New York Times Exposes Plagiarism of Harvard…sophomore

April 28, 2006

In News

Editor’s note: 4 NY Times articles below.


CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 28 — On Thursday night Little, Brown announced that it was pulling the Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan’s chick-lit novel, “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life,” from bookstores because numerous passages in it had been plagiarized.

On Friday morning Maggie Hsu, a sophomore biology major at Harvard, went to the Harvard Coop bookstore, where she bought the last copy of “Opal” before clerks removed it from shelves. Ms. Hsu said that she had planned to purchase the book before the controversy erupted, but that the recall sent her to the bookstore. “I’ve been talking to a lot of people about this, and what everyone seems to be asking is, ‘Why would anyone do this?’ “

She was not the only one buying. After Little, Brown’s announcement Thursday night, the book leapt from No. 64 in sales on to No. 10 yesterday. Amazon was no longer selling the title directly but referred buyers to third-party sellers, who were asking as much as $89.95 for a copy. A spokeswoman said Amazon had no plans to stop those sales.

On Monday the book’s author, Ms. Viswanathan, admitted copying portions from two young-adult novels by Megan McCafferty, “Sloppy Firsts” and “Second Helpings,” both published by Crown, an imprint of Random House.

At Barnes & Noble, Bob Wietrak, vice president for merchandising, said that sales of Ms. McCafferty’s first book, “Sloppy Firsts,” published in 2001, were likely to be up about 20 percent this week over last week.

Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, said that the recall was voluntary on Little, Brown’s part and that no one at Crown had asked that the book be pulled from stores. The decision, he said, was “not part of any legally structured action between the two publishing houses or the authors.” He would not describe the nature of discussions between lawyers for both publishing houses throughout this week.

Earlier this week Steve Ross, Crown’s publisher, described Ms. Viswanathan’s actions as “nothing less than an act of literary identity theft.” When Little, Brown said on Monday that it would “eliminate any inappropriate similarities” in future printings of “Opal,” Mr. Ross questioned how quickly that could happen and said that leaving the original edition on the shelves during the time it took to make the revisions was “of great concern.”

Little, Brown declined to comment further on any negotiations that led to its decision, which came just one day after Michael Pietsch, senior vice president and publisher, said the company would not withdraw “Opal” from stores.

The Harvard Crimson first reported on Sunday allegations that Ms. Viswanathan had copied portions of her book from Ms. McCafferty’s novels, and the controversy has been Topic 1 on the Harvard campus all week, with students and faculty members buzzing about the episode in the dining halls, via e-mail and on blogs.

There was little consensus among students about Ms. Viswanathan. On campus yesterday David Lokshin, a sophomore math major from Los Angeles, said that “no one is taking pleasure in her pain.”

Another student, Sam Teller, a sophomore social studies major, also from Los Angeles, quickly contradicted him: “What’s remarkable is the joy so many are taking in her downfall. You can feel it. What I’ve heard in the dining halls are people saying, ‘How stupid to think she wouldn’t get caught.’ “

Ms. Viswanathan has called the borrowings “unintentional and unconscious.”

Asked whether the controversy would help sales of Ms. McCafferty’s new book, “Charmed Thirds,” published earlier this month, Mr. Applebaum, the Random House spokesman said, it might. “It’s a lot of trauma and distress to go to reach that point, but if there is a greater awareness, and people come to her books because of it, that’s probably going to make her readers very happy.”

Motoko Rich reported from New York for this article, and Glenn Rifkin from Cambridge, Mass.


Publisher to Recall Harvard Student’s Novel
NY Times | April 28, 2006

Just a day after saying it would not withdraw “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life” from bookstores, Little, Brown, the publisher of the novel whose author, Kaavya Viswanathan, confessed to copying passages from another writer’s books, said it would immediately recall all editions from store shelves.

In a statement issued last night, Michael Pietsch, senior vice president and publisher of Little, Brown, said that in an agreement with Ms. Viswanathan, the company had “sent a notice to retail and wholesale accounts asking them to stop selling copies of the book and to return unsold inventory to the publisher for full credit.”

The publisher had announced an initial print run of 100,000 and had shipped 55,000 copies to stores. Ms. Viswanathan, 19, a Harvard sophomore, has been under scrutiny since The Harvard Crimson revealed on Sunday that she had plagiarized numerous passages from “Sloppy Firsts” and “Second Helpings,” two novels by the young-adult writer Megan McCafferty.

“We are pleased that this matter has been resolved in an appropriate and timely fashion,” said Crown Publishers, which publishes Ms. McCafferty’s books, in a statement. “We are extremely proud of our author, Megan McCafferty, and her grace under pressure throughout this ordeal.”

Ms. McCafferty, who until now has remained silent, also issued a statement last night.

“In the case of Kaavya Viswanathan’s plagiarizing of my novels ‘Sloppy Firsts’ and ‘Second Helpings,’ ” she said, “I wish to inform all of the parties involved that I am not seeking restitution in any form.

“The past few weeks have been very difficult, and I am most grateful to my readers for offering continual support, and for reminding me what Jessica Darling means to both them and to me. In my career, I am, first and foremost, a writer. So I look forward to getting back to work and moving on, and hope Ms. Viswanathan can, too.”

Ms. Viswanathan, reached last night, declined to comment.

The similarities between “Opal” and Ms. McCafferty’s books were striking in some cases, with many passages in Ms. Viswanathan’s novel — Crown cited more than 40 — echoing Ms. McCafferty’s works almost exactly.

Nevertheless, Ms. Viswanathan maintained throughout the week that her copying of the passages was “unintentional and unconscious.” She said she was a fan of McCafferty’s novels and had read them several times, but not while writing her own book.

Ms. Viswanathan worked with Alloy Entertainment in developing the concept for the book and its first four chapters. But she said Alloy was not responsible for any of the copying. Alloy has declined to comment.

Little, Brown published Ms. Viswanathan’s book recently to widespread publicity. It had been part of a two-book deal with the publishing house.

This Sunday, it will be No. 32 on the online extended New York Times Hardcover Fiction Best Seller list.

Little, Brown and Ms. Viswanathan had said that she would revise the book to remove the copied passages and that they would reissue it.

The extent of the plagiarism in “Opal” recalls some previous, notorious cases, including Jacob Epstein’s “Wild Oats,” a debut novel, that was published in 1979 and was later found to have been extensively copied from Martin Amis’s “The Rachel Papers.” Mr. Epstein’s book was also published by Little, Brown.

This will not be the first time that a book has been recalled because of controversy. In 1999, the publishers of a biography by a Scottish author withdrew and destroyed all copies of the book after a historian called it a “spectacular and sustained act of plagiarism.”

Grove/Atlantic, which was scheduled to publish the book in the United States, junked 7,500 copies of the book before they even went on sale.

That same year, St. Martin’s Press shredded or burned thousands of copies of a biography of George W. Bush that included anonymous claims that Mr. Bush, then running for the Republican presidential nomination, had been arrested on cocaine possession charges in 1972.

In that case the publisher discovered that the author had concealed a criminal conviction and was no longer trustworthy. Also that year, the publishers of an award-winning memoir by a man claiming to be a Latvian Jewish orphan who had survived two concentration camps recalled the book when it discovered that the author was Swiss-born.

The withdrawal of Ms. Viswanathan’s book could make it easier for Ms. McCafferty to begin promoting her third novel, “Charmed Thirds,” published by Crown earlier this month. On May 7, it will appear on the online extended New York Times Hard Cover Fiction Best Seller list at No. 30.


Publisher Investigates Young Author at Harvard
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | April 23, 2006

BOSTON — The publisher of a 19-year-old Harvard University sophomore’s debut novel is investigating the work because it includes several passages that are similar to a book published in 2001.

Kaavya Viswanathan’s “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life” was published in March by Little, Brown and Co., which signed her to a hefty two-book deal when she was just 17.

On Sunday, the Harvard Crimson reported the similarities on its Web site, citing seven passages in Viswanathan’s book that parallel the style and language of “Sloppy Firsts,” a novel by Megan McCafferty that Random House published.

Viswanathan, whose book hit 32nd on The New York Times’ hardcover fiction best seller list this week, did not return a phone message seeking comment. On Saturday, she told the Crimson: “No comment. I have no idea what you are talking about.”

Michael Pietsch, the publisher of Little, Brown, said Sunday that the company will investigate the similarities.

“I can’t believe that these are anything but unintentional,” Pietsch said. “She is a wonderful young woman.”

McCafferty told The Associated Press in an e-mail Sunday that some of her readers pointed out the likenesses.

“After reading the book in question, and finding passages, characters, and plot points in common, I hope this can be resolved in a manner that is fair to all of the parties involved,” McCafferty said.

She didn’t elaborate on what kind of resolution she was seeking.

Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, told The Boston Globe that lawyers are examining the books for similarities. He would not comment on the extent of those similarities or what action the company might take.

“I’m sure everyone will take these concerns very seriously,” he said. “And more to come.”

Viswanathan’s book tells the story of Opal, a hard-driving teen who earns all A’s in high school but gets rejected from Harvard because she forgot to have a social life. Opal’s father concocts a plan code-named HOWGAL (How Opal Will Get A Life) to get her past the admission’s office.

McCafferty’s book follows a heroine named Jessica, a New Jersey 16-year-old who excels in high school but struggles with her identity and longs for a boyfriend.

On page 213 of McCafferty’s book: “He was invading my personal space, as I had learned in Psych. class, and I instinctively sunk back into the seat. That just made him move in closer. I was practically one with the leather at this point, and unless I hopped into the backseat, there was nowhere else for me to go.”

On page 175 of Viswanathan’s book: “He was definitely invading my personal space, as I had learned in Human Evolution class last summer, and I instinctively backed up till my legs hit the chair I had been sitting in. That just made him move in closer, until the grommets in the leather embossed the backs of my knees, and he finally tilted the book toward me.”

Viswanathan told The Associated Press in an interview last month that the heroine bears similarities to herself: Indian heritage, New Jersey upbringing, Harvard and both she and Opal’s father drive Range Rovers.

There’s also a teenage boy in the book who has a striking resemblance to a classmate for whom Viswanathan had an unrequited crush. But the author said last month that those were just superficial details and the book is invented fiction.

Viswanathan is the youngest author signed by Little, Brown and Co. in decades, and the movie rights for the novel have already been sold to DreamWorks.

McCafferty is a former editor at Cosmopolitan who has written three novels.


Young Author Admits She Copied Another Writer
NY Times | April 24, 2006

Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard sophomore accused of plagiarizing parts of her recently published “chick-lit” novel, acknowledged today 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 published by Little, Brown this spring to wide publicity. On Saturday, the Harvard Crimson reported that Ms. Viswanathan, who received $500,000 as part of a two-book deal for “Opal,” had seemingly plagiarized language from two novels by Megan McCafferty, an author of popular young adult books.

In an e-mail message this afternoon, Ms. Viswanathan said that in high school she had read and loved 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,” the message went on.

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 Ms. Viswanathan planned to add an acknowledgment to Ms. McCafferty in future printings of the book.

In her e-mail, 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 visits the campus, strives to earn good grades to get in and makes a triumphant high school graduation speech proclaiming her true values.

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,” for example, Ms. McCafferty’s heroine unexpectedly encounters her love interest, Marcus. 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 (c) ignore him and keep on walking.

“I chose a brilliant combo of (a) and (b).

” ‘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, a boy named Sean Whalen, 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 and (b) what I was supposed to do about it. I stared at him.

” ‘Flat irons,’ he said. ‘At least seven flat irons 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. Among Ms. Walsh’s best-selling clients is Ann Brashares, author of the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” novels.

Ms. Brashares started writing her books when she was co-owner of a book packaging company, 17th Street Productions. In an earlier interview Ms. Walsh said that she put Ms. Viswanathan in touch with the company (now called Alloy Entertainment), but that the plot and writing of “Opal” were “1,000 percent hers.”

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

In the profile, Ms. Viswanathan said the idea for “Opal” came from her own experiences applying to college. “I was surrounded by the stereotype of high-pressure Asian and Indian families trying to get their children into Ivy League schools,” she said.

Tina Constable, a spokeswoman for Crown, said a reader had first noticed the similarities between the books. That person “told Megan,” she said. “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 Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “Nevertheless, we expect Harvard students to conduct themselves with integrity and honesty at all times.”

Ms. Walsh, the agent, said that “obviously, I was shocked,” to learn of the copying. “But knowing what a fine person Kaavya is, I believe any similarities were unintentional,” she added. “Teenagers tend to adapt each others’ language.”