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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Reactions To the Kaavya VIshwanathan Story

A young teenager with a gift for the written word messed up. So how has the world reacted to it? Quite dramatically! There’s many who continue to condemn her and scratch the bottom of the pot to find more faults, there are those who believe that Viswanathan was taken for a ride and her agent and packaging company were equally responsible for the mistakes, and then there are those who believe that what’s happened has happened, let’s move on.
Many students at Universities worldwide are also reacting similarly, with reactions ranging from feeling sorry, getting angry and taking malicious satisfaction in another person's troubles. “As for my students, they were rather gleeful. They'd talked about her success jealously before--so the schadenfruede was palpable!” says Meera Nair, writer and teacher of creative writing.
From this incident arises the larger issue of young adults' comprehension of plagiarism. Teaching young high school and college students how to quote other writers and making them understand what plagiarism is has always been a challenge for teachers of English. College English composition classes are a pre-requisite and try to emphasize upon how not to plagiarize and how to accurately quote from other works. “Academic honesty is a very serious issue that I take up regularly in my classes: one has to both educate students on what amounts to plagiarism and its seriousness, and to critique the instances of plagiarism that one encounters in the academy and in higher education,” says Kavita Daiya, Assistant Professor of English at George Washington University.
The question of “responsibility” is also another huge issue arising from this controversy. Many are wondering where Kaavya Viswanathan’s agent, her editor at Little Brown and more importantly the packaging company Alloy Entertainment, figure in this equation. Many question why Alloy Entertainment is listed before Kaavya Viswanathan’s name in the novel. Did they indeed get 50% of the advance and royalties from the sale of the book. Is this scandal completely Viswanathan’s responsibility or is she a scapegoat? While so many come forward to take credit when the going is good, should there not be others coming forward to share responsibility during this misfortune?
Daiya says, “For me, this incident also raises very important and urgent questions about responsibility on the part of Alloy, the packaging firm, as well: To what extent has the original text been reworked to fit the successful prototype in this genre by Alloy? What was their true role in the translation of this story into a ‘package’/product? After all, Alloy’s name appears before Viswanathan’s on the novel's copyright line, and this is significant. So while it is easy to attack and pillory the young, stereotypically successful model minority teenager, I do think the question of responsibility for those similarities is more complex, and lies as much if not more with Alloy’s “packaging” (and perhaps with her agent as well) as Viswanathan.”
Sharmila Sen is an Assistant Professor of English at Harvard and refused to comment, “I am afraid that I cannot comment on this incident. Kaavya was my student last semester and as a teacher I make it rule never to discuss my students outside the confines of departmental meetings.”
Amitav Ghosh, the eminent Indian American author, who is also a visiting professor at Harvard reportedly issued rare words of praise and endorsed Viswanathan’s work and said, "At Harvard, there are many, many very fine writers. Her writing has a kind of a pitch-perfect novelist's diction. At her age, that is very unusual." He was unavailable for comments after the scandal surfaced.
“Ms. Viswanathan says that she alone is responsible for borrowing portions of two novels by Megan McCafferty, "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings." But at the very least, the incident opens a window onto a powerful company with lucrative, if tangled, relationships within the publishing industry that might take fans of series like "The It Girl" by surprise,” says an article in the New York Times.
“… the publishing contract Little, Brown signed is actually with Alloy, which holds the copyright to "Opal" together with Ms. Viswanathan. Neither Little, Brown nor Alloy would comment on how much of the advance or the royalties — standard contracts give 15 percent of the cover price to the author — Ms. Viswanathan is to collect,” adds the article in the New York Times. Many wonder if this is a simple case of a packaging company using a smart and beautiful young woman to be their media facing person, to get publicity and boost sales of a formula based chick-lit novel.
Salman Rushdie issued a statement to the media soon after similarities between his novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Viswanathan’s book surfaced. “I haven't seen the book, I have seen the passages that were compared between the two books, I must say I don't accept the idea that this could have been accidentally or innocently done. The passages are too many and the similarities are too extensive,” Rushdie is reported to have said.
Like many other writers who shared angst at Viswanathan’s predicament, Rushdie said, “this young girl, pushed by the needs of a publishing machine and, no doubt, by her ambition should have fallen into this trap so early in her career. I hope she can recover from it.” Rushdie blamed both the author and the publisher for the mess and said "both are responsible. But I know when I write a book it's my name on the book so I stand or fall by what I sign. And so must she.”
Tanuja Desai Hidier’s official statement is yet to be released. During the course of my conversation with Viswanathan she clearly indicated that she had not read Tanuja Desai Hidier’s work. In fact she did not even know who Hidier was. I had to tell her about Hidier and her book and Viswanathan listened to me intently and said “Oh I should read it.”
Sashi Tharoor, author and the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information said in an exclusive interview with this writer, "I think people are losing sight of the fact that a teenage girl had the energy, creativity and discipline to write a book. Parts of it may have been derivative or imitative, but the fact remains that 90% of her material was not plagiarized. She is now going through a terrible repudiation that even much older people would find difficult to endure. I hope she does not let it destroy her faith in herself. I would urge her to remember what she felt like writing all those pages that came from her own imagination, and what she experienced on first seeing her finished book in her hands.”
“The best answer to her critics will be if Kaavya can return to that creative process -- write another book, because she knows in her heart of hearts that she is capable of it. It may not be a book that a packager would find lucrative, but it would be a truer book, and she will be a stronger writer for having been through this crucible and emerged from it with her writer's soul intact," he added.

by Visi Tilak

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