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Friday, July 31, 2009

Blast from the Past: Notorious

Kaavya stared dully at the laptop screen, her eyes bleary from the lack of sleep. “Don’t forget to finish your 50 pages of novel. It’s due tomorrow”, rang her mother’s admonition. The page had two lines on it, paused for the last 15 minutes on “…and Opal”. “I hate Opal, hate this novel writing gimmick, hate Amma, hate Appa…” She closed the laptop, dropped it unceremoniously on her table and grabbed her backpack, ready to clear her head with a short walk in the gated neighborhood. She paused at the door, turning for a last glance at her room, her eyes alighting on an untouched pile of shocking pink and purple books.

Her eyes narrowed as she remembered where she got them -- “Here you go, Kaavya. Some reading material to put you in the mood for producing the style of prose we need for this novel. I like your story, but it has too much angst to crack the NY Times top 100” the literary agent had said, handing over the bag of books to her mother, who had already stretched out her hand in anticipation of the action.

All thoughts of going for a walk fled. Kaavya dropped her backpack, picked a book at random out of the pile and fell back on her bed, thumbing through it rapidly.
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“My daughter’s a very gifted writer”, Mrs.V. had gushed to the IvyWise counselor. “You must see the samples of her writing that we’ve brought. She actually won an award for young writers last year, and her earliest writings appeared in Stone Soup.” Kaavya tried to keep a straight face as she remembered the initial outcry from her parents over the Stone Soup submission “You wrote a story in which you take out your anger at us for moving from Scotland to New Jersey!” They were persuaded by the teacher to grant permission to submit the story to the magazine only after repeated assurances from the teacher that the writing showed great promise and a maturity beyond her years.

“That sounds very interesting. Let’s review her work to see how we can use that in her Harvard application.” The counselor pursed her lips, radiating wrinkles faintly visible as the Botox was wearing off. She unpursed them as the words on the page started to take flight from a slow-taxi start, her eyes widening and taking on a curious glint. Kaavya could almost see the dollar signs flashing in them. “Mrs.V, her writing shows remarkable talent. You should really let me put you in touch with a literary agent that I know. She may be able to get a book deal for Kaavya, and that would be just the thing to boost her chances of getting into Harvard.”
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“I wanted to be a serious writer. Not stuck with rewriting my story to pander to hordes of teens. Ha… they want cutting and funny; I’ll give ‘em cutting and funny!” Kaavya flipped open her laptop, booted up and opened the document that she had been working on. She went into the online ‘search inside the book’ feature for the title she had chosen and tiled two windows side by side on the laptop screen. Cut/paste/change, cut/paste/change… Inspiration finally struck a couple of paragraphs later and her fingers started tapping rapidly as her own words took over.
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The weeks had rushed by, but no one had caught on to her little trick. “They made me do this…it’s their fault for pushing me to do what I didn’t want to!” Truth be told, she was starting to enjoy her little secret, borrowing odd lines and paragraphs from this book and that. Not the editor, not the proofreader, no one had noticed the little snippets ‘borrowed’ from over half a dozen novels in the pile. It was even making it easier for her to ‘get in the mood’ and complete her despised novel.
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The hype had become overwhelming. She had undergone more makeovers this last week than any beauty pageant contestant in a year. Interviews, photo-ops, flashing light bulbs, loads of congratulatory emails, letters, envious comments, the works! Kaavya was incredulous at the attention that she garnered as one of the youngest authors to receive a massive advance for her work. “They’re marketing me, not just that damned book! What would happen if they found out about the plagiarism? Hmmm…maybe nobody will. I think I was careful enough to change the passages somewhat. Amusing and scary at the same time!” The pressure was building up to unbearable levels, as her email inbox started overflowing with comments both gratifying and unwanted. Classes at Harvard were becoming an exercise in stress management - the scent of resentment and overweening expectations were driving her crazy.

“I know that you freshmen keep late hours, but this is ridiculous- falling asleep for the fifth time in a row in section! You need to rearrange your schedule and priorities!” The teaching fellow struggled to phrase it civilly. “And the quality of your work isn’t nearly what it ought to be. Are you having some kind of personal problem? All that fame going to your head?”
Kaavya bit back a rude retort and stared sullenly in response.

She overheard classmates speaking in the restroom. “She thinks she’s so hot because she got all that money for a silly chick-lit novel. It reminds me of just about everything I’ve read: Sloppy Firsts, Second Helpings, Princess Diaries… I could do better than that!” A cold sweat trickled down her spine. “What if somebody found out?” She felt as though her head was going to explode from the weight of contradictions burdening her. She ran out of the restroom, blindly searching for fresh air and found a quiet spot under a tree for a few blessed minutes of tranquility. By the time her friends had found her, she had repaired her make-up, smiling at them with calm resolution.

The next day, the story broke. “Young author accused of plagiarizing passages from another novelist” the headline trumpeted. “Based on a tip from an anonymous reader, investigating reporters at the ….” And the barrages of accusations, counter-accusations started.

Kaavya smiled grimly to herself that night as she hit the ‘Submit’ button on the online ‘tips and comments’ form to yet another newspaper. “And justice will be done…” She snapped the laptop shut and fell into a deep sleep for the first time in months, at peace with her self.


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Note & Disclaimer:
The above piece is a fictionalized version of events relating to the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism affair and is only loosely based on reality. I make no claims to veracity in this story.
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