[FoRK] The Kaavya Viswanathan ("Harvard Novelist") plagiarism case

Rohit Khare < rohit at commerce.net > on > Tue Apr 25 12:29:07 PDT 2006

... it was all the buzz in desi media circles for a few weeks, but I  
also didn't know that she was already on the NY Times radar b/c she  
had an op-ed published there on July 31 the year before. Forthwith,  
the reverse-chronological on the story... RK

> Cloud Over Harvard Student's Novel
> Suspicion enveloped the precocious college sophomore Kaavya  
> Viswanathan yesterday after The Harvard Crimson reported that  
> passages in her newly published debut novel, which helped earn her  
> a $500,000 deal from Little, Brown, are "strikingly similar" to an  
> earlier novel by another author. Ms. Viswanathan, a 19-year-old  
> Harvard student who went to high school in Hackensack, N.J., and  
> plans a career in investment banking, is the author of "How Opal  
> Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life," the story of a strait- 
> laced, narrowly focused Harvard applicant who learns she has to  
> loosen up to achieve her goal. The Crimson reported that the novel,  
> completed during Ms. Viswanathan's freshman year and acquired by  
> DreamWorks in a movie deal, includes passages similar to some in  
> "Sloppy Firsts" (Crown), a 2001 novel by Megan F. McCafferty, the  
> author of three novels and a former editor at Cosmopolitan. One 14- 
> word passage appears in both books, The Crimson reported. It added,  
> "While the two novels differ in plot, the similarities in language  
> begin in the opening pages and continue throughout the works." The  
> Crimson reported that Ms. Viswanathan, reached on her cellphone on  
> Saturday night, said: "No comment. I have no idea what you are  
> talking about.

then, the confessional:

April 25, 2006

Harvard Novelist Says Copying Was Unintentional

Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard sophomore accused of plagiarizing  
parts of her recently published chick-lit novel, acknowledged  
yesterday that she had borrowed language from another writer's books,  
but called the copying "unintentional and unconscious."

The book, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life," was  
recently published by Little, Brown to wide publicity. On Sunday, The  
Harvard Crimson reported that Ms. Viswanathan, who received $500,000  
as part of a deal for "Opal" and one other book, had seemingly  
plagiarized language from two novels by Megan McCafferty, an author  
of popular young-adult books.

In an e-mail message yesterday afternoon, Ms. Viswanathan, 19, said  
that in high school she had read the two books she is accused of  
borrowing from, "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings," and that they  
"spoke to me in a way few other books did."

"Recently, I was very surprised and upset to learn that there are  
similarities between some passages in my novel, 'How Opal Mehta Got  
Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life,' and passages in these books," she  

Calling herself a "huge fan" of Ms. McCafferty's work, Ms.  
Viswanathan added, "I wasn't aware of how much I may have  
internalized Ms. McCafferty's words." She also apologized to Ms.  
McCafferty and said that future printings of the novel would be  
revised to "eliminate any inappropriate similarities."

Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little, Brown, said that Ms.  
Viswanathan planned to add an acknowledgment to Ms. McCafferty in  
future printings of the book.

In her e-mail message, Ms. Viswanathan said that "the central stories  
of my book and hers are completely different." But Ms. McCafferty's  
books, published by Crown, a division of Random House, are, like Ms.  
Viswanathan's, about a young woman from New Jersey trying to get into  
an Ivy League college — in her case, Columbia. (Ms. Viswanathan's  
character has her sights set on Harvard.) Like the heroine of "Opal,"  
Ms. McCafferty's character, Jessica Darling, visits the campus,  
strives to earn good grades to get in and makes a triumphant high  
school graduation speech.

And the borrowings may be more extensive than have previously been  
reported. The Crimson cited 13 instances in which Ms. Viswanathan's  
book closely paralleled Ms. McCafferty's work. But there are at least  
29 passages that are strikingly similar.

At one point in "Sloppy Firsts," Ms. McCafferty's heroine  
unexpectedly encounters her love interest. Ms. McCafferty writes:

"Though I used to see him sometimes at Hope's house, Marcus and I had  
never, ever acknowledged each other's existence before. So I froze,  
not knowing whether I should (a) laugh, (b) say something, or (c)  
ignore him and keep on walking. I chose a brilliant combo of (a) and  

" 'Uh, yeah. Ha. Ha. Ha.'

"I turned around and saw that Marcus was smiling at me."

Similarly, Ms. Viswanathan's heroine, Opal, bumps into her love  
interest, and the two of them spy on one of the school's popular girls.

Ms. Viswanathan writes: "Though I had been to school with him for the  
last three years, Sean Whalen and I had never acknowledged each  
other's existence before. I froze, unsure of (a) what he was talking  
about, or (b) what I was supposed to do about it. I stared at him.

" 'Flatirons,' he said. 'At least seven flatirons for that hair.'

" 'Ha, yeah. Uh, ha. Ha.' I looked at the floor and managed a  
pathetic combination of laughter and monosyllables, then remembered  
that the object of our mockery was his former best friend.

"I looked up and saw that Sean was grinning."

In a profile published in The New York Times earlier this month, Ms.  
Viswanathan said that while she was in high school, her parents hired  
Katherine Cohen, founder of IvyWise, a private counseling service, to  
help with the college application process. After reading some of Ms.  
Viswanathan's writing, Ms. Cohen put her in touch with the William  
Morris Agency, and Ms. Viswanathan eventually signed with Jennifer  
Rudolph Walsh, an agent there.

Ms. Walsh said that she put Ms. Viswanathan in touch with a book  
packaging company, 17th Street Productions (now Alloy Entertainment),  
but that the plot and writing of "Opal" were "1,000 percent hers."

Alloy, which referred questions to Little, Brown, holds the copyright  
to "Opal" with Ms. Viswanathan.

In the Times profile, Ms. Viswanathan said the idea for "Opal" came  
from her own experiences in high school "surrounded by the stereotype  
of high-pressure Asian and Indian families trying to get their  
children into Ivy League schools."

Tina Constable, a spokeswoman for Crown, said a reader had noticed  
the similarities between the books. That person, she said, "told  
Megan. Megan alerted us. We've alerted the Little, Brown legal  
department. We are waiting to hear from them."

It was unclear whether Harvard would take any action against Ms.  
Viswanathan. "Our policies apply to work submitted to courses," said  
Robert Mitchell, the director of communications for the Faculty of  
Arts and Sciences at Harvard. "Nevertheless, we expect Harvard  
students to conduct themselves with integrity and honesty at all times."

Ms. Walsh, the agent, said: "Knowing what a fine person Kaavya is, I  
believe any similarities were unintentional. Teenagers tend to adopt  
each other's language."

The original hype (now offline, no URL):


A 'How to Get Into College by Really, Really Trying' Novel

By DINITIA SMITH (NYT) 1028 words
Published: April 6, 2006

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Opal Mehta is the kind of girl who might get a  
half-million dollars for her first novel, completed during her  
freshman year at Harvard, followed by a movie deal with DreamWorks.  
After all, she started cello lessons at 5, studied four foreign  
languages beginning at 6, had near-perfect SAT scores and was  
president of three honors societies in high school. To appear well  
rounded, she took welding.

Except that Opal doesn't exist. She is the protagonist of Kaavya  
Viswanathan's new chick-lit-meets-admissions-frenzy novel, ''How Opal  
Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life,'' which is being published  
this week, at the very height -- or depths, depending on your point  
of view -- of the college admissions season, when many high school  
seniors are receiving decisions. But the book and movie deals  
happened in real life to Ms. Viswanathan, now a 19-year-old Harvard  
sophomore, safely ensconced in her room at Kirkland House.

To many teenagers waiting to hear from college, Opal may seem like an  
only slightly more crazed peer: To get Opal into the school of her  
choice -- Harvard, naturally -- her parents have created a detailed  
battle plan with the acronym HOWGIH (''How Opal Will Get Into  
Harvard''), complete with spread sheets of her extracurricular  
activities and family focus groups to keep her on track.

Then comes Opal's campus interview. The admissions officer eyes  
Opal's splendid record, puts down the file and asks the one question  
she is not prepared to answer: ''Don't you have anything you like to  
do in your spare time? Just for fun?''

With that, her parents immediately switch gears to HOWGAL, or ''How  
Opal Will Get a Life,'' and the novel takes off. Opal must have a  
complete makeover. They draw up a list: she must ''Get popular,''  
''Get kissed'' and ''Get wild.'' She reads Teen People and watches  
Beyoncé videos. She starts wearing Jimmy Choo spike heels and  
Habitual jeans instead of shapeless skirts and turtlenecks. Her  
father makes flashcards so she can learn slang: ''keep it real'' and  
''off the hook.'' Of course, Opal gets into Harvard, but not before  
learning what her true values are. Publishers Weekly called the book  
'' 'Legally Blonde' in reverse.''

Ms. Viswanathan was born in Chennai (formerly Madras) in India and  
spent her early childhood in Britain. She and her parents, Mary  
Sundaram, a physician who gave up practicing to raise her daughter,  
and Viswanathan Rajaraman, a brain surgeon, moved to the United  
States when Ms. Viswanathan was in middle school. (As is sometimes  
customary among South Indians, Ms. Viswanathan took her father's  
first name as her last name.)

She was soon taking part in the full panoply of enrichment programs  
and extracurricular activities that have become the birthright of the  
Ivy bound -- summers at the Center for Talented Youth, a Johns  
Hopkins University program for gifted children; editor in chief of  
her school newspaper; advanced placement courses at her magnet high  
school in Hackensack, N.J. That, she said, is where she got the  
material for her book: ''I was surrounded by the stereotype of high- 
pressure Asian and Indian families trying to get their children into  
Ivy League schools.''

She began writing the book the summer before college. ''I'd just been  
through the applications process,'' she said. ''It was very tense,  
very stressful, marked by a lot of competition and secrecy.
''People would ask, 'Who's writing your recommendation for Yale?' And  
they wouldn't tell you because it gives you a competitive advantage  
if people don't know.''

Sitting in a restaurant in Harvard Square, Ms. Viswanathan, small,  
with almond-shaped eyes and glistening shoulder-length black hair,  
wanted to make it clear that she was not Opal, and that despite the  
novel's details about upper-class suburban Indian immigrant life --  
the near-identical center hall colonials, the elaborate parties to  
celebrate the Hindu festival of Divali, the shifts in conversation  
between Hindi and English -- the Harvard-mad parents in the book are  
not her parents.

''They've always been very good about not putting pressure on me,''  
she said of her mother and father. ''I mean, I adore them.''
Her parents were not immune to the competitive pressure, however.  
Because they had never applied to an American educational  
institution, they hired Katherine Cohen, founder of IvyWise, a  
private counseling service, and author of ''Rock Hard Apps: How to  
Write the Killer College Application.'' At the time IvyWise charged  
$10,000 to $20,000 for two years of college preparation services,  
spread over a student's junior and senior years.

But they did have limits. ''I don't think she did our platinum  
package, which is now over $30,000,'' Ms. Cohen said of Ms. Viswanathan.

Ms. Cohen helped open doors other than Harvard's. After reading some  
of Ms. Viswanathan's writing (she had completed a several-hundred- 
page novel about Irish history while in high school, naturally), Ms.  
Cohen put her in touch with the William Morris Agency, which  
represents Ms. Cohen. Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, who is now Ms.  
Viswanathan's agent, sold the novel that eventually became ''Opal''  
to Little, Brown on the basis of four chapters and an outline as part  
of a two-book deal.

Ms. Viswanathan, who said she planned to become an investment banker  
after college, finished writing ''Opal'' during her freshman year, in  
Lamont Library at Harvard, while taking a full course load.
Despite Ms. Viswanathan and her parents' protestations that only the  
smallest details in the book are autobiographical (''I do drive a  
Range Rover,'' her father said), her parents and Opal's do share a  
slightly over-the-top quality when it comes to celebrating their  
daughters. One of the key moments in the book has Opal giving a party  
at her house after her parents outfit the place with Ping-Pong,  
foosball and pool tables, a fully stocked bar and a sound system to  
''crank up the scene.''

Ms. Viswanathan's own parents have been intent on giving her a book  
party when she gets home from college this summer. ''They wanted to  
have a red carpet strewn with rose petals,'' she said, her voice  
rising. ''And I've just woken up and I'm still in my pajamas and my  
mom will call, and she'll say like, 'Kaavya, would you prefer pink or  
white rose petals?' ''

Photo: Kaavya Viswanathan at Harvard, where she is now a 19-year-old  
sophomore. Her novel came out this week. (Photo by Jodi Hilton for  
The New York Times)

And the even earlier Op/Ed contribution:

Growing Up With a Dose of Magic

Published: July 31, 2005

FRANKLIN LAKE, N.J. - I WISH I could say I started reading Harry  
Potter before the mania hit, but the first time I ever heard about  
the books was months after the release of ''Sorcerer's Stone,'' when  
I ran across a small display table at the local Barnes & Noble. I  
read the jacket flap, decided not to buy a copy, and forgot all about  
Harry Potter.

It wasn't until ''Chamber of Secrets'' hit best-seller lists, the  
summer before I began eighth grade, that my dad brought the first two  
books home and persuaded me to read them. Within three chapters of  
''Sorcerer's Stone,'' I had jumped on the Potter bandwagon, little  
realizing that more than an innocent -- and forgettable -- children's  
series, ''Harry Potter'' would prevail as my favorite through  
adolescence and into adulthood in a world that doesn't feel so safe  

I spent $17.95 of my own allowance to buy a copy of ''Prisoner of  
Azkaban,'' broke every lights-out rule at sleep-away camp by reading  
under the covers till dawn, then promptly (and unethically) returned  
the day-old book for a refund. When ''Goblet of Fire'' was announced,  
I ordered my copy a month in advance and waited impatiently on my  
doorstep for the U.P.S. truck. And by the time ''Order of the  
Phoenix'' finally hit stores, I was in line at my local bookstore by  
10 p.m. the night before the release date. My three best friends and  
I shrieked when midnight arrived, abandoned all dignity and scrambled  
over 10-year-olds in our mad rush to the counter, then stayed up all  
night reading.

Even though I'm now in college, and buried in a reading list that's
more Proust than Potter, I made sure I got my copy of the ''Half- 
Blood Prince'' on July 16 and seriously considered taking a day off  
from my job to read. Every Harry Potter remains compelling,  
especially because I feel as if I've grown up with Harry. Throughout  
elementary and middle school, I had read the ''Little House on the  
Prairie'' series and the ''Chronicles of Narnia,'' Roald Dahl and the  
eternal ''Lord of the Rings'' trilogy, but these were finite, already  
completed series. I never doubted that Frodo would eventually destroy  
the ring, or that Aslan would save the day; there was no risk of  
unforeseen plot twists, no tantalizing feeling that I didn't quite  
know what was around the corner.

But Harry's development followed my own. Of course, the long waits  
between books meant that I aged faster than he did, but I never lost  
the feeling that each Harry Potter story was relevant to my life.  
With the ''Sorcerer's Stone,'' Harry and I were both young, still  
bubbling over with excitement and discovery, certain that every story  
had a happy ending. I saw ''Prisoner'' end with a sympathetic  
character on the run despite his innocence, and realized with a pang  
that life really wasn't always fair.

And by the end of the ''Half-Blood Prince,'' I came to the same heart- 
wrenching realization as Harry -- that parents and friends and  
mentors couldn't always be shields, that some things you just had to  
experience and overcome on your own. Sure, my freshman year romantic  
heartbreak wasn't in the same category as Harry's life-or-death  
struggle with Lord Voldemort, but it was nice to know that my life  
and Harry's enchanted universe had something in common -- not  
everything was perfect.

That knowledge has been especially driven home during the last few  
years. As a 12-year-old, I relished the Harry Potter novels as simple  
outlets of escape. The first few books were enchanting because of  
J.K. Rowling's extravagantly imagined universe, which tempted me to  
dive in with no thought of resurfacing. But especially from the  
fourth book on, Harry's world grew successively darker, and all of a  
sudden, far from being complete flights of fantasy, the novels became  
a reflection of reality.

The Death-Eater attacks ravaging Harry's world bear a frightening  
resemblance to today's terrorism, and scenes where Hermione scans the  
daily paper for the latest casualty toll must have been achingly  
recognizable to thousands of American families reading the headlines  
about Iraq. In eighth grade it had been easy to put off studying for  
a geometry test in favor of a trip to magical Diagon Alley, but it  
wasn't so easy to forget about Sept. 11 and subway bombings,  
especially when Harry was struggling with loss and betrayal and the  
wizarding world was its own war zone.

So why did I keep reading? Considering our current international  
atmosphere of fear and terror, where every week seems marked by  
security alerts and suicide bombings, it seems counterintuitive to  
seek fantasy that faithfully mirrors an increasingly grim reality.

But if Harry Potter is a reminder that not even magic can solve  
everything, it is also a promise of hope, sustaining the fundamental  
childhood belief that in the end, good really does triumph over evil,  
and justice is meted out to those who deserve it. Harry is an  
endearingly normal hero, enduring the same romantic insecurities,  
friendship pressures and temper tantrums that I encounter all the  
time, and it is oddly comforting to think that such a seemingly  
ordinary boy could achieve the extraordinary.

Each time I reread a Harry Potter novel, I am reminded of the ability  
of everyday people to reach unprecedented heights for a cause they  
believe in, as well as of the importance of love, friendship and  
loyalty -- qualities as essential to the wizarding struggle as to our  
own. Even adults like to think that somehow, everything will be all  

Drawing (Illustrations by Rodrigo Corral) 

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