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Kaavya Viswanathan Acknowledges Using Portions of Another Author's Book

April 25, 2006
Sujatha Bagal

Kaavya Viswanathan, the 19 year-old Harvard student who made headlines as one of the youngest authors to be signed on by Little, Brown & Co., ($500,000 for a two-book deal) after they published her debut novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, faced plagiarism charges over the weekend.

The similarities between How Opal and Megan McCafferty's novels, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings (both published by Random House) were first reported in The Harvard Crimson this past Sunday.

The Boston Globe reports today that Ms Viswanathan "acknowledged yesterday that she used portions of another writer's book, but insisted the act was unconscious and unintentional."

The Globe article reporoduces portions of Ms Viswanathan's statement released by her publisher, Little, Brown,

''When I was in high school," Viswanathan said in her statement, ''I read and loved two wonderful novels by Megan McCafferty, 'Sloppy Firsts' and 'Second Helpings,' which spoke to me in a way few other books did. Recently, I was very surprised and upset to learn that there are similarities between some passages in my novel, 'How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life,' and passages in these books."

The Harvard Crimson also reports today that Random House lawyer, Min Jung Lee, in a letter to Little, Brown, stated that Random House "is confident that "literal copying" occurred in Viswanathan's book".

"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."

Little, Brown, in a separate statement through Micheal Pietsch, VP and Publisher, described Ms Viswanathan as a "a decent, serious, and incredibly hard-working writer and student, and I am confident that we will learn that any similarities in phrasings were unintentional."

The movie rights to How Opal has been purchased by Dream Works.

This past weekend, The Hindu carried an interview with the author.

Sujatha Bagal is a writer currently based in the US. She recently returned following three years as an expat in Bangalore, her hometown. For a glimpse into the life of an expat, visit Blogpourri.
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Kaavya Viswanathan Acknowledges Using Portions of Another Author's Book

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Author: Sujatha Bagal

 

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#1
Jawahara
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April 25, 2006
09:13 AM

This is rather sad though I am pleasantly surprised by the fact that the author's acknowledgment that she might have unwittingly plagiarized the two books.

#2
The Hissing Saint
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April 25, 2006
09:31 AM

Check out this site

Who knows...you might find some of your own content plagiarized as these people unwittingly did.

#3
deepti lamba
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April 25, 2006
09:42 AM

Unwittingly plagiarized? She would have gotten away with it had she not been caught.

#4
Aaman
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April 25, 2006
09:51 AM

Could some sample paragraphs be provided for comparison?

#5
Sujatha
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April 25, 2006
09:54 AM

Jawahara, yes, rather sad. I'm hoping that the publisher's confidence in Kaavya will be borne out in the days to come.

HS, will check them out. Thanks for the links.

Deepti, that seems rather likely, doesn't it? :(

#6
Sujatha
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April 25, 2006
09:56 AM

Aaman, passage comparisions are available at The Crimson.

#7
deepti lamba
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April 25, 2006
10:01 AM

Sujatha, the word -unwittingly brings to mind a quote - there is no such thing as a little lie or a little pregnant.

#8
Aaman
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April 25, 2006
10:03 AM

James Frey vs. Kaavya Vishwanathan - the knucklefest!

#9
Jawahara
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April 25, 2006
10:06 AM

Perhaps 'unwitting' was an unfortunate choice of word but she did acknowledge it openly instead of hemming and hawing as others have done. If nothing else, it's a more intelligent way of handling it rather than denying it and then having to retract her denials. I think there are times that words, phrases, etc. lodge in our subconscious and we might end up reproducing them without thinking, to give her the benefit of the doubt.
The publisher, however, should have someone who ensures against plagiarism or outright lies as in the case of James Frey. Another thing: if publishers were not always looking for pithy, marketable stuff that can be explained in three sentences or less, there were would be fewer of these problems. The publishing industry definitely needs some overhauling.

#10
Sujatha
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April 25, 2006
10:12 AM

Deepti, I'll second that.

Don't publishers have plagiarism software like the newspapers do? And I would've thought that publishers were generally aware of the other books out there (at least the popular ones) in the same genre. After all they are targeting the same audience.

#11
sami
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April 25, 2006
10:59 AM

Kaavya did deny the allegation at first. Her statement was like this:
"No comment. I have no idea what you are talking about."
The similarities between the passages produced were so glaring that she didn't had too many options in my opinion. So no sympathies for what she did.

Hindu, after carrying the interview in the sunday edition, reported it today(tuesday) quoting the 'INVADING MY PERSONAL SPACE' sample.

#12
Jawahara
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April 25, 2006
11:06 AM

Thanks for the clarification, Sami. Well, yes, my sympathies for her do diminish then.

I just have no love lost for the publishers either. They look for marketable writers rather than talented ones. In Kaavya, they found a young (always a nice news item), hip, desi, Ivy-League girl and thought they could cash in on the desi-chick-lit market.

This (and the Frey debacle) should be a wake-up call for publishers, and of course, for writers

#13
temporal
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April 25, 2006
03:25 PM

reminds me:)

'when you borrow from one it is plagiarism: when you borrow from many it is research'

as for KV am not sure yet if she borrowed from one or many

#14
Kush Tandon
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April 25, 2006
09:12 PM

Aaman,

Harvard Crimson, Harvard Independent has dozens of samples that show striking similarities. - It is an emerging story. Also, follow Boston.com for some samples.

Sepia Mutiny has two threads with ~200s comments on each of them. Some people from publishing industry have chimed in for insights.

NYT now claims 40 instances of similarities/ plagarism.

It is possible that she and her handlers got swept away in the Boy-band like packaging. It is sad and depressing both.

temporal, check the samples. It ain't research. However, it is possible that some of the copying was done by ghost-writers from 17th Street (the packaging company that was used for the book). Who knows.

#15
Kush Tandon
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April 25, 2006
09:16 PM

Sujatha,

I do not think it is about checking software. There are dozens of them.

This case is more complicated - follow the 17th Street lead - that is the way chick-lit and many other genre books are both together on assembly line.

#16
Kush Tandon
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April 25, 2006
09:34 PM

There are mutliple angle to this story:

a) There is an added twist, there is supposedly a TA from Harvard who is using a very racial derogatory handle and has put very judgmental comments on her on one the highly visited boards. Harvard Independent has outed that TA.

There is tons of drama going on. I do feel sorry for Kaavya but it is possible that she brought it on herself.

b) Her original script was thrown away (as it was not deemed marketable) and 17th Street was used to repackage her/ her book.

Go to comments section on Sepia Mutiny, you'll get the drift through multiple comments and links to various aspects of chick-lit publishing.

#17
Sujatha
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April 25, 2006
09:51 PM

Jawahara, I agree that "The publisher, however, should have someone who ensures against plagiarism or outright lies as in the case of James Frey." Don't think that they've woken up to the fact that the internet has changed the way information moves from one place to the other. On the other hand, they must be receiving millions of manuscripts a year, so how do they go about cross-checking every piece of information. They must mechanize the process somehow. They have all the incentive to do it - just avoiding a fiasco like this must be incentive enough. Although, may be this fiasco is increasing their sales, who knows?

Sami, thanks for the info.

T, as Kush points out, don't somehow think this was research!

#18
Sujatha
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April 25, 2006
09:55 PM

Kush, I thought the packaging company was Alloy. That's an another interesting aspect of this whole thing. Thanks for bringing that up. KV apparently shares the copyright for that book with Alloy. Another indication of where we are heading as a society.

You're right, first it was the boy-bands, the Spice Girls, Milli Vanilli, now this seems to have invaded the publishing industry as well. I read that this kind of a packaging outfit is used for travel guides, etc., but until this instance, not for works that are supposed to stem from a writer's imagination.

#19
Kush Tandon
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April 25, 2006
10:12 PM

Alloy and 17th Street are linked. Sure, it is not clear what their role is in the book's actual words. They do own the copyright.

Another aspect, if you put a 17yr old (now 19) in a half-million dollar advance and more $$$$ within next six months along with unrealistic time frame and expectations - such things suddenly become more plausible. I do not think she should be crucified but quite possibly greed got better of her and her handlers. We do not know yet?

I am not an expert on publishing industry. But it is wrong to assume she duped the publishing industry. Maybe, the publishing industry initiated the whole murky process in the first place. As I said, her original script was considered too dark and not marketable.

Pooja, who is quite a well-known writer herself and has put multiple comments on Sepia Mutiny. Please follow her links - they are quite knowledgebale about Alloy-17th Street-William & Morris -Dreamworks connection.

Chick-lit is a billion dollar business.

#20
Kush Tandon
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April 25, 2006
10:24 PM

Here is something in her defense:

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003068.html


Disclosure: I am just posting it, not endorsing it.

#21
Nanda Kishore
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April 25, 2006
10:27 PM

Can we stop referring to Kaavya Vishwanathan as a 'Young Indian' author? I say that with no malice, just to make it clear. Was she even born in India?

#22
Kush Tandon
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April 25, 2006
10:29 PM

"Was she even born in India?"

Yes. She was born in Madras.

She came to US via UK at around age 12 (I think).

#23
Sujatha
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April 25, 2006
10:52 PM

Kush, thanks for the Language Log link. I want to believe that that's how this whole thing will go down, that this will be seen neither as copyright infringement nor as plagiarism. It does seem more likely that the two publishing houses will reach some kind of a settlement, but that would leave a lot of questions up in the air. What recourse do or should authors such as McCafferty have? Any popular author's work is up for grabs then; any one can come along later and say, "I read and loved that author's work and "internalized" her words."

This is the beginning of a slippery slope if I ever saw one. Language Log argues the instances of similarities are not enough to constitue plagiarism. How much is enough. Should there be a bright line standard? Isn't there already one?

As I mentioned in my initial comments, I really do hope that her publisher's confidence in her is borne out. I hope they have a very good defense planned for her.

No matter how this episode shakes out, the bottom line for the young girl is this - the experience must have left a bad taste in everyone's mouth, from the publisher to the readers, the fans, the author herself, the media. If she was looking for a career in writing, I'm at a loss to see how it will pan out now.

What a nightmare this must be!

#24
Sujatha
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April 27, 2006
07:13 PM

Update: Publisher Withdraws How Opal Mehta Got Kissed .

"Little, Brown today sent a notice to retail and wholesale accounts asking them to stop selling copies of the book and to return unsold inventory to the publisher for full credit," said Michael Pietsch, senior vice president and publisher of Little, Brown.

#25
temporal
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April 27, 2006
07:20 PM

thanks suj:

now i suppose this will become a collector's item

#26
Sujatha
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April 28, 2006
12:13 AM

Very sad. I really didn't think it would come to this, though.

#27
deepti lamba
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April 28, 2006
12:22 AM

Wonder why Haward doesnt dismiss her? Probably because its non curriculum related. Wouldnt want to be in her shoes right now.

#28
Sujatha
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April 28, 2006
12:42 AM

Harvard is "gathering information" about the events that have transpired, but is being tight-lipped about the progress, according to The Crimson. The admins are refusing to call it an "investigation". But like you said, this is not academic plagiarism.

#29
Sujatha
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May 2, 2006
10:32 PM

Update 2:

Fresh passages in the novel by a Harvard sophomore, whose book was pulled from stores last week after she acknowledged plagiarizing portions of it, appear to be copied from a second author.


Full Story.

#30
Sujatha
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May 3, 2006
01:13 AM

Wonder what's happening to the movie that was planned. If it does get made, looks like it will have to be credited to at least three authors and Alloy (and whoever else packaged the other authors' books) now.

#31
Kishore
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May 3, 2006
02:01 AM

Sujatha,
I seriously wonder, what was the kid thinking when she starting writing her book?

#32
Kishore
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May 3, 2006
02:03 AM

*oops.. pardon the typo. should have read...

"...started writing her book?" :)

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