Monday, May 08, 2006

How Kaavya Viswanathan got clever, got caught and lost her reputation

Kaavya Viswanathan, in case you missed it, is a 19-year old Harvard University sophomore with an interesting notoriety.
You see, she penned a chick lit novel "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life". At the tender age of 17, she signed a 6-figure deal with her publisher Little, Brown and Co.
The novel was published and sales were moderate.

But then an observant reader (must be one that is an expert in chit lit) noticed some remarkable similarities with other novels, especially “Sloppy Firsts” and “Second Helpings” by Megan McCafferty, a Columbia alum.

After being informed by email of the striking similarities, McCafferty informed her publisher Random House.
They promptly sent a letter to the legal eagles at Little, Brown and Co.
McCafferty gracefully stated:
''After reading the book in question, and finding passages, characters, and plot points in common, I do hope this can be resolved in a manner that is fair to all of the parties involved. I am so grateful for the diligence and support of Random House's legal counsel."

Wow, that lady has a damn good PR firm!
It could have ended there, were it not for the enterprising David Zhou of the Harvard Crimson student newspaper.
He followed up, did some serious research, and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that whole passages of the Opal Mehta story were copied ad verbatim from other novels that were definitely not protected by Ms.Viswanathan’s copyright.

The enterprising Mr. Zhou published on the Harvard Crimson website that "Opal Mehta" also contained passages similar to Meg Cabot's popular novel, “The Princess Diaries”, published by HarperCollins in 2000.
To give you an idea, read the following description in Cabot’s novel:
"There isn't a single inch of me that hasn't been pinched, cut, filed, painted, sloughed, blown dry, or moisturized. ... Because I don't look a thing like Mia Thermopolis. Mia Thermopolis never had fingernails. Mia Thermopolis never had blond highlights."
Just compare this with the description from “Opal Mehta” on page 59:
"Every inch of me had been cut, filed, steamed, exfoliated, polished, painted, or moisturized. I didn't look a thing like Opal Mehta. Opal Mehta didn't own five pairs of shoes so expensive they could have been traded in for a small sailboat."

The New York Times took up the story as well and reported that parts of Viswanathan's novel had an uncanny resemblance to Sophie Kinsella's Can You Keep a Secret?”

Viswanathan is her defense claimed that the main character in McCafferty’s books, a smart NJ teen named Jessica Darling, “inspired” her to “internalize” prose.
Mmmm, isn’t that an elegant way of saying “ripping off”?
She appeared on NBC's Today Show and informed a skeptical Katie Couric that the similarities were “unintentional.”
As I was writing, I genuinely believed that every single word I was writing was my own,” she claimed.
All I can say is that, while reading Megan McCafferty's books, I just internalized her words. I never intended to take any of her words.”
Yeah, sure, that will hold up in court!

Ms. V’s publisher first contemplated to publish a revised edition of the novel, but later on decided to scrap it all together.
The lucrative book deal (half a Million for two books) was cancelled.
I bet their legal/PR team had a lot to do with that. (Crisis management, anyone?)

Ms. Viswanathan is smart cookie, so why did she go through all this trouble to rip off others?
My guess is that the answer lies in the way she marketed her novel.
She hooked up with a “book packaging company” called Alloy Entertainment (formally known as 17th Street Productions).
They share copyright with the enterprising Viswanathan.
Book packagers or book producers act as liaisons between publishing houses and everyone who works to put together a book--authors, artists, editors, photographers, researchers, indexers, and sometimes even printers.
Alloy helped Viswanathan to make her work more commercially viable and helped her to “flesh out the concept.” How far did the co-writing go?
Alloy specializes in “teen glam” fiction – may be some overeager staffers did a bit of cut and paste?

Viswanathan’s past writings are also under scrutiny.
The Record of Bergen County (180,000-circulation daily paper in northern New Jersey) announced that it will review the news articles written by Viswanathan during her stint as an intern in 2003 and 2004.

The big winner in this amazing story is Ms. Megan McCafferty - our main victim.
If copying is the highest form of flattery, she is on top of the world.
The latest count shows that more than 40 passages were lifted from her novels by Kaavya Viswanathan.
At this moment, McCafferty has more than 400,000 copies in print (compared to Viswanathan’s 100,000) and recently launched her third novel “Charmed Thirds”.
Megan declined all interviews, and let publishers and lawyers speak for her.
According to her publisher:
This has been an enormous distraction for Megan. It's been a very, very difficult and devastating couple of weeks for her.”
Cheer up dear, it’s time to laugh all the way to the bank.

Are you curious to know what Ms. Viswanathan wants to be after graduation from Harvard? No, not a lawyer, but close – an investment banker on Wall Street!

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