An “F” for Originality
A college student’s plagiarism upends
a ho t author and sheds light on how
teen fiction is packaged.
By: James Poniewozik
F IRST-TIME AUTHORS DREAM OF THEIR WORK FLYING OFF THE SHELVES — BUT NOT LIKE THIS.
One moment, Kaavya Viswanathan was a literary marvel, a Harvard sophomore with a reported $500,000 two-book deal and a highly touted chicklit novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Go t a Life. The next, her publisher, Little, Brown, was recalling every copy of Opal from the shelves, like so many tins of bad salmon. The defect? Viswanathan, 19, had plagiarized dozens of passages from two young-adult novels by Megan McCafferty.
A hot writer, a scandal: this too sounds like something we have read somewhere before. The new element, following the James Frey and J T LeRoy scandals, is the role a little-known pop-culture tastemaker played in how Viswanathan got signed, got famous and got a comeuppance.
Viswanathan shares the copyright for Opal with Alloy Entertainment, a book packager, which develops book ideas, hires writers, then delivers a finished product to publishers. Packagers have been more common in nonfiction—cookbooks, joke books—but Alloy has turned itself into a giant of young-women’s fiction. Headed by Leslie Morgenstein, 39, Alloy has put together hit series, including The Clique and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. It’s a “fiction factory” as a publishing insider calls it, but one with a well-respected sense of the mercurial girl culture; Alloy’s parent company also owns the teen shopping website www.delias.com What it provides publishers, says Publishers Weekly editor in chief Sara Nelson, is “the market researching of books, and every publisher is desperate for the teen market
A typical Alloy book is farmed out to a contract writer, but Viswanathan (who declined to comment for this article) came to them. A college admissions counselor likeded her writing at 17 and put her in touch with us the William Morris Agency. Her agent suggested she work with Alloy to develop a reader-friendly concept. Coincidentally, she and Alloy hit on a tale about an Indian-American teen who applies to Harvard, is told she has to prove she has a social life, hatches a plan to get one but realizes she has made a mistake by trying to be someone she’s not.
The first sign that Viswanathan had, figurafively, assumed an identity came when the Harvard Crimson website reported the plagiarism. (From OpaL “Money-penny was the brainy female character. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: smart or pretty,” From McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts: “Sabrina was the brainy Angel. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: Pretty or smart”) Viswanathan said she had read McCafferty but called herself the victim of a photographic memory . “Somewhere in her mind, she crossed an invisible line with this material and didn’t realize that the words so easy and available to her were not her own,” says her agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh.
While packagers are known to heavily revise writers’ work, Viswanathan said last week that she was responsible for the borrowings. An Alloy spokeswoman told TIME that although it helped outline and plot Opal, “Kaavya wrote the book.” Whoever bears the blame, it’s the publishing industry that will bear the burden of having again compromised its credibility with a big-money writer. As with Frey (junkie!) and LeRoy (hustler!), here was an author with a persona (wunderkind!) that was too good not to sell. They all point to the vulnerability of a publishing business (and, let’s be honest, a reading public) that’s often more concerned with the bio and mediagenic traits of an author than with the quality of the book.
In the end, though, the buck stops with the name on the cover. It’s unclear whether Viswanathan will produce the second book of her contract; DreamWorks is likely to drop plans for an Opal movie. As for finishing Harvard, which has not decided on disciplinary action, Walsh says, “I guarantee you she’ll graduate first in her class.” But not before learning a very public lesson.
. —Reported by : Andrea Sachs/New York
May 8, 2006 (Pg. 184)
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