A teen novel by a Harvard student accused of plagiarizing a successful author of young adult fiction was yanked Thursday from bookstores by its publisher, Little, Brown & Co.
"How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life" by 19-year-old sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan contained at least 40 passages similar or identical in theme and content to parts of two novels by Megan McCafferty, "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings."
In an interview with the New York Times on Wednesday, Viswanathan, a fan of McCafferty's novels, blamed her photographic memory. Earlier, she had apologized to McCafferty, saying she did not consciously plagiarize her.
Although her novel received mixed reviews, Viswanathan had been the subject of positive news stories, mostly focusing on her youth, her ethnicity (she was born in India) and her two-book deal, worth a reported $500,000. DreamWorks optioned the book for a movie.
Now, let's go back in time and react to an article on Viswanathan from a year ago.
Kaavya Viswanathan is set on becoming an investment banker when she graduates from Harvard University in 2008 <..> Agent Jennifer Rudolph Walsh of the William Morris Agency, [told her] that Little Brown & Company, one of the oldest and most prestigious American publishers - now part of the Time Warner Group - agreed to a two-book deal with the teenager. The sum approached $500,000. Ms. Viswanathan said she expects to deliver the first volume, tentatively titled "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got In," by the end of next month. The novel is expected to be published next spring. Ms. Viswanathan said she's already written more than 150 pages, or more than a third of the manuscript.
Just a moment, while I reattach my exploding head. There. Okay. She is... a teenager and... unpublished and... she is getting $500,000 from a major publisher for two books she hasn't even finished yet?
All you other writers out there finished attaching your exploding heads? Okay. And stop grinding your teeth. Yes, I know anomalies like this are why the average person labors under the misapprehension that writers 1. Get lots of money for what they write, and 2. Get published without having to go through the emotional cheesegrater of rejection just because they're reasonably good, or your precious talented little girl, or any of those other sweet but unhelpful things that friends and family tend to think.
But the question is why? How?
"My parents had gone to college in India, and they felt unfamiliar with the college-application process in America," Ms. Viswanathan said. "So they signed me up with Dr. Katherine Cohen's IvyWise as an extra safeguard." IvyWise is a service that prepares students for college admissions.
"I was so charmed by what I read," Ms. Cohen said [of Viswanathan's novel]. "I immediately sensed that here was a star in the making. So I called my own agent at William Morris, Suzanne Gluck, and told her about Kaavya."
Ms. Gluck showed the manuscript to Ms. Walsh, who handles fiction at the agency. She was impressed and shopped it around, and Little, Brown offered the highest advance. Ms. Viswanathan was the youngest writer the agency had taken on in its 109-year history.
Oh, I see. Because Viswanathan is already privileged enough to have an expensive college application coach and go to Harvard, and because somebody knows somebody, she gets to bypass the cheesegrater of rejection.
So I guess that explains how... but it still, in my mind, does not adequately explain why. Is the unfinished novel really that good? Are the publishing houses really that desperate for another "chick-lit" star? Or was there a directive from up above that she happened to fit, something like, "hey, we need more ethnic diversity, and teenagers, in chick-lit!"
This article in Slate suggests that, indeed, she was selected on the basis of a larger-scale marketing strategy. The still-unfinished book was processed through a "book packager" called 17th Street Productions, which describes itself as "a creative think tank that develops and produces original books, television series and feature films" with a focus on the teen market. (Horrified shudder.) Previous 17th Street sins include the Sweet Valley High series, so that tells you right there what kind of evil they're capable of. In fact, the Salon article makes it sound like the final product, I mean book, no I mean product, was as worked-over by lame marketing hacks as the stinkiest Hollywood tripe.
I've heard that Stephen King benefitted from something similar -- that the publisher was looking for the "next Exorcist" and Carrie happened to be sitting on their desk. But, you know, it was a finished novel. And also brilliant. And King had been writing for years and had actually published a few short stories by that point. He hit the jackpot, yeah, but he hit it honestly.
"The main character is a girl of Indian descent who's totally academically driven, and when she senses from a Harvard admissions officer that her personal life wasn't perhaps well-rounded, Ms. Mehta goes out and does what she thinks 'regular' American kids do - get drunk, kiss boys, dance on the table," Ms. Viswanathan said. Does her fictional character get into Harvard? Only the novel will tell.
Um, no, that's incorrect -- the (awful) working title tells you she "got in," what, are you brain damaged or something?
I suppose that's why it was changed before release to "got a life," which doesn't reveal the climax, but is, if anything, worse. And man, does that description make the book sound tedious.
So, there's a thing I'm feeling now, taking those two articles together. I think that feeling is schadenfreude -- best expressed with a big ole' Nelson Muntz --
I'm not just gloating over the seeming karmic balance of big misfortune following great success. Well, I guess I am. But an important balance has been restored. The publishing world has been smacked down by the universe for their sins. And I certainly hope that all the suffering is theirs -- the recalled books, the broken movie deals, the unexpected spotlight shone on their cynical marketing schemes. It's horrid when any art is treated as a hollow lifestyle accoutrement, but doing that to novels... it just seems extra wicked. I don't really feel sorry for Viswanathan, since her family is still loaded, and she will become an investment banker when she graduates from Harvard.
Okay, maybe I feel a little sorry for her. She was only 17 when she wrote the novel. Many people involved in this were old enough to know better, but not her. Second, when I actually looked at some of the passages in comparison -- it seemed to me that the copying was very deliberate but not deliberately plagiarism. She started with passages from McCafferty's books, possibly even because the publisher told her to make it similar to the other writer, and then changed them. She changed them the way you change encyclopedia entries when you're writing a paper, the way you rewrite nonfiction.
And maybe she just didn't know any better.