Monday, May 08, 2006

Harvard Plagiarism Scandal Exposes Modern-Day Machinations To Get Into College

It's hard to know what part of the plagiarism scandal involving 19-year-old Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan is juiciest -- but oddly enough, it probably isn't her lifting of other authors' work. First up is the fact that first-time author Viswanathan landed a breathtaking $500,000 two-book contract with Little, Brown & Co. -- a publishing house unit of mega-media powerhouse Time Warner Inc. -- as a result of the work of a firm hired by her parents to help her get into college.

Viswanathan is the daughter of Indian parents, both doctors; Viswanathan, born in India, grew up in northern New Jersey. The book that got her into trouble, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, tells the story of a New Jersey girl's effort to get into Harvard to fulfill her Indian parents' lifelong wish -- the character's parents lay out a strategy for getting Opal into Harvard when she is still a toddler. How much of Opal's story is actually fiction -- as opposed to nonfiction drawn directly from Viswanathan's own life -- is highly questionable, given Viswanathan's apparent inability to come up with entire storylines (nevermind sentences) of her own. Viswanathan appears to have creativity problems when dealing even with banal nonfiction: Like Opal's parents in the novel, for example, Viswanathan's father is a neurosurgeon who drives a Range Rover and her mother is a doctor who gave up medicine.

Interestingly, it turns out that long before the mainstream media began writing about Viswanathan's plagiarism scandal -- heck, even before Viswanathan wrote the novel -- major news outlets were quoting Viswanathan about ... her strategy to get into Harvard. Bloomberg's online business reporting outlet revealed last week that Viswanathan, "an English major who wants to be a banker, wasn't unknown to major publications before her book came out." Specifically, Bloomberg reporter Lisa Kassenaar found:

"As a student at Bergen County Academy in Hackensack, New Jersey, she was quoted in a Forbes magazine article on private counseling services like IvyWise. IvyWise's services can cost more than $30,000 and include guiding a child as young as 14 toward classes, awards and performances that will impress college admissions departments. Viswanathan was also featured in a 2004 essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, she speaks of sending monthly messages to the admissions officers at nine colleges, including Harvard and Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. "I think a lot of applying to college is about strategy," Viswanathan says in the piece.

The Viswanathans did indeed hire IvyWise's services to help get Kaavya into college. As part of the strategy to get her into Harvard, IvyWise got Kaavya represented by the William Morris Agency. Her agent there connected her to Alloy Entertainment, which, according to Bloomberg, "pulls together writers and ideas and shops a refined 'package' to publishers and movie houses." The idea was to package and sell Kaavya at least as much as the book itself.

Little, Brown earlier this year held a luncheon for its new authors at an Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan, one publishing insider told Bloomberg. Viswanathan arrived after interviews for summer internships that morning at Wall Street firms, he says she told him. "She said she loved writing but didn't feel she would pursue a professional writing career after college," Bloomberg quoted the insider as saying.

Wow. In the convoluted process of getting into Harvard this young woman landed a $500,000 two-book contract and did not even aspire to be an author. That tells us something not only about the modern-day college admissions process but also about the crank-'em-out cash-cow "chick-lit" publishing machine, which, had it been staffed by anyone with a pulse, should have spit out a piece of work so obviously uninspired and unoriginal -- but that's an aspect of the scandal that will get its own blog.


Blogger hybrid said...

I've been really interested in the chick lit machine angle here. There are some red flags to me from the reading that I have done on this (in particular, coverage from the Harvard Crimson, which can be found here) , but it's hard to come up with anything concrete. The size of the deal seems suspicious. Was it a deal, not for books, but for license to use Viswanathan's name? Perhaps to put an "ethnic" face on the chick lit genre? Who committed the plagiarism and why? Why isn't the publisher suing Viswanathan? All of these things seem to point to something, at the very least some sort of exploitation. But we'll probably never know for sure.

11:30 AM  
Blogger Sarahlynn said...

I haven't read anything about this case other than what's posted here.

But from this, I don't see specifically what's wrong.

1) Who plagiarized what?
2) How do we know that this woman - whose grades and test scores were apparently good enough for Harvard - can't "come up with sentences on her own."
3) What's wrong with marketing oneself?
4) What's wrong with telling a novelized story of your own life? Everyone got really mad at James Frey for doing just that, without admitting that he was adding fictional bits for interest.

1:00 PM  
Blogger hybrid said...

I don't think that it's clear who did the actual plagiarism. One of the Crimson articles mentioned a detail that seemed significant to me - that Viswanathan's original novel was "darker" and that the packaging firm "made it more palatable." I would certainly believe that she has no problem stringing words together herself. The book packager appears to have been complicit (surely this book would have been edited by someone familiar with other books in the genre?) if not outright culpable here.

The plagiarism itself takes the form of copying a sentence from another work and changing a couple of the details, so as to make it appear original. For example:

"From page 7 of McCafferty’s first novel: 'Bridget is my age and lives across the street. For the first twelve years of my life, these qualifications were all I needed in a best friend. But that was before Bridget’s braces came off and her boyfriend Burke got on, before Hope and I met in our seventh-grade honors classes.'

"From page 14 of Viswanathan’s novel: 'Priscilla was my age and lived two blocks away. For the first fifteen years of my life, those were the only qualifications I needed in a best friend. We had first bonded over our mutual fascination with the abacus in a playgroup for gifted kids. But that was before freshman year, when Priscilla’s glasses came off, and the first in a long string of boyfriends got on.'"

(Example via this article.)

There were about 40 such passages from novels by Megan McCafferty. McCafferty fans who read Opal reported the similarities to McCafferty, which is how the issue came to light. Recently, additional copied-but-slightly-altered passages from other works have also been identified. So whoever did this, it seems clear that it went beyond homage and literary allusion. (Although I would argue that some of the passages from the linked article read more like allusion to me.)

WRT to your questions 3-4, I don't think that anything is inherently wrong with those things. And I think that there is a lot of gloating going on over one of the perceived elite taking a tumble from glory.

Another thing that I've been thinking about - exactly what were the terms of the $500k deal in the first place? I've been wondering if the packager planned to license Viswanathan's name in their existing chick lit farm.

7:46 AM  
Blogger Laylalola said...

I have been working on the second blog I'd planned on this subject -- it's about the book "packager," which I didn't even bring up in the first blog because it's so huge on it's own and hard to write about concisely and it's a scandal-behind-the-scandal-behind the plagiarism scandal! I hope to post it tonight or tomorrow, hybrid. :) All of your questions are excellent and things I've been following as best I can and thinking about, too ...

6:27 PM  
Blogger Laylalola said...

Oops, I did mention the book packager, Alloy Entertainment, in my first blog. You gotta hold onto your seat when you read about this outfit, its operations, its impact on chick-lit -- my blog's subtitle is "The truth is wilder than any fiction you could come up with about the chick-lit industry" ... And yes, to my surprise, because of the way this outfit operates, there is a legitimate question not just whether Alloy isn't at least as responsible for the plagiarism as Kaavya -- it *shares* the copyright with her! (and gets 30-50 percent of all money she made), which is NOT the way publishing works, but then this is NOT a publisher, but I'm writing my blog here! I'll get into it in my blog). There's not just a question hanging out there regarding whether it shares responsibility (I say yes) but because of the way it operates in regard to its usual book-writing (farming out writing to ghostwriters who get no credit but giving the title to one "author," etc.) whether Kaavya *ever even wrote* the offending passages. (Right now I say yes, she did. But I'll admit it's a legit question.)


6:43 PM  
Blogger Sarahlynn said...

Fascinating situation.

"And I think that there is a lot of gloating going on over one of the perceived elite taking a tumble from glory."


12:38 PM  

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