Student’s Novel Faces Plagiarism Controversy

Book by Kaavya Viswanathan ’08 contains similarities to earlier author’s works

Editor's Note: This story has been updated from its original version.

A recently-published novel by Harvard undergraduate Kaavya Viswanathan ’08, “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life,” contains several passages that are strikingly similar to two books by Megan F. McCafferty—the 2001 novel “Sloppy Firsts” and the 2003 novel “Second Helpings.”

At one point, “Opal Mehta” contains a 14-word passage that appears verbatim in McCafferty’s book “Sloppy Firsts.”

In that example, McCafferty writes on page 6 of her first novel: “Sabrina was the brainy Angel. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: Pretty or smart. Guess which one I got. You’ll see where it’s gotten me.”

Viswanathan writes on page 39 of her novel: “Moneypenny was the brainy female character. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: smart or pretty. I had long resigned myself to category one, and as long as it got me to Harvard, I was happy. Except, it hadn’t gotten me to Harvard. Clearly, it was time to switch to category two.”

The italics appear in the originals.

Page 237 of McCafferty’s first novel reads: “Finally, four major department stores and 170 specialty shops later, we were done.” Similarly, Viswanathan wrote on page 51 of her novel: “Five department stores, and 170 specialty shops later, I was sick of listening to her hum along to Alicia Keys....”

McCafferty first learned about the similarities on April 11 in an e-mail from a fan, according to her agent Joanna Pulcini. Pulcini said that she has notified Random House, which published both of McCafferty’s novels, about the matter.

‘SECOND HELPINGS’

The parallels between Viswanathan’s novel and McCafferty’s second work are equally striking. For instance, page 67 of “Second Helpings” reads: “...but in a truly sadomasochistic dieting gesture, they chose to buy their Diet Cokes at Cinnabon.”

And Viswanathan writes on page 46 of “Opal Mehta”: “In a truly masochistic gesture, they had decided to buy Diet Cokes from Mrs. Fields...”

All three novels chart the lives of teenage girls living in suburban New Jersey. “Second Helpings” is a sequel to “Sloppy Firsts.”

More examples of similar passages in Viswanathan's book and McCafferty's two novels can be found here.

When The Crimson reached Viswanathan on her cell phone Saturday night and informed her of the similarities between “Opal Mehta” and “Sloppy Firsts,” the sophomore said, “No comment. I have no idea what you are talking about.”

She did not return an e-mail request for comment yesterday.

McCafferty, the author of three novels and a former editor at the magazine Cosmopolitan, wrote in an e-mail to The Crimson Saturday night: “I’m already aware of this situation, and so is my publisher.”

In a follow-up e-mail yesterday, McCafferty wrote, “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.”

‘WE ARE TAKING THESE ALLEGATIONS VERY SERIOUSLY’

Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, said that the publishing house is “taking these allegations very seriously.”

When asked whether Random House had contacted Viswanathan’s publisher, Little, Brown, about the matter, Applebaum said: “Publishing protocol dictates that one contacts the publisher of the book whose text may bear alleged similarities. So it is customary, it would be customary, for us to reach out to the publisher you name.”

Little, Brown signed Viswanathan to a two-book, $500,000 contract while she was in high school. This is the first book that the Harvard sophomore has produced for the publisher under that deal, and it reached 32nd on the New York Times’ hardcover fiction bestseller list this week.

Representatives from Little, Brown could not be reached for comment.

DreamWorks has purchased the movie rights to Viswanathan’s novel. A DreamWorks spokesman, Bob Feldman, said Saturday night that the studio could not immediately comment on the matter.

‘MINISCULE VARIATIONS’

Neither Harvard College’s Administrative Board Guide for Students nor the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Student Handbook mention the ramifications of non-academic plagiarism.

“Our policies on plagiarism apply to work submitted to courses, so questions of academic dishonesty would not apply in cases of non-academic work,” Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 wrote in an e-mail on Sunday. “Nevertheless, we expect Harvard students to conduct themselves with integrity and honesty at all times.”

Cabot Professor of English Literature and Professor of African and African American Studies Werner Sollors, after reviewing a list of 24 similar passages found in “Opal Mehta” and “Sloppy Firsts,” wrote in an e-mail yesterday: “Judging by the excerpts you have assembled, and three department stores and 169 specialty shops later, it looks as though some strong version of anxiety of influence could clearly be detected in ‘How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life,’ all the more so because of those miniscule variations that change ‘Human Evolution’ to ‘Psych’ in the hope of making the result less easily googleable.”

—Staff writer David Zhou can be reached at dzhou@fas.harvard.edu.