How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life: Kaavya Viswanathan (and who’s kidding a dozen other authors)

Shiteous cover.  Fitting since the book is shiteous.

If you were into the YA scene circa 2006 you probably heard of the Kaavya Viswanathan saga.  Heck, even if you didn’t read YA back then and half way paid attention to the media you probably heard about how the teen got a publishing deal than blew it by plagiarizing various works.

This review isn’t about the plagiarism.  Sure, I’m going to discuss it some at the end, but more in the context of today’s P2P phenomenon .  Honestly,  think Viswanathan’s own plagiarism  been talked about enough-though I did think she also copied Mean Girls.  And I’m not just talking about plot, I’m talking about actual quotes being slightly reworded.

Seriously, there is a scene in the book that is just like this only slightly worded differently:In Opal Mehta, ” No dating boys unless we approve of them/ Shorts are only acceptable on the beach/No outfit repeats on formal occasions.”

Honestly, finding the plagiarism sections was easy because the tone of the writing felt so different in the rest of the novel.  And that’s what this review is going to be about, the rest of the book.  I know, I know, how can I review or in this case rant since I can’t use my usual review format because I can’t find one redeemable feature about this book and it makes me long for Alexandra Adornetto’s purple prose-well, I’m going to try.

Let’s start with the easiest thing: plot.

The plot was pretty simple.  And plots can be simple.  But this is so simple it has no originality.  It’s your typical nobody becomes somebody and of course in the process alienates herself more than she was already alienated which really doesn’t make sense considering at the beginning she claims she has no friends and…yeah.

My biggest problem with the plot, besides the fact it was cliche filled, was that there were so many plot holes involved in it.  Which is sad because simple plots shouldn’t have plot holes.  Especially if they’re realistic fiction.  For example, Opal gets “caught” because her parents start up a website regarding their plans to make her popular.

Seriously, they thought that was a good idea?

Maybe a private page, but a public website?

I was just flummoxed.  Almost as much as I was shocked that none of the characters realized how ridiculous their whole let’s make Opal popular plan was throughout the book.

It was simple what Dean Anderson was trying to ask, he was asking Opal what did she do in her free time.  How was she a normal person.  That’s an easy enough question.  He wasn’t asking her if she was popular, she could’ve said she liked to make brownies and that probably would’ve worked.  But instead she freaked out.  It was beyond stupid.

Yum, brownies.

And yeah, what did I expect with that summary?  I knew she’d be wanting to become popular and all that jazz but the way it happened.  Just stupid.

It didn’t help that the characters were essentially caricatures.

I’m serious.

I’ve seen some bad characters and while Opal isn’t exactly the worst YA protagonist I’ve encountered she would be in the dungeon of doom.  To put it bluntly, she’s a horrible person.

And yes, I know she’s a fictional character.

But sweet baby Jesus, I’ve never….

Okay, how do I go about this.  If I was to describe Opal I’d say she was: self absorbed, short sided, sexist, culturally insensitive, and racist.

I guess I’ll go through these point by point.  First, she’s  self absorbed.  It’s all about her getting into Harvard.  She has nothing in her life besides that and it’s sort of sad.  Honestly, I get it.  Getting into your dream school is an important goal, but she has no relationships with any  one other than her parents.  And to be honest with you, she only uses them for their money.  Oh, before I forget, apparently if both your parents are doctors (one being a successful neurosurgeon) you’re  teetering on poverty.

You can stop laughing now.

Though the Mehtas apparently now have money, though we don’t get how they got they went from having nothing not having everything.  Including buying their daughter a car, a five hundred dollar hair cut, and a wardrobe from the Beautiful Popular People Only Company.

Yeah….from this alone you’re probably getting self absorbed vibes, but let’s continue with are analysis on Opal.  The second thing I said she was short sided.  She doesn’t even know why she wants to go to Harvard or has any idea with what she wants to do with her life afterwards.  I get that you can be undecided in your major, but usually at that age you have interests and broad goals.  Maybe she knew she didn’t want to become a plagiarist turned lawyer doctor or whatever, but she could say she was interested in the sciences or something.  Going to Harvard when you have no idea of what you want to do is sort of a waste of money, especially when state schools have programs that give you the same education.

Okay, now we get to the more offensive traits, Opal is sexist.  The slut slamming that went on in this book was ridiculous.  Apparently, if you’re a women you can be only pretty or smart, not both.  WTF!?!?!?!

Seriously.  I’m offended by that.  So, all of those who apply ourselves academically are ugly.  And all of those who take time to put on eyeliner correctly are dumb as a box as rocks.

Fuck you.

I’m sorry.  I already have enough problems when I read YA because most of the books feature poor body and self image.  And these remarks just pissed me off.  It also doesn’t help that any girl who wears something that shows any remote skin is called a slut.  And if you wear name brands your called materialistic -even though Opal wears buckets full of Cool and Popular Inc, until she’s found out because of her parents dumb-assery then she switches back to her “frump” clothes.  Seriously, no happy medium with this one.

I could go on about how sexist this book is all day, but now it’s time to talk about culture sensitivity issues.  This book centers around the fact that Opal is an Indian American and quite frankly that should’ve been its best quality, but it isn’t.  I think because the Indian culture is portrayed as being cartoonish and, well, offensive.  Especially the portrayal of Indian boys who are according to Opal a) too nerdy or b) chauvinists.  BTW, I’ve known a lot of hot and nice Indian boys.

Essentially this is how Viswanathan portrayed Indian culture, but I don’ t think she was trying to make a parody of  it like this movie.
 
Finally, I found Opal to be a bit racist when it concerned illegal immigrants.  She and her friends the HBZs made some rather offensive comments about immigrants and honestly it rubbed me the wrong way.  I mean, just because these people are working manuel labor jobs does not make them second class citizens.  And you shouldn’t judge them for sending money to their families.
As for the rest of the characters, the parents were just plain stupid.  Let’s just say, I wouldn’t want them being my MD.    Seriously, they decide to interrupt Opal’s party which they orchestrate and leave so she can have a raging drunk fest (providing the booze and everything, which is illegal btw) and then are surprised Opal’s drunk because they gave her a chart of how much she can drink without getting drunk.
Um, even if you do calculate someone’s BAC it’s not foolproof because different people react differently to alcohol.  Not only that, but how do you expect someone to keep track of their alcohol when they’re partying.
Dumb asses.
The non-Mehtas aren’t much better either.

First let’s talk about the love interests.  They are sort of pathetic.  The object of lust throughout seventy-five percent of the novel is a caricature based on conservative values.  Even though I tend to vote more left than right, I have respect for conservatives.  They don’t need to be portrayed this way.  They are people.  And even though I might disagree with a lot of their policies, I understand their arguments.  And I feel like regardless of your political affiliation you should not try to demonize the other side–unless your a cartoon artist or a late night comedian and make fun of everyone.  The way Jeff was written with Karl Rove as his role model, just was laughable.  Almost as much as Sean, who I’ve been told is a Marcus (from the Jessica Darling series) ripoff.    The chemistry between Opal and Sean barely exists.  I really don’t know why they even got back together at the novel but hey…what do I know about chemistry?

The same can be said about friendships in this story.  At the very best they are shallow.  First there is Natalie, who we are told at the beginning Opal has very little social contact with then she becomes the stories designated Tiny Tim.

What is a designated Tiny Tim?  It’s the character who’s so needy that we as the audience are supposed to feel sorry for as they exploit are main character, the exploiting is supposed to make them a “good” person.  Instead, it just makes me groan.

And seriously, I’m supposed to believe that this super smart kid can’t go to school unless she gets this science scholarship from the school.

Sure….

I guess there’s no thing such as work study, student loans, or going to a less expensive school, or getting a scholarship from said school.

And that was another thing that ticked me off.  Why were Ivy Leagues the only decent schools?  And for that matter, why is Opal only satisfied with Harvard?  Stanford and Yale are both Ivy League and…and…it’s insulting to think that people who go to state schools are stupid.  Oh, and Opal, my sister got wait listed at Yale and went to Rice University and her SAT was nowhere near as good as yours, she didn’t have fifty million extracurriculars either, she was just kick ass when it came to playing her oboe.  And yes, she has a social life even though she’s a musician.

Okay, I got off of track.  I need to talk about Opal’s second group of friends.  Well, were they really her friends.  To sum them up they were…The Plastics (dubbed HBz here for “originality”)

Okay, there are three of them.  Two are really insignificant since they really don’t have personalities.  Though one is essentially Regina George but she’s different because she’s Asian.

Oh, yeah, thats a huuuggge difference let me tell you.

Viswanathan also tries to show that her Regina is different by adding the fact that Opal and Pricilla used to be friends, but you really don’t see that other than Opal telling you that. Any history, is non-existant save for that last ditch effort by Opal to get Seany to like her.  Which really doesn’t make sense because you would’ve thought Opal would’ve used this information earlier but whatever…

Honestly, I could go on and on about my rant all day but I won’t.  I think I got the basics.  What I want to talk about now is the plagiarism issue.

As I mentioned before, you can find the particulars about this if you do a mere Google search.  What I want to talk about is why Viswanathan got caught and other authors, notably EL James seem to have to have gotten away with plagiarism.

The plagiarism in this book is different than Fifty Shades of Grey because it’s easier to prove.  Okay, you’re probably saying, MJ, it’s obvious James plagiarized.  Fifty Shades of Grey is really that Master of the Universe fan fiction, and Dear Author did a pretty kick ass job showing the similarities.  That’s true,

and while I have great disdain for James’s tampon trilogy and other P2P fan fics, I think it was easier showing plagiarism in Viswanathan’s story because she used actual quotes from other works.  Which is easier, I think, than proving that the characters were essentially Bella and Edward since there’s more or less a paper trail (well, that can be argued too if you count the cyber trail).  Not that I’m saying P2P fiction is right.  Not by any  means.

Also, I think society has changed somewhat since the publication of Opal.  Digital books have taken off since 2006.  Not only are original e-books more popular than ever, but sites like fanfiction.net, fictionpress.com, Wattpad, as well as others have increased in popularity and several writers have been found through these sites.  Notably Cassandra Clare.

Who by coincidence was accused of plagiarism.  Clare’s plagiarism, on fanfiction.net, was similar to Viswanathan.  Allegedly, she lifted quotes from various TV shows and huge passages from a couple of out of print books.  The stories were subsequently pulled from fanfiction.net.  Here’s the interesting thing with the Clare fiasco, The Draco Chronicles are heavily incorporated into The Mortal Instruments series.  I have nothing against Clare incorporating some of her fan fiction into her regular work if its substantially changed and has no bearing to the story that it was originally based on, but the fact that the scenes were almost eerily similar and the fact that the originality of that writing was already in question has me raising a couple of eyebrows.  It’s the same thing with Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s barely changed (bad grammar included) from it’s original source material.

But both of these works and many more p2p fan fictions haven’t been pulled.

To add to this, Amazon has recently stated that it will be allowing fan fiction authors to publish their fan fics for sale.  Grant it, the original authors will be compensated. Notably, Alloy Entertainment is one of the “authors” allowing  their work to be (in my terms alone) exploited.  But what’s so interested about it is that Alloy was the same book packager that packaged Opal.  Which leads me to these thoughts….

It’s all about money.

And yes, I know that selling books is a business.  But when ethics are put behind to make a buck it leaves me feeling dirty.  I feel exploited.  Especially when you charge for fan fiction.  To me it’s not so much of the idea of fan fiction itself.  I write fan fiction.  And I feel its a great passage for any wannabe writer, but to charge for it?  Even when it’s compensating the original writer that just rubs me the wrong way.  It’s sort of like sweatshop labor in a weird way, but not (since they are getting paid).  Will it be profitable for Amazon?  Probably, but still…it’s…it’s.

Icky.

Back to Opal.   When you put all of this in hindsight, I think you’re seeing a conflict between ethics and business.  Well, obviously that’s something seen in any industry since the beginning of time.  But what is more discerning about this particular issue is the swift change in the industry from Viswanathan to James.  When Viswanathan copied from various sources she wasn’t viewed as an instant success or a Cinderella story like EL James, instead she got the Katie Couric smack down.  And boy, if you ever got plagiarized it feels good watching Katie smack her down.

 
EL James, on the other hand, has gotten the Cinderella treatment by the media.  Which is odd to me because essentially she is a plagiarist too.  Yes, different form of plagiarism.  But there was documented evidence that Master of the Universe existed and was barely changed.  Yet, this is often glossed over.  While I discussed earlier that this might be in part because of the form of plagiarism, at the same time I really have to wonder if its because society in the book world has changed.  When it comes to the book business it has underwent radical changes in the past few years.  Not only are e-books more popular and self publishing is actually possible now, but social media is essential to marketing these books.  Fifty Shades of Grey was noticed in the fan fiction world when it was known as Master of the Universe, James attended Twilight cons and had her own following before she pulled the book to “edit” and then it was a sensation on Good Reads before being picked up by a traditional publisher.  Viswanathan published traditionally.  And even though her book was getting buzz, I don’t really remember hearing anything about it until the scandal.
Honestly, I really can’t come to a conclusion to what’s different after thinking about it.  I just find the Viswanathan case an interesting case to point out especially when looking at the current trend of P2P fan fiction.  When rereading the book, I wasn’t only disgusted again over the plagiarism, but I realized just how bad the actual writing was.   The tone between the quotes that were copied and the actual books differs greatly.  I’m not saying that Viswanathan lacked talent.  She just wrote like an eighteen-year-old.  A mature eighteen-year-old, but an eighteen-year-old.  And as much as I love the idea of young writers, I often think the ones that get published that young are published merely because they are young and = teen sensation in the publishers eyes.
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2 thoughts on “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life: Kaavya Viswanathan (and who’s kidding a dozen other authors)

  1. The thing about this whole thing is that, well, she was really bad about the whole thing. I remember when the scandal first broke out and as far as I recall she never really owned up to it. I think they even pulled the book for a while, but she never said I'm sorry I did this, just I'm sorry I was caught but it wasn't really my fault. *sigh*And it's not even good!

  2. Yeah, I think the interview I found that I linked in here shows her actions pretty well. It was pretty disgusting. I think I read that like six or seven works overall have been plagiarized? The number keeps changing each time. And yeah, initially I think they were going to just pull the book fix the plagiarized sections and then republish it, but it got to a point where Little Brown ended up rescinding the contract. I think her appearances on Today didn't help.I bought the book right before it was pulled, mainly because I thought there could be some value to it in the future but checking the resale value on Amazon to day my purchase was futile. The book itself was nowhere near the hype it was getting and even if there hadn't been a scandal, I really do question how successful her career would've been.

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