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.
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.
• Where Have I Read That Before?
David Edelstein addresses the scourge of plagiarism plaguing all writers.
• Edelstein’s Plagiarism Stunt Explained