An Ivy League Tale

Wikipedia writes: “Kaavya Viswanathan (born January 16, 1987) is an Indian-American undergraduate student in the Harvard College class of 2008, and a novelist noted for her plagiarism. She was born in Chennai, India, and raised in Glasgow, Scotland, and suburban Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, United States….”

In high school, Viswanathan received a $500,000 advance- a 2-book deal from Little Brown & Company. It’s hard to decide who’s most at fault here. What about the agent- or, the publishers for lax editorial support- or, the schlub who read this girl’s application essay for Harvard??

Viswanathan told the New York Sun in early 2005 (just after her book deal was made): “I still cannot believe this. I never expected this would happen… I had only vaguely thought of becoming a writer. But a book contract? from a major publisher? This is so incredibly unbelievable. It’s so hard to believe that I’m going to be able to walk into a bookstore and see something that I wrote on display there.”

…on the rack next to James Frey and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Another “V” quote from the same article:
“This is a big-time commitment. It’s not like writing an essay for a class.”

omigosh, Harvard admissions people, did it strike a warning bell when her application essay started “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” ??

Yet another little tidbit I enjoyed:
“Strangely, Ms. Viswanathan’s novel is a case of life imitating art.”

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In fact, writers and would-be writers are often told to parrot the styles of those who’ve gone before. But this is not even genuine EFFORT in my opinion…

From page 6 of Megan McCafferty’s novel “Sloppy Firsts”:
“Sabrina was the brainy Angel. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: Pretty or smart. Guess which one I got. You’ll see where it’s gotten me.”

From page 39 of Viswanathan’s novel:
“Moneypenny was the brainy female character. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: smart or pretty. I had long resigned myself to category one, and as long as it got me to Harvard, I was happy. Except, it hadn’t gotten me to Harvard. Clearly, it was time to switch to category two.”

From page 7 of McCafferty’s first novel:
“Bridget is my age and lives across the street. For the first twelve years of my life, these qualifications were all I needed in a best friend. But that was before Bridget’s braces came off and her boyfriend Burke got on, before Hope and I met in our seventh-grade honors classes.”

From page 14 of Viswanathan’s novel:
“Priscilla was my age and lived two blocks away. For the first fifteen years of my life, those were the only qualifications I needed in a best friend. We had first bonded over our mutual fascination with the abacus in a playgroup for gifted kids. But that was before freshman year, when Priscilla’s glasses came off, and the first in a long string of boyfriends got on.”

[Thecomparisons above are taken from a Harvard Crimson article by David Zhou- and it details many more examples of V’s thievery.]

Writers, of course, should take the lead from those who’ve gone before- by mimicking their styles for effect, to learn, to see what’s worked for others. Rolling Stone contributing editor David Lipsky has said this, regarding sampling other authors, “…writing, as far as I’ve learned it, has a lot in common with hip-hop… You look around for stuff you can grab, you think: What worked on me? Why did it work? And then: How can I put that same sound into my own CD?”

Lipsky was referring to this sentence, which he wrote in 1996: “Then Larson went home, put on a pot of water for tea, and died around 1 a.m.”

He goes on to describe the evolution of the sentence from its original inspiration- a novel called Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh. “I remembered it going like this- He laid his head in the oven, and presently died… In fact, I pulled the paragraph off of Amazon, and here’s how it actually goes- The sniff made him cough, and coughing made him breathe, and breathing made him feel very ill; but soon he fell into a coma and presently died.”

THAT is how to be a writer. THAT is sampling.

By the way, has anyone bothered to question McCafferty’s agent and publisher regarding her early advances? This stinks of bias. If that’s not the case, and it really is just a matter of a bright-eyed “ingÃ?©nue”, then Little Brown’s negligence astounds me.

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