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If Kaavya plagiarised, who defends stock characters?
Bangalore: Can Mills & Boons claim copyright over 'the tall, dark and handsome hero'? The innocence of Kaavya Viswanathan depends on the answer to this question.
‘She is a fraud. Harvard should be ashamed… The girl is a liar!’
(Posted by an anonymous visitor on
TYPE IN THE words Harvard sophomore on Google and hit Enter. The first link thrown up will relate to Kaavya Viswanathan. If you have been away from the newspapers for weeks and need to be brought up to date, Kaavya Viswanathan first hit the headlines when her book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life won her a six-figure advance from Little, Brown and Company. Soon after, DreamWorks studio acquired the film rights for the book.
But, the accolades went up in smoke when allegations surfaced that Viswanathan’s book had similarities to Megan McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. The examples of the ‘questionable passages’ first appeared in The Harvard Crimson, a daily newspaper brought out by Harvard graduates. It does not happen very often that an alma mater turns in its own. But, that is another story.
Later, Crown Publishing Group, McCafferty’s publisher, went a step further and identified 40 passages ‘that contain identical language and/or common scene or dialogue structure from Megan McCafferty’s first two books’.
Her alleged borrowings consist not of whole passages (as has sometimes been quoted by the media) or even the plot. The similarities are more absurd. They consist of little phrases or small details about the main characters. Their presence or absence makes no difference to the larger work. They do not even add to the humour quotient of Viswanathan’s novel!
The only questions that come to mind is ‘why?’ and ‘would someone actually do something so stupid?’ Surely, not an intelligent Harvard sophomore. Can there be some truth then in Viswanathan’s apology where she stated that her borrowing was unintentional?
And, herein lies the crux of the problem. Both McCafferty and Viswanathan write chick lit. This is the fiction for young, single, working women, usually in their twenties. The genre was given a thrust by the success of Bridget Jones’ Dairies. The books usually follow the mis-adventures of a female protagonist, with a focus on her dismal love life. The genre is replete with types like ‘the plain Jane who gets her man’, the dashing older man, the loyal girl buddies, and not to mention the ugly duckling metamorphosing into the swan. In this genre the ruckus over Viswanathan copying from McCafferty is as silly as a Mills & Boons author claiming their copyright over the ‘tall, dark and handsome hero’ or the ‘virgin heroine’.
Neither of the two authors in question wrote Pulitzer Prize–winning books. They wrote chick lit. So, there are bound to be similarities. Chick lit draws on each other and on popular culture. Here is where ‘unintentional’ becomes the keyword.
Let us just take one of the alleged borrowings for analysis.
Page 23, Sloppy Firsts, Megan McCafferty: ‘He’s got dusty reddish dreads that a girl could never run her hands through. His eyes are always half-shut. His lips are usually curled in a semi-smile, like he’s in on a big joke that’s being played on you but you don’t know it yet.’
Page 48, Kaavya Viswanathan: ‘He had too-long shaggy brown hair that fell into his eyes, which were always half shut. His mouth was always curled into a half smile, like he knew about some big joke that was about to be played on you.’
This character is a type. Let me quote from A Happy Boy by the Norweigian writer Björnstjerne Björnson (1832-1910): ‘Her eyes were half-closed when she did not just happen to be looking at you, but that gave her glance an unexpected brilliance when it came—and, as if to explain that she meant nothing by it, she would half smile at the same time. Her hair was rather dark than fair, but it curled in little ringlets and came far forward at the sides—so that together with her half-closed eyes it gave her face an effect of mystery which it seemed one could never quite fathom. It was impossible to tell exactly at whom she was looking when she sat by herself or among others.’ Similar, right? Even when it is talking of a woman. So, can anyone claim a copyright over the boy with half-closed eyes and roguish smile? And, can we claim that McCafferty borrowed this idea from Björnson?
Further, the similarities are not central to Viswanathan’s book. They are purely incidental to the main action. Vishwanathan’s story is about an Indian-American teenager, A High School student. Her life plan is HOWGIH (How Opal Will Get Into Harvard). But, when she does not get past the early admissions round at Harvard because she has missed out on her social life, HOWGIH is transformed into HOWGAL (How Opal Will Get A Life).
Yes, HOWGIH and HOWGAL, like many of the most important things in the books, are originals.
McCafferty’s writes of Jessica in Sloppy Firsts, who excels in high school yet is lost in a search for her identity and longs for a boyfriend. In the course of the action, she rants, ‘My parents suck ass. Banning me from the phone and restricting my computer privileges are the most tyrannical parental gestures I can think of. Don’t they realize that Hope’s the only one who keeps me sane? …I don’t see how things could get any worse.’
It is the kind of line Opal would not be caught dead with. In contrast to Jessica’s angst-ridden search for identity, Opal is the conformist Indian-American girl who loves her family. She would do anything to get into Harvard, because that is what her parents want.
Opal walks the line between her Indian and American identities to emerge as the ‘all American geek’. Of course, as is typical of the ‘all American geek’ central character in chick lit she will grow up to be an intelligent, confident woman of substance. Yes, and she also has the potential to be transformed from a wallflower into a high-school goddess, but she will finally fall in love with the boy who ‘values her for who she is’.
It is true that neither of the plots is very original. But, the central ideas are clearly very different.
As for the similarities that are incidental plot in terms of structure or phrasing. Ideas need to be original, only then can the accusation of plagiarism run true. Of the 14 instances stated by The Harvard Crimson, only about two even remotely fall into the category. In most instances Viswanathan had also improvised on the original. In some cases, she has even woven these incidental elements into her plot. Is that not craft?
Further, is any literary work merely the product of individual genius? Is it not always in some way influenced by the works that have preceded it and the culture that surrounds it? It is to what already exists that an individual brings a little of oneself. So, in the world created by Viswanathan delightful characters like Kali, Amal and Meena also co-exist with the conventional Jeff and Sean.
Any work if analysed threadbare will always bear the influence of other works. If this is true even of the great masterpieces churned out by Shakespeare, how much more would it apply to the cliché-ridden chick lit? 
And, does the whole not constitute for anything? Will we focus only on the parts?

It is time to sheath our already bloody swords. Instead, let us raise a toast to a young American novelist. She is still to write a great novel. But, she belongs to a tradition of young Americans who are Indian in her origins, but American in their perspective. They write without the consciousness of their Indian identity that plagued the older generation. There will be others to follow, but Viswanathan has set the ball rolling.

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