shame, and there must be something of the death wish in it.”
I smelled something odd—if not shame, it seems now, at least the secret knowledge of her own inauthenticity—in Kaavya’s pre-publication Times profile: “She planned to become an investment banker after college.” As she told the Globe, “writing is not anything I see as my job.” So publishing a novel at 19 was just another awesomely super-impressive item on the résumé.
We have become a culture of borrowers—musicians sample, painters appropriate, computerists worship open-source software. Cool. The problem is that at the same time we’ve forged a society in which misrepresentation is routine, encouraged, obligatory. For all her sweet Hogwarts dreams, an observant, canny, IvyWised-up kid is bound to draw certain conclusions about the way the real world works. She might have noticed, for instance, that the “announced” first printing of her novel was 100,000, about twice the number that shipped—and if she asked why, she would’ve learned that 100 percent exaggeration is simply publishing’s rule of thumb.
And to the degree she analyzed the long-term risks of plagiarism, she may not have been deterred. Swanson is still CEO of Raytheon. The plagiarists Martin Luther King and Helen Keller are saints, Laurence Sterne and Samuel Taylor Coleridge part of the canon. Nina Totenberg, fired from a newspaper for plagiarizing when she was 28, is a distinguished NPR reporter. Doris Kearns Goodwin, four years after her unattributed borrowing in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys was publicized, just won a $50,000 prize from the New-York Historical Society. Janet Dailey is still a best-selling novelist. At the New York Times, Fox Butterfield lifted five paragraphs (in a story about plagiarism committed by a university dean) in 1991, and retired just last year. And at Harvard, the three law-school superstar professors who were found in 2003 and 2004 to have lifted footnotes (Alan Dershowitz), a brief passage (Laurence Tribe), and six paragraphs (Charles Ogletree) have gone unpunished.
“Even adults,” Kaavya wrote about Harry Potter, “like to think that somehow, everything will be all right.” And though now she looks more like Draco Malfoy than like Harry or Hermione, she can hope.
Jacob Epstein has had an extremely successful career as a television writer. But Kaavya should also understand that he’s served a 26-year sentence for his youthful crime: Here he is now, the poor man, dragged as always into a discussion of plagiarism because of a mistake he made half his lifetime ago . . . and now privately hoping, perhaps, that despite her tongue-twisting surname, a new young wretch is about to replace him, for the next generation, as literary plagiarism’s poster child.