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Thursday, July 25, 2024


From the Editor – Joe Zelnik – 5.3.2006

By Rick Racela

Two score and seven years ago, I brought forth to the University of Buffalo a new concept, conceived in a bar named Bitterman’s, and dedicated to the proposition that creating a long work of fiction should earn me a master’s degree.
After the professors approved the proposal – it would be a first –  I went out and left the building and walked back to the hotel in the rain.
I could feel my heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.
A colleague just looked over my shoulder, read the above, and pointed out that sentence No. 1 resembles Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, sentence No. 2 is very much like the end of Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” and sentence No. 3 is practically the same as the ending of Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
I apologize profusely. Like Harvard sophomore and novelist Kaavya Viswanathan, my copying of those sentences was “unintentional and unconscious.”
Viswanathan, 19, got a half-million dollar contract from Little, Brown for her first novel, “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life,” completed as a Harvard freshman.
She lifted passages, unintentionally of course, from her favorite author, Megan McCafferty. Kaavya (I’m going  to use her first name to save space) is a “huge fan” of McCafferty, read her books over and over, and “internalized Mrs. McCafferty’s words.”
Little, Brown internalized for a couple days and then decided to recall the book, No. 32 on the hardcover fiction best seller list,  from store shelves.
My heart goes out to Kaavya, possibly because the similarities between the two of us are uncanny.
She was born in India.  I was born in Gowanda, which is an (American) Indian name, and borders on an Indian  Reservation.
She was editor of her school newspaper in Hackensack.  My school didn’t have a newspaper, but I contributed to the yearbook.
She wrote a novel while in  high school. I wrote a long piece of fiction when I was in the sixth grade.
Her parents “put no pressure on me,” she said, although they did spend from $10,000 to $20,000 to hire a private counseling service for two years of college preparation to get her into an Ivy League school.
My dad put no pressure on me.  He willingly spent whatever first class postage was in 1950 for me to apply to Syracuse University, which accepted me. I don’t think my dad cared where I went; the idea was for me to have opportunities for a better life than he. He quit school in the sixth grade and worked in a tannery and a glue factory before becoming produce manager in a grocery store and finally opening his own small grocery store.
Kaavya’s mother is a doctor who gave up practicing to raise her daughter; her father is a brain surgeon.
Kaavya of course went to Harvard. At the age of 35 I wrangled a one-year fellowship to Harvard.  She lives at Kirkland House. I, and my wife and kids, lived in a second-floor flat in Arlington, but I looked up at Kirkland House once.
Things were going pretty well for Kaavya until the Harvard Crimson reported at least 13 instances where her book “paralleled” McCafferty’s. (The number has grown to more than 30.)
I wrote for the Crimson one week when the Nieman fellows took it over for the helluvit.
Some details in “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life,” are autobiographical.  My long work, I guess you could call it a novel, is also somewhat autobiographical.
How many first “novels” by young people aren’t?
She wrote “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life” in Lamont Library at Harvard. I spent a lot of time in Lamont because I love libraries. But my novel, “A Separate Peace,” was written on a card table in a small house in Gowanda while my wife changed the diapers on our first-born.
 Kaavya was carrying a full course load.  I was a part-time student and full-time reporter for my hometown weekly.
Aha – “A Separate Peace”!  I swiped the title from John Knowles, you say.  Actually, I beat Knowles to the title by months, but I don’t expect you to believe me. It’s a quote from, of course, Hemingway protagonist Frederic Henry in a Farewell to Arms.
 I saw Kaavya on the Today Show being interviewed by Katie Couric.  At 19, Kaavya is a very self-assured, confident young lady who, I am sure, will bounce back from all this.
 At 19, I was a jumble of insecurities.  Actually, I’m still a jumble of insecurities. Why is my wife getting more beautiful? Why is my publisher frowning? Why don’t my neighbors invite me to their parties? Why is my doctor frowning? Why doesn’t my daughter call?
My “book,” incidentally, is on file in the University of Buffalo library and an unbound copy is in a shirt box in the back of my living room closet. God knows who I plagiarized, besides Hemingway, that is.
My idea to write the “novel” was preceded by an idea to write a master’s thesis on Hemingway. I read everything he wrote and everything written about him and wisely concluded I had nothing to say that hadn’t already been said.
 Thank goodness I didn’t get a half-million-dollar publishing contract or some kid with nothing better to do would surely expose me for some unintentional and unconscious plagiarism.
Failing as a fiction writer, I became a journalist. Now I sit alongside other reporters at the same government meeting, go back to the office and write the same story, but hope the words don’t come out the same.

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