April 25th, 2006

How Opal Mehta Got Someone Else's Life

I could have called this How Opal Mehta Got Dissed, but Kirkus already used that headline. And while it's okay to borrow a headline, or even a title (I could publish something called Gone with the Wind tomorrow and it would be perfectly legal), it’s not okay to so closely mimic another writer's paragraphs that the only difference is a word here or a word there.

On Saturday, I picked up How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life by Kaavya Viswanathan. It seemed to combine two things I like: YA and chick lit. The next day news broke that a Megan Mccafferty fan had noticed many similarities between Opal and MM’s Sloppy Firsts (which I always thought a risqué choice for a YA title, given the meaning of the term sloppy seconds http://www.nysun.com/article/22355). Further examination by the publisher and Harvard Crimson (http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=512965)revealed other passages paralleling those in MM’s second book.

To my eye, the similarities are too close to be covered by, "I wasn't aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty's words." (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/25/books/25book.html?hp&ex=1146024000&en=a7415d0676d85774&ei=5094&partner=homepage) I wonder how much of her book is like a term paper cobbled together from 20 different sources.

And how much of the book's similarities had to do with pressure to produce a book quickly? How much had to do with her association with a book packaging company, 17th Street Productions (now Alloy Entertainment?) "For 17th Street Productions, once you sign the contract, the editor sends you a two-to-three page outline that relates the plot of the story and which characters are involved. The writer then creates a more in-depth chapter outline and returns it to the editor, who may require some changes, after which the writer completes the first draft. The first draft is edited for corrections and changes, and returned to the writer, who makes the required changes and sends it back to the editor." (http://www.absolutewrite.com/specialty_writing/juvenile_market.htm) Of course, if she had written How Opal Etc. for 17th Street Production, KV would not have gotten $500,000 for two books.

As a novelist, I could see me accidentally using a sentence or two from a non-fiction book. For instance, I'm currently reading a bunch of books about what it’s like to be blind. When someone has a particular insight (ie, some people shout at you as if you are deaf as well) I might copy it out. It’s possible that over the course of time I might forget who wrote that line and think I did. I remember when I was working on a book on the Orphan Trains I read everything I could get on them. One novelist used a paragraph or two that I recognized as virtually unchanged from a non-fiction book on the topic. A reviewer noted the coincidence with praise, saying it showed the novelist had done her research.

With my first book, Circles of Confusion (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0061097152/qid=1145980753/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/102-0402226-3344167?s=books&v=glance&n=283155), I kept photocopies of all the research I did, in case someone challenged by meticulously researched version of history. No one did. Then I read Thief of Light (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/006109420X/qid=1145980033/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/102-0402226-3344167?s=books&v=glance&n=283155) by an art dealer, no less, and he got some basic facts wrong about some of the same points covered in Circles. Nobody seemed to care about that, either.



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