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The Harvard Novelist and Her Dutiful Fakirs

There are a few updates to note in the case of Harvard student-cum-author-cum-target of dripping schadenfreude Kaavya Viswanathan; a case which is turning out to be far less interesting than anyone could have possibly imagined. But since it has a Cambridge epicenter, folks seem to be very interested in it. A quick recap, first. The gal won her half-million-dollar two-book contract in high school after her private college admissions counselor put in a call to someone at the William Morris talent agency. It can only go downhill from there, and it does.

Both books commissioned from Kaavya Viswanathan were to be “packaged” by a company specializing in soft novels for teenage girls—17th Street Media Productions. Presumably, this means that they draw pictures of ponies and insert at random intervals pre-written passages about pillow fights interspersed with gushing dialogue about Ryan Phillippe. The history of the packaging company and the industry indicate that its involvement significantly reduces the chances that the named author actually wrote the book. It’s a little like a Hollywood type admitting that a photograph was “touched-up”. These days, that means it’s someone else’s body.

Viswanathan got the deal with the requirement that her output be so “packaged”. Then she got into Harvard, courtesy of another sort of “packaging” firm, this one costing tens of thousands of dollars and specializing in winning admission to prestigious colleges. IvyWise, it’s called. (They’ve also a Nursery School Admissions advocacy program, for the sort of parents who want to destroy their childrens’ souls early on in the formative years.)

When the book was published, the Harvard Crimson reported—and I noted here—that a handful of passages in the Viswanathan novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, resembled passages in the five-years-old Megan McCafferty novel Sloppy Firsts. Such damning phraseology as “Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: smart or pretty” was connected to McCafferty’s “Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: Pretty or smart.”

Or compare Viswanathan’s “…he tapped me on the shoulder and said something so random I worried that he needed more expert counseling than I could provide” to McCafferty’s “But then he tapped me on the shoulder, and said something so random that I was afraid he was back on the junk.”

I thought that the Crimson newsroom staffers were back on the junk themselves, whatever that means. Both the plot and the characters in the new book do not match up to the old; all that’s similar are a half-dozen descriptive passages, and even they are not all that similar. If anything, the example seem to argue for single authorship. When I first posted about the imbroglio, I said that it simply looked like both gals had the same ghostwriter, or editor, or copy of How to Write Fiction for Dummies alongside the old Selectric. With the revelations noted above, along with excellent reporting by Shane Wilson of the Harvard Independent and late-breaking news from the Crimson that Viswanathan has admitted to inadvertent, it-was-just-in-my-head plagarism, those scenarios may be not far from the truth. Now it’s the publisher, the packager, the other packager, and the talent agency trying to save face.

The whole episode is a just lovely failure of packaging. Or, put perhaps more bluntly, it is a failure of dishonesty; of a new and loose and whorish definition of both “author” and “applicant”.

Meanwhile, in response to the thrust of my initial piece, which was a reader’s opinion that Harvard’s competitive environment encourages this sort of folly, Ben White, who writes the Oh Harvard blog, e-mails: “Harvard isn’t in general that competitive. Even premeds usually help each other out. The every man for himself image is played up by the media. Harvard kids are just like the rest of the kids across the country. They just go to Harvard because they got in. In this case, blame it on the girl. We shouldn’t make excuses for her because she got a book deal IN HIGH SCHOOL and then came here and became a bad person.”

UPDATE: Reader Anne Latham scoffs:

I really find it hard to believe that a professional trend packager such as 17th Street would bear any responsibility in Kaavya Viswanathan’s adventures in plagiarism/copyright infringement. 17th Street is in the business of mimicry, and would be hypersensitive to the fine line between similarity and infringement.

The real question — that no one seems to be asking — is precisely how did this ridiculous $500K book advance and contract affect Viswanathan’s admission application to Harvard, and what guided assumptions did the admissions committee make about her while believing she was worthy of such attention. Is she at Harvard because the committee bought her marketing?

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