Tuesday, April 25, 2006

"Internalizing" Another's Work

Today's Boston Globe contains another instance in which a person of apparently exceptional talent and success has been caught building her young reputation on the back of another's work.

Nineteen year old Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan, who has been paid a $500,000 advance for her first two novels, appears to have been
caught borrowing quite liberally from the work of another young novelist. In her defense, she and her publisher suggest that her cribbing of language and plot line were "unintentional and unconscious," and that she "internalized" the passages of the earlier author's work, with which she was earlier enthralled. But does this ring true?

"When I was in high school," Viswanathan said in her statement, "I read and loved two wonderful novels by Megan McCafferty, 'Sloppy Firsts' and 'Second Helpings,' which spoke to me in a way few other books did. Recently, I was very surprised and upset to learn that there are similarities between some passages in my novel, 'How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life,' and passages in these books."

While the plot of her book differs from McCafferty's, she said, "I wasn't aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty's words. . . I can honestly say that any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious. . . . I sincerely apologize to Megan McCafferty."

So the young Viswanathan regards her transgressions as similarities in some "passages" and "phrasings." It would appear from reviewing these similarities that such an innocent characterization is hard to accept:

[Both heroines] are first-person narrators, both superachiever teens from New Jersey who fall head over heels for a boy whose troublemaker exterior hides his keen intelligence.

Both heroines refer to the in-crowd at their school as the ''Upper Crust" and low-lifers as ''dregs."

The clique of girls in both heroines' lives includes a former elementary school friend of the heroine, a buxom flirt, and an Italian-American with a penchant for tanning.

Both bad-boy love interests have tried "shrooms," play the guitar, and wear faded Vans sneakers and shirts emblazoned with a day of the week.

The similarities don't stop there, as the article clearly points out. This story will continue to develop, and I am eager to see how Harvard University eventually deals with the results of its investigation. What I am hoping is that the University does not address the contretemps in the fashion that one of its co-eds suggested:

Said junior Victoria Chang: ''There are lots of people at Harvard under a lot of stress. Moral choices don't have to do with stress you are under."

At the very least, Harvard University can stake the bold position that, to the contrary, moral choices have everything to do with the stress under which such choices are made. If it doesn't, it will be sending yet another signal that it is becoming a shadow of its reputable self and just another over-priced liberal arts school that places little value onbuilding intellectual honesty and strong moral character.

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