A Ridiculous Episode

After being on hold for the book for several weeks, I was finally able to check out How Opal Mehta got kissed, got wild and got a life.  Some may recall that this book was the subject of controversy a couple of months ago, which culminated in its being pulled from stores amid escalating accusations of plagiarism by the author, a Harvard student.

 I have some thoughts on that, but first, what I thought of the book:

I am not a big fan of generic YA literature; normal stories about angsty teenagers thrill me about as much as normal stories about angsty adults, which is to say, not at all.  (Though it’s interesting to note that I don’t seem to have a problem when this sort of general fiction is translated to movie or television…)  I tend to not even pick up books of the sort unless there’s a gimmick that strikes me as clever, like the Princess Diaries series.

So without the controversy, I probably would never have given this book a second glance. That caveat given, it was definitely above average for books of this nature.  Because it was written by someone just out of high school, the details were more authentic and not so obviously based on the imagination of someone whose high school experience was at least a decade or more behind them.  And as someone who had a plan very similar to Opal’s in my own quest to get into the school of my choice, I related to her more than I do most of the main characters in these sorts of books. (Though unlike her, I was dead set against Harvard.)

I liked that her motivations weren’t the typical ones — ie, a girl is desperate to become pretty and popular to a) be pretty and popular or b) to get some guy.  I do wonder that her parents did not hire one of these college application packagers to make the process more smooth; surely one of them would have been able to point out the weaknesses of their approach before it became a problem.  That was really one of the only false notes in the book.

Plus, Opal and her friend were physics geeks, which can only be considered a plus.

Now, on to the plagiarism issue.  Not being a connoisseur of YA chick lit (how’s that for a label), I cannot say how egregious the borrowings were.  But my opinion on the whole thing is that the publishing house overreacted in the extreme.  I’m not saying the author wasn’t at fault, but I seriously doubt it was intentional.

1) We live in a culture where sly references and borrowing phrases is the norm.  It’s considered witty and clever to be able to pepper your speech and writing with allusions to other things — the more obscure the better, so anyone who ‘gets it’ can feel superior to others who didn’t catch the full import.  If a character says ‘We were on a break’, are they plagiarising “Friends”, are they making a reference to it, or are they just using a phrase that’s now entered the vernacular? It’s really hard to tell at times.  Now, most of the time when you’re inserting a phrase or something of this nature, you’re well aware of what you’re doing.  But I think it can become unconscious, too, especially the more sponge-like you tend to be with information.  You picture out a scene in your head and it runs like a movie or television.  You try out dialogue, and very often your characters will end up spouting things or in situations similar to ones you’ve seen or read in the past.

2) We are not exactly talking brilliant writing here.  One of the scenes she’s accused of borrowing is the one from Princess Diaries where Mia is transformed in the beauty parlor.  I’m just not very sure how many ways there are to write that scene.  If you have an image in your mind of something that happened — well, it’s entirely possible that that image is an amalgamation of personal experience and pictures from movies and television where you’ve seen the same thing done.  I’m not saying she shouldn’t have had to rewrite it, but I don’t think she literally took the Princess Diaries and stole from it.

So, overall, I would have to blame the media for the way they reacted to this.  Plagiarism has been a big issue in recent years, with several well known authors coming under fire for it.  In this case, I don’t think all the brouhaha was justified: I think people flipped out.

As a result, this book, which is quite readable, is going to be difficult to find.  Most libraries with a decent sized YA section will probably have it, however, and it’s worth breezing through.

1 comment

  1. jun:

    Although I love YA, I don’t think I read “normal stories about angsty teenagers”, either. The Marsden books don’t have any fantasy elements, and I suppose there’s angst, but they’re not caused by /normal/ events. I /do/ have the McCafferty series that was also a supposed victim of plagiarism, but only because the lead character is supposed to be smart and not irritating.

    Probably the closest thing is some shoujo manga, actually. :)

    Don’t forget to update your read list.

    (July 4th, 2006 at 4:57 pm)