By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

More trouble for Viswanathan

There is some justice in the literary world. Megan McCafferty, whose novels provided such rich, er, source material for Harvard typist Kaavya Viswanathan, is at #7 on the Wall Street Journal’s hardcover bestseller list for her latest novel, “Charmed Thirds.” Good for McCafferty, who’s got enough class that she doesn’t even mention Viswanathan on her blog.

The Boston Globe has played Viswanathan’s copycat ways on page one, above the fold, each of the past two days. (Yesterday’s story is here; today’s is here.) But the Harvard Crimson, which broke the story on Sunday, makes clear in a way the Globe doesn’t that Viswanathan’s excuse — that she must have unconsciously recycled passages from a novel she loved when writing “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life” — has failed to impress McCafferty’s publisher.

Paras D. Bhayani and David Zhou, writing for the Crimson, report:

… Random House, which published McCafferty’s novels, is confident that “literal copying” occurred in Viswanathan’s book, according to a confidential letter from the publishing giant to Little, Brown that was obtained by The Crimson.

“We are continuing to investigate this matter, but, given the alarming similarities in the language, structure and characters already found in these works, we are certain that some literal copying actually occurred here,” read the letter, which is dated April 22 and was signed by Random House lawyer Min Jung Lee. “As such, we would appreciate your prompt and serious attention to this matter.”

Indeed, if you take a look at the Crimson’s side-by-side comparisons, you’ll find it hard to rule out the possibility — the likelihood? — that Viswanathan propped McCafferty’s “Sloppy Firsts” open in her lap and started typing, making just a few changes in an inept attempt to cover her tracks.

It’s hard to muster much sympathy for Viswanathan, who got a $500,000 contract to put her imprimatur on a novel that others “conceptualized” for her, and that she then couldn’t apparently bother to write entirely on her own.

But I’ll give her this much. In a more sane world, she never would have gotten the contract and the publicity that put her in the public spotlight in the first place. She would have plagiarized at Harvard, flunked a class, maybe even been forced to transfer to another college. And she would have learned an important lesson — quietly. Instead, she’s dealt herself a devastating blow from which it will be hard to recover.

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  1. Anonymous

    Firstly, the second day ” above the fold ” placement of the story in the Globe made zero sense to me. Was this the most news worthy story from the past twenty – four hours to justify the placement?Something makes me think that were she not an attractive Harvard woman, the story would have been buried in the back section. The issue of the money, .5 million for such dreck is amazing. Clearly she lifted entire paragraphs, in a freshman lit class, it would have been an automatic F and a trip to the academic dean’s office. Me thinks that the spin will begin, she’s a victim, soon to be appearing on ABC’s 20 / 20 in soft, flattering stage lighting and a barrage of soft ball questions. Maybe she can get a shot with Barnicle on his TKK radio show! She’s young, she’s ethnic, she’s attractive and … she’s young … it’s gotta work!

  2. Anonymous

    Easy come, easy go.Please note that I may have internalized the Bobby Sherman song of the same name during my grade-school years.Bob from Peabody

  3. Anonymous

    Yeah. Copying that Spanish exam at Harvard sure ruined Ted Kennedy’s career.

  4. Anonymous

    I think it was worthy of above the fold treatment. The globe’s our local rag, Harvard is the world’s top college and plagiarism is sexy and sleazy stuff for the inteelectual masses. No worse than the Herald’s improbable multi-day front page-story benders.

  5. Don

    Who publishes 19-year-olds?

  6. neil

    Re hatlo–right! That’s mistake #1. 19 is so young that the “internalize” argument sounds like baloney because nothing you have read was sufficiently long ago that you wouldn’t simply remember having read it. And if your mechanism for recovery of internalized material was as accurate as the side-by-sides indicate, that’s more like a photographic memory than an internalization. And if it’s that precise, it stands to reason that it would also bring forth a memory of the title or author at least of the original source (as in “hmm, this seems awfully familiar!”), while it was at it.As for the process itself, we can all think of examples I bet. I remember reading a lot of JP Donleavy at that age too, and for a few months everything I wrote sounded like JP Donleavy. Then Hemingway and everything took on that flat style for a while. But I was well aware of it! I have maybe “internalized” some of Samuel Beckett’s work which I read at about age 19. That is to say I think that his writing has “informed” my personality in some deep and subtle way–that it is in my bones or in my neuroses. Doesn’t mean I could reconstruct and bring forth any of what he wrote at all, much less come so close as to be accused of plagiarism. No I’m afraid, the internalization excuse is a load of codswaddle.Still, 19 is the age to be making mistakes of this type–that’s what youth is for. Think of some of the embarrassing things you did. I agree with Dan too bad it has happened in such harsh light. I don’t like to see a kid consumed then spit out by the voracious product machine like this. Seems like they start with the target demographic, then go find some cute candidate, dazzle her, then productize her. A difficult process to resist for a kid I think. It’s the kind of thing that all happens just a bit too fast. She’ll get clobbered, while nobody at Little Brown will take any heat. They’ll just leave her hanging in the wind and pull an Enron Skilling and Lay ploy–they had no idea! and are so disappointed that they could be duped in this manner by this young writer. A tough lesson in the productization of identity. I hope she learns from it–and doesn’t turn the experience into a 20/20/Barnacle redemptive product! If that happens, phooey I say.

  7. Anonymous

    If I recall correctly, today’s Globe story was also about the Raytheon Chairman who copied some of the maxims for his little book of wisdom. The combination of the two events, while not earth shattering, seems interesting enough to merit a second round of coverage.I don’t feel sorry for the “author” at all. She sold her soul to get into Harvard and “write” a novel and the devil drives a hard bargain. If you write a novel and have to share the copyright with a company who helps you “productize” your work, there is something seriously wrong.

  8. Anonymous

    Writers are multi-(media)tasking, who has time to do that laborious keyboard work? It’s a cut-and-paste world and the tip of the iceberg. New rules of the road are needed and should be enforced.

  9. Secret Agent Cathy

    er, dan, have you seen this morning’s weekly dig?

  10. You're all a bunch of damn yankees

    Instead, she’s dealt herself a devastating blow from which it will be hard to recover.Yeah, right. No such thing as bad publicity. If Barnicle can come back after such blatant impropriety (and come back so fast) then Viswanathan has set herself up perfectly for when she graduates. Perhaps she’ll need an extra year or two of grad school for distance’s sake, but she’ll walk out into a cushy job somewhere that doesn’t care about ethics or morals. Hardly any shortage of places like that in the media world these days…and obviously a huge shortage of ethics and morals at our nation’s “leading” university.Why does it seem with each passing year that the country would be far better off if everyone who ever attended (or is attending) Harvard were just summarily executed? Hell, toss in Yale while you’re at it.And don’t get me started on their Law Schools and especially HBS…oy…

  11. Anonymous

    DanI think you are going to be found out wrong here. SHE didn’t copy or plagiarize. It will come out that Alloy 17 and her editors did that copycat stuff, not her. Watch. Hold your fire, sir.

  12. Anonymous

    Hmm, her photo suggests that it was a straightforward case of the left eye not knowing what the right eye was looking at while she typed, then her unconscious just, you know, started to type all by itSelf! and then it was running around taking lines and paras from who knows where, and then, well, it was time to turn in your work and collect the half mil. So she did. the end.

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