Via Nanopolitan, the latest on the sad case of Harvard sophomore and author(?) Kaavya Viswanathan, whose situation keeps unravelling. Viswanathan got herself a book contract while still a high school student, and then wrote (maybe) the young adult novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. Recently, it has come to light that dozens of passages in that novel bear an uncanny resemblance to passages in two novels by Megan McCafferty. Some seem to have been lifted word for word, while others seem to have modified just enough not to be immediately detectable with Google.
In the business, we’re accustomed to calling this plagiarism. The only complication here is whether Viswanathan is the one who committed the plagiarism here.
Here’s where things get interesting: the Harvard Independent reports that How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life was produced with the “assistance” of a “book packager”. Book packagers, it seems, have stables of hungry young (and swift) writers who will do that pesky writing involved in turning out a novel (or many novels in a commercially popular series) for a paycheck but no author’s credit. Viswanathan gets her name on Opal Mehta, but she doesn’t have to sweat over actually writing it all. Indeed, under the terms of the arrangement, it’s unclear that the public would ever get to know how much of the resulting novel was written by the author of record and how much was written by those anonymous wordsmiths.
Kind of a literary Milli Vanilli kind of thing.
But if Viswanathan claims the credit (as author) for that novel, what happens when substantial portions of it seem to be the result of plagiarism? If she’s going to claim the credit, doesn’t she have to eat the blame, too? As the Harvard Independent explains:
So how much “packaging” did 17th Street [the book packager] do for Opal Metha? Was it, like a Sweet Valley novel, brought to life by an anonymous writer for hire on the basis of an outline by Viswanathan? Or was Viswanathan more deeply involved? If someone plagiarized Megan McCafferty’s books, was it Viswanathan herself — or was it one of 17th Street’s unnamed freelancers, cracking under the pressure of six-week deadlines and reaching into the work of a successful competitor for a paragraph here and there?
So far, it’s impossible to say. And either way, Viswanathan lacks an obvious graceful exit. If she confesses to plagiarism, she risks jeopardizing her professional and academic future. If she palms it off on her book packager, she risks discrediting her debut novel — to say nothing of its planned sequel and cinematic adaptation — as a fraudulent patchwork composed by committee. Much of the appeal of Opal Mehta, after all, lies in the figure of Viswanathan herself, precocious, pretty, and poised. Opal might have sold well without its nominal writer’s biographical backstory, telegenic looks, and media-friendly personality — but it almost certainly would have sold less.
But as Viswanathan is now learning, going up on the marquee isn’t all fun, games, and TV interviews. Sometimes it means you take the blame for the production — whether or not you really deserve it.
Authorship is about credit and accountability. It’s a package deal, folks.