Skeptical Couric Questions Kaavya

At the end of her interview on this morning's 'Today', Katie Couric asked Kaavya Viswanathan why she had wanted to come on the show. Couric's implication was clear: the Harvard undergrad caught in a plagiarism scandal had done herself absolutely no good by her appearance.

The Harvard Crimson recently broke the story of the numerous passages in Viswanathan's coming-of-age novel that bear striking similarities to lines from two books by Megan McCafferty. Isn't there something derivative, by the way, to the feel of the book's very title: "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life"? Amazon listing here.

As McCafferty's publisher, Crown Publishing Group, continued to compare the tomes, it identified additional evidence of plagiarism, now pointing to more than 40 instances. Couric displayed a number of them on screen, including these two:

McCafferty book:

"Sabrina was the brainy Angel. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: pretty or smart."

Viswanathan book:

"Moneypenny was the brainy female character. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: pretty or smart."

Note that "brainy" was italicized in both versions.

McCafferty:

"He tapped me on the shoulder, and said something so random that I was afraid he was back on the junk."

Viswanathan:

"He tapped me on the shoulder and said something so random I worried that he needed more expert counseling than I could provide."

Viswanathan - who as a 17-year old had received a reported $500,000 advance from publisher Little, Brown & Co. - mounted a soft stonewall. She focused on apologizing to McCafferty for any 'upset' she had caused her, later adding "I am so horribly sorry for this mistake but that's all it was." Kaayva, you didn't hurt McCafferty's feelings. You stole from her.

Kaavya clung to her claim that she had never intentionally plagiarized a thing, but had merely "internalized" the McCafferty books that she had read several times in high school. She asserted that she had never referred to them while writing her own book and that "when I was writing, I believed each word was my own."

Couric clearly wasn't buying:

  • "You said that the characters were not similar and yet in Megan McCafferty's books, it is about a high school girl who goes to Columbia and who gives a great graduation speech. So in many ways your books are very similar."
  • "By hearing those passages whether the second was more of a literary device that you emulated and the first almost word-for-word from her book, when this was brought to people's attention, they were shocked."

Viswanathan said her plan was "to continue with my life. I would like things to get back to normal quickly" [I bet!]. Her proposal to rectify matters: delete the offending passages and mention McCafferty in a acknowledgement. Katie was skeptical:

"Do you think that's realistic given the controversy about James Frye [author of the largely fabricated 'A Million Little Pieces'] and readers are more skeptical about the things they read? Do you think they can forgive and forget?"

By the way, in answer to the question Katie posed as to why she came on the show, Viswanathan replied:

"Because I am grateful to have this chance to explain what really happened from my perspective."

Couric's final comeback left no doubt that she remain unconvinced: "Some people might say you really didn't explain it."

Finkelstein lives in Ithaca, NY. Kaavya's Harvard happens to be one of his alma maters - he holds an LL.M. from the law school. Contact him at: mark@gunhill.net

Mark Finkelstein
Mark Finkelstein is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.