A Google search on the two names Kaavya Viswanathan and James Frey this morning produced 362 results. Almost all of them comparisons between the two. One half-assed attempt at snark on a blog wrote “How Kaavya Viswanathan got rich, got caught, and got ruined… and became best friends with James Frey.” Another calls Viswanathan “the new James Frey.”
Even worse, however, is the spate of commentators who talk about Viswanathan as though she were the less guilty of the two. “It’s not like she just made up facts, a la Frey,” I read. Or, “Not quite James Frey, but…”
Kaavya Viswanathan, for those who haven’t been paying attention, is a 19-year-old Harvard Sophomore who signed a $500,000 book deal with Little, Brown & Co. when she was just 17 – the youngest author in the publisher’s history. But her debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, bodily lifted sections of two books by Megan McCafferty, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. To be specific, it contained 29 distinct instances of plagiarism. Yesterday the publisher announced that the book would be pulled from the shelves.
Let’s be clear here. James Frey lied, exaggerated, and fictionalized what was supposed to be his memoir. And his worst offense, frankly, was to make a fool of America’s uncrowned Queen, Oprah. (Do you really think this would have raised such headlines if he hadn’t been on her show?) But certainly we can agree that the disputed parts of A Million Little Pieces were from his own imagination. (That was the whole problem, wasn’t it?) Some still feel that Frey had every right to take artistic license with his memoir. It was, after all, his memoir. The only issue was whether he should have said so.
What Frey did not do was steal someone else’s material. Viswanathan’s book was not a memoir, so she should have had every reason to make up something in the book. Instead she plagiarized, ripped off another author’s hard work and passed it off as her own. While Frey’s transgression is a matter of conscience and an issue between nobody but himself and his readers, at least it’s his own intellectual property; Viswanathan’s transgression can and should put her in court.
What Viswanathan did is far, far worse. Her statement that she “unknowingly and unintentionally” plagiarized is bullshit (she unknowingly and unintentionally took someone else’s material TWENTY-NINE TIMES?), and in a perfect world we would forget Frey’s name immediately in her wake. We won’t, of course: she didn’t mess with the most powerful media personality in America. But the big difference is that we can still debate whether A Million Little Pieces has merit and value as a literary work. There is no debate as to How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life‘s value. A substantial amount of it, after all, is stolen property.
I’ve not read either book. But my Amazon link on this entry is to Frey’s… it’s much more worthy of your money and respect. Fiction or not, it’s original work.