It's easy to imagine Kafka meeting with his publisher today. The setting is a Fair Trade coffee shop in Harvard Square. The publisher has a wire leading to one ear and is nursing a flavored water:
"Alright, K. I dig the whole mysterious, not-showing-your-face thing. People are wondering, who is this guy? But K, baby, you gotta' show 'em a little face. People want to see the man they're reading. Which brings me to your book cover. It can't be blank, K. I was thinking, maybe, blood splashed across the upper half of the page and the shadow of a man who may or may not be naked in the lower left. Also, he may or may not be a woman. Ambiguous, you know? You like that, don't you?"
Poor Kafka. That's the last thing he would have needed. But while that exchange might not have happened, several meetings a whole lot like it have certainly taken place at a coffee shop in Harvard Square in the past decade or so. The factor that would link all these literary strategy sessions, and that might in fact preclude any Kafka-like figure, is that the authors opposite the flavored water have all been under the age of 25, startlingly photogenic and willing to splash anything their publishers wanted across the cover of their novels.
It is harder to pity these authors. Especially when it is revealed that the movie production of their books will have to be halted because, it turns out, they have plagiarized sizable chunks of their novels from older, already-published authors.
Such is the case with Kaavya Viswanathan, a 19-year old sophomore at Harvard whose book, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life", is the tale of a young Indian girl determined to get into Harvard. In the novel the young protagonist's parents create a battle plan centered on the acronym HOWGIH, or, How Opal Will Get Into Harvard.
Opal gets in. So did Ms. Viswanathan. It's only incidentally autobiographical, she swears.
While not exactly "This Side of Paradise," the novel does, admittedly, tap into a certain modern obsession with the college process. And yet what would have really impressed Kafka and Fitzgerald both was the author's seemingly unreal inspiration. The novel, according to Ms. Viswanathan, was completed during her freshman year of college, between problem sets and term papers, and was not, in fact, her first finished work. In high school, she completed a several-hundred-page tome about Irish history.
As of Monday, a rift on Fitzgerald's famous last line might better express his reaction to the young author's divine resume: Wasn't it pretty to think so?
Readers immediately reported striking similarities between Ms. Viswanathan's novel and other works, and now it is all-but-certain that 29 passages from "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life" were lifted directly from author Megan McCafferty.
The young author and her agents have scrambled to salvage their investment with a deftness that makes it seem like they were prepared for the disaster all along. In her initial public statements, Ms. Viswanathan has offered the sort of familiar, pseudo-reflective trope that is becoming offensive in the age of Oprah.
"I was very surprised and upset to learn that there are similarities between some passages in my novel … and passages in these books," she told the New York Times, which ran a glowing profile of the author not a month earlier.
She went on: "I wasn't aware how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty's words." But, she added, "The central stories of my book and hers are completely different."
Since the main character in McCafferty's book is a young woman from New Jersey striving to get into Columbia, not Harvard, is the implication then that the whole point of the book was getting into college, and not the illuminating process of self-discovery advertised on the back of the book?
The plagiarist and her publisher have already promised a future acknowledgment to McCafferty in coming prints of the novel and public atonements, inevitably directed at aspiring authors just like Kaavya, are surely in the works.
The story line buries the questions. After Ms. Viswanathan appears on Oprah, will anyone be suspicious of that beaming smile newly gracing the pages of the New York Times? Do we really want "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life" to be our generation's "The Sun Also Rises?"
Apparently, the author's mother called her sudden literary star to ask whether she preferred white or pink rose petals at her book party. If Ms. Viswanathan is really a writer she will go into a Kafka-like reclusion and give this mother the Philip Roth treatment.
Josh Cohen ([email protected]) is a freshman majoring in philosophy.