It's easy to blame Kaavya Viswanathan for the startling similarities between "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life" and Megan McCafferty's bestselling novels, "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings" (45 by Crown's count). After all, her name's on the cover, and until a few days ago, she'd been doing tons of press on behalf of the book.
In interviews she comes across as an Indian wunderkind from suburban New Jersey, telling the story of How Kaavya Got into Harvard, Got a Book Deal and Got Half a Million Bucks. Attractive, charming, and bright, Kaavya Viswanathan could easily be mistaken for a living, breathing, real-life Opal Mehta, the popular, post-makeover Opal, who has both a life and a fat envelope.
Over the past few days, since the story of the alleged plagiarism broke, Ms. Viswanathan has maintained her innocence, saying in a statement, "I wasn't aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty's words." She has also apologized, repeatedly, profusely, and to my ears, genuinely. But she also seems at a loss to explain just what happened. In an interview with the New York Times, she said, "I really thought the words were my own; I guess it's just been in my head," she added. "I feel as confused as anyone about it, because it happened so many times."
Could someone as obviously intelligent as Ms. Viswanathan be reduced to an almost fugue-like state when trying to explain how another writer's words wound up in the pages of her own book?
Ms. Viswanathan had a terrific story idea that was quickly seized upon by book packager Alloy Entertainment and Little, Brown, a publisher with which it frequently partners. Not only was her story interesting and fun, Ms. Viswanathan is just the type of author who is very promotable right now. Alloy is a big hitter in the packaging world, best-known for publishing young adult series including "Gossip Girl," "A-List" and "The Clique." Book packagers generally work with publishers by selling them a complete, or "packaged" product, often a series that is credited to one writer but may actually be the work of several.
In light of all this, here's what I can't help but wonder: In the process of editing and rewriting and then more of both, could someone else's hand have entered the picture? Someone who didn't mind lifting another writer's work to help make a deadline?
Viswanathan says that after the first four chapters of "Opal" were sold to Little, Brown, Alloy had no more involvement with it. But who knows what happened between the other parties to the agreement? Consider that the contract for this book is actually between Little, Brown and Alloy, in fact, the copyright designation is shared by Alloy Entertainment and Kaavya Viswanathan. This is unusual for a book that's not being marketed as one of a series or as a "YA" novel.
After reading John Barlow's description of his own experience with Alloy (formerly known as "17th Street Productions"), in Slate, and The Harvard Independent's explanation of how the book packaging business works it appears as if it is not out of the ordinary for several pairs of hands to be involved in a single book.
Something just doesn't appear right in all of this. Kaavya Viswanathan isn't hiding behind attorneys or spokespeople, but has instead been spewing "mea culpa's" around the media like a broken record, except that she can't figure out how she made this error. "Internalizing" may be one way of explaining it, but why just from these two particular books, by a single author? "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings" have a total of approximately 400,000 copies in print. McCafferty's popular, and in fact it was her fans who first tipped The Harvard Crimson about the likenesses between her books and Viswanathan's.
It's time for the grown-ups to step up and explain exactly what happened. Kaavya Viswanathan is a new writer, and if she didn't plagiarize, she should certainly know who did.
Meanwhile, Megan McCafferty "Charmed Thirds" was published this week and has already sold enough copies that it will debut on this weekend's bestseller list, according to her website. She's the aggrieved party here, and she deserves to know at whom to direct her anger and maybe a lawsuit.