Harvard Student Accused of Plagiarizing Novel
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
The publisher of a hotly promoted debut novel by a 19-year-old says it will revise that book after it was reported that more than a dozen passages in the novel were similar, if not identical, to an earlier work by another author. The new book is HOW OPAL MEHTA GOT KISSED, GOT WILD AND GOT A LIFE by Kaavya Viswanathan, now a sophomore at Harvard.
She was just 17 when she got a two-book deal worth a reported $500,000. This weekend, the Harvard Crimson first reported the plagiarism allegations. Late yesterday, Ms. Viswanathan released a statement saying she was very surprised and upset to learn about the similarities. She added that those similarities were unintentional and unconscious.
David Mehegan is covering the story for the Boston Globe. Thanks for being with us.
Mr. DAVID MEHEGAN (Boston Globe): You're welcome, Melissa.
BLOCK: David, let's talk about this novel and then the earlier novels, two books by a woman named Megan McCafferty, SLOPPY FIRSTS and SECOND HELPINGS. How similar are these passages?
Mr. MEHEGAN: Well, the passages that were uncovered were in some cases extremely similar. In some cases almost verbatim, word for word. In other cases, not verbatim, but very close.
BLOCK: Can you give us some examples?
Mr. MEHEGAN: Yeah, one for example, from SLOPPY FIRSTS by Megan Mccafferty, a sentence that says this: "So I froze, not knowing whether I should a) laugh, b) say something or c) ignore him and keep on walking." And then in HOW OPAL MEHTA GOT KISSED: "I froze, unsure of a) what he was talking about and b) what I was supposed to do about it."
That isn't quite word for word, but here's another from SLOPPY FIRSTS: "Bridget is my age and lives across the street. For the first 12 years of my life, these qualifications were all I needed in a friend. But that was before Bridget's braces came off and her boyfriend, Burke, got on and before Hope and I met in our seventh grade honors class."
And then, in OPAL MEHTA: "Priscilla was my age and lived two blocks away. For the first 15 years of my life, those were the only qualifications I needed in a best friend. We had first bonded over our mutual fascination with the abacus in a play group for gifted kids. But that was before freshman year, when Priscilla's glasses came off and the first in a long string of boyfriends got on." It's not in most cases word for word, but it's very, very close.
BLOCK: Yeah and if you take one or two, it may not seem so striking. When you look at a list of all of them side by side, you can't help but think that something's going on.
Mr. MEHEGAN: Yeah, well, because she acknowledges that something was going on.
BLOCK: Her explanation though is that she had read these books and internalized them in some way, didn't realize that these words were not her own. Do you find that plausible?
Mr. MEHEGAN: Yeah, it's not for me to judge, but it certainly is an unusual explanation. I'm not quite sure how you could, if you know you've read a book and you know that you loved it and it was only a couple of years ago when you were in high school, how you could sort of forget that these words are not yours, but they are actually the other author's. I'm not exactly sure how that would work. I've never heard an explanation like that before. But I suppose all things are possible with the mind.
BLOCK: There are a number of things going on here. You've got a girl who was 17 years old when she got a $500,000 book publishing contract. You profiled her back in February as the six-figure sophomore. How does a 17-year-old get a contract like that?
Mr. MEHEGAN: Well, she got it because the publishers saw potential in a new author, in a kind of a very profitable form of publishing. Kaavya was, she had an agent, she didn't actually have a book at this point, she just had a notion for a book. She was sent then to this so-called book packager to help her flesh out the idea. They came up with the idea for the book that she wrote.
This was sent to Little Brown. Little Brown, the publisher, thought this was a great idea and made the offer for this book and a second book. And, of course, the question as to why would they risk $500,000 on an author who's never written a book before and who hasn't written this one yet, you know, I think is an interesting question. I don't know what the answer to that is.
BLOCK: When you say they came up with the idea, they being the book packager or the book packager and Kaavya together?
Mr. MEHEGAN: The, well that's the question. Kaavya says it was her idea. The plot was her idea but that they were trying to get her to, you might say, lighten up and do more of a story that was more like her life and the world that she came out of.
BLOCK: The publisher of Kaavya Viswanathan's book has said it's going to revise the text, presumably take out or change these passages in question.
Mr. MEHEGAN: Yeah.
BLOCK: She's apologized to the other author. Where do things stand, is that the end of it?
Mr. MEHEGAN: Well, I'm not sure if it's the end of it because it's not clear to me exactly how you can just make a few little changes. But the publisher says they're staying with her and they say the contract for the second book is still on, and they're hoping to make it happen.
BLOCK: David Mehegan, thanks very much.
Mr. MEHEGAN: You're very welcome.
BLOCK: David Mehegan covers the publishing industry for the Boston Globe.
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