Girl Interrupted

How Kaavya “Wrote” Opal Mehta, Got into Harvard, and Got into Trouble

Charlotte Smith published a volume of poems entitled “Elegiac Sonnets” in the year 1784. While Smith did not get a movie deal with DreamWorks, she does share one characteristic with our own Kaavya Viswanathan ’08. Both are said to have “borrowed” from other writers.

Back in the 18th-century this may have turned heads, but it was largely acceptable (although Smith herself was criticized). In our own day, however, Viswanathan has been pilloried for peppering her novel, “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life,” with language and ideas taken from Megan F. McCafferty’s novel “Sloppy Firsts.” Are we overreacting here?

Opal Mehta (until now) has largely been well received by reviewers. Carol Memmott from USA Today bet her readers “a gold lamé Miu Miu bag” that they would be unable to find a “more charming book.”

High praise indeed.

Charlotte also received praise. Some critics even saw her “Elegiac Sonnets” as “above Shakespeare and Milton” (although I’d bet you a Miu Miu bag that this was a bit of an exaggeration).

Unfortunately, however, Smith was criticized for the “derivative” nature of her poems. On Sunday The Crimson did the same thing when it detailed how Viswanathan supposedly stole passages from McCafferty’s “Sloppy Firsts” for “her” novel Opal Mehta. The language of both of these books is strikingly similar.

In McCafferty’s novel “Sloppy Firsts” one finds: “Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: Pretty or smart.” But Viswanathan wrote, “Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: smart or pretty.” Notice the subtle, yet distinct differences between the two. By de-capitalizing “pretty” and placing it after “smart” the entire passage is transformed. After all, if you are going to appropriate language, you should at least improve it.

When Smith was faced with charges of criticism, she was greatly distressed, but she admitted to “borrowing.” In later editions she punctiliously added footnotes that she explained in her preface. Perhaps Viswanathan will do the same.

Viswanathan has recently apologized, and while the “apology” seems somewhat contrived, it is at the very least an apology. Apparently she is a huge fan of McCafferty’s works (big surprise), and she “may have internalized Ms. McCafferty’s words,” that is, of course, before she “externalized” them in her own novel.

While it is uncertain what will happen from here to Viswanathan, I would like to argue for a little bit of mercy, particularly from the Administrative Board. The Ad Board normally only looks at cases of “academic dishonesty” for “work submitted to courses.” But, as Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 ominously told The Crimson in an e-mail, “Nevertheless, we expect Harvard students to conduct themselves with integrity and honesty at all times.”

The Ad Board should not punish Viswanathan. This was not a school paper and should not fall under the purview of the Ad Board. She’s said sorry (sort of), and legal action by Random House, although nothing is for sure, may be punishment enough. Smith was forgiven; will Viswanathan be as well?

Charles Drummond ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Canaday Hall.