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May 06, 2006


A Postmortem on Viswanathan's Opal Mehta: Wolves Circle for the Final Kill

Shame on Her, Shame on Us, Shame on All of Us.

Last week, on a widely-read writers' blog, I published this brief discussion during the media's histrionic and wildly inflamed coverage of the emerging revelations about Kaavya Viswanathan’s plagiarism in her first book, Opal Mehta:

"Is it hard work being a poser?"
One commentator has pointed out that this is the taunting question that one high-society classmate asks Opal Mehta near the conclusion of Kaavya's first novel, a book for teenagers. And this is the very question that has come back to contemptuously haunt Viswanathan herself.

[A critic] recently has published a very interesting and well-written article that compares the seriousness of her offense with the exaggerated fabrications contained in James Frey's memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Unfortunately, the comparison seems to be based upon demonstrating that plagiarism and imaginative fictionalizing are not the same thing. Most readers might respond that this difference needs little explanation; it is self-evident.

Another issue that [critic] brings up in his comparison of the two works is the question of literary worth. Again, the issue begs the point: it is generally acknowledged that romanticized novels for teenagers are by their nature characterized by a lack of literary merit or value.

For me, the simpler, but far more important point is that long-term memory is highly inaccurate. Some have wondered whether the plagiarism could be accounted for by the phenomenon known as cryptomnesia, the unknowing appropriation of what one has read as part of one's own thinking? Experimental psychology has provided some evidence for instances of this. But to claim that such out-of awareness influences could account for the now many more than forty instances of similar or exact replications is simply not believable.

It is the very accuracy of Ms. Viswanathan's copying that gave lie to her initial attempts to explain away what she had done.

Some days later, however, my attention now has turned to another deplorable aspect of the plagiarism controversy, this time focusing upon the harrowing behavior of the critics themselves. Our present electronic technology, along with the incessant and often ruthless social interaction that it has enabled in the digital age, has driven the interest in this controversy into a state of uncontrolled mania.

In today’s climate on the Internet, critical examinations of literary works have become a form of mob rule, fueled by a feverish global beehive, pulsating everywhere at once. And if an issue is interesting enough to serve as a forum to give blogger-critics their own “fifteen minutes of fame,” it can incite a frenzied horde of amateur analysts, each with a world-wide publishing medium in the living room and what appears to be unbounded amounts of free-time. The expressions that ensue are typically characterized as the unbridled release of personal narcissism.

It has turned into a frightening incarnation of mob rule, fueled by a sense of blood lust. The amateur critics as “petty gadflies” (as one writer has called them) have become a pack of wolves all smelling blood, circling for the final kill. Suddenly, not to excuse Viswanathan’s blatant act of plagiarism, this mob-like tyranny has become more dreadful and loathsome that the original act itself.

As a monumental testament to sick and perverted dark humor, the on-line peddlers of "The MehtaMorphasis Award" ( were offering $75 (not exactly the size of a Nobel Prize) for the most eloquently crafted moral to a week of charged debate surrounding the frothy, ephemeral novel.

Among the submissions were:

The controversy may deservedly be far more interesting than the story itself.

I might agree, but with the caveat that the far more compelling aspect of the controversy is how easily it can be to forget our sense of humanity, instead either joining or implicitly condoning the mentality of mob rule with the aim of fatally attacking its target. In this sense, the controversy is compelling because of the tacit acceptance of totalitarianism that the critics’ frenzied excitement seems to display.

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