04/25/2006 01:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Scandal at Harvard: How Does a Novelist 'Accidentally' Plagiarize?

Have you followed the story of Kaavya Viswanathan, the 19-year-old Harvard undergrad? She's a novelist with a $500,000 contract for two novels. That advance seemed shrewd --- her first book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got A Life, made the New York Times list less than a month after publication, and film rights were sold to DreamWorks. It now turns out that this novel was considerably "inspired" in at least 40 passages by two books by Megan McCafferty.

Ms.Viswanathan has made all the expected apologies and given the usual explanation of "unconscious influence." I don't believe her. It is very easy to plagiarize in a non-fiction book --- a sloppy writer types up her research notes, shovels the prose into her text and and forgets to acknowledge the source. But in fiction? How does it happen? Can a novelist honestly say: "I remembered a whole paragraph, word for word." No way.

A freshman writing teacher at Harvard has weighed in: "Kaavya was my student last spring. I was surprised to learn she had written a book, as her writing was awful --- I had given her low grades on her papers." Given that, journalists' attention should turn to the author's relationship with Alloy Entertainment, which calls itself "a creative think tank that develops and produces original books, television series and feature films." As a book blog called Shelf Awareness points out, the author's agent "says that the book's plot and writing was '1000%' Viswanathan's. If so, why does a book packager share the copyright?"

Do you suspect, in a week or so, more dirty linen will tumble out, and then the question will be: Did Kaavya Viswanathan really write her book? Or --- like the members of a boy band --- was she simply the "face" for a team of ghostwriters?