The recently-published novel by the Harvard sophomore, “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.”
Viswanathan said in a statement on Monday that the phrasing similarities “were completely unintentional and unconscious.”
But Steve Ross, the senior vice president and publisher of Crown Publishers and Three Rivers Press—two subsidiaries of Random House—characterized Viswanathan’s statement as “deeply troubling and disingenuous.”
“This extensive taking from Ms. McCafferty’s books is nothing less than an act of literary identity theft,” Ross said yesterday. “Based on the scope and character of the similarities, it is inconceivable that this was a display of youthful innocence or an unconscious or unintentional act.”
McCafferty’s agent, Joanna Pulcini, said that she has found 45 passages in “Opal Mehta” that are “strikingly similar” to parts of McCafferty’s two books.
The Crimson, which first reported the similarities between the three coming-of-age novels, identified more than a dozen such passages on Sunday.
“Many [passages] include identical phrasing, establish primary characters, and contain shared plot developments...It is understandably difficult for us to accept that Ms. Viswanathan’s plagiarism was ‘unintentional and unconscious,’ as she has claimed,” Pulcini wrote in an e-mail late last night.
In her statement on Monday, Viswanathan said, “When I was in high school, 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.”
But when The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. asked Viswanathan about the inspiration for her book last week—before the similar passages were reported—she responded, “Nothing I read gave me the inspiration.”
In explaining the similar passages between “Opal Mehta” and McCafferty’s books, Viswanathan said Monday that she “wasn’t aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty’s words.”
According to Kenan Professor of Psychology Daniel L. Schacter, a former chair of the department, examples of unintentional plagiarism by writers have been reported in the past.
“Psychologists refer to the phenomenon as ‘cryptomnesia,’” Schacter wrote in an e-mail. “Psychologists conceive of cryptomnesia as a failure of source memory, where one retrieves previously stored information, and attributes that information to the wrong source.”
“Various forms of source misattribution have been studied extensively—they represent a common type of memory failure,” he added.
“Opal Mehta” publisher Little, Brown has stood by Viswanathan.
“Kaavya Viswanathan is 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,” said Michael Pietsch ’78, the senior vice president and publisher of Little, Brown, on Monday.
Viswanathan said that future printings of “Opal Mehta” will be revised “to eliminate any inappropriate similarities.”
Viswanathan did not return a request for comment yesterday, and a spokeswoman for Little, Brown, Michelle Aielli, could not be reached.
In an interview at his University Hall office yesterday afternoon, Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby declined to comment on the matter.
In the summer of 2003, Harvard reversed its decision to admit applicant Blair Hornstine to the Class of 2007 after Hornstine was found to have plagiarized material in articles that she wrote for her local New Jersey newspaper.
CLIMBING THE CHARTS
As the controversy over “Opal Mehta” enters its fourth day, the media frenzy appears to be boosting Viswanathan’s book sales.
Late last night, the novel had jumped to number 77 on amazon.com’s book sales ranking, up from number 178 on Monday. “Sloppy Firsts” had risen from number 1,546 on Monday to number 327 yesterday on amazon.com, and “Second Helpings” had climbed from number 4,912 to number 898 on the website, where rankings are refreshed every hour.
Hardcover copies of “Opal Mehta” continued to be displayed at Square bookstores.
At the Harvard Coop, a stack of the novels was prominently featured in the glass case outside of the Mass. Ave entrance. A poster titled “National Campus Bestsellers”—listing “Opal Mehta” as number two among hardcovers—was propped up nearby. “Charmed Thirds,” the new novel by McCafferty, was ranked third on the same list. A small stack of Viswanathan’s book was also displayed at the information desk.
At the Harvard Book Store, Mark Lamphier, the manager, said on Monday that he did not have sales numbers for “Opal Mehta” and did not know how the controversy would affect sales.
“At least in my case I haven’t heard much from customers one way or another,” he said.
Viswanathan received a two-book, $500,000 contract from Little, Brown when she was 17. DreamWorks purchased the movie rights in February.
Viswanathan’s book, like McCafferty’s two novels, charts the life of a female teenage protagonist in suburban New Jersey.
—Nicholas M. Ciarelli contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer David Zhou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.