How Kaavya Got Packaged and Got Into Trouble

Plagiarism and the teen-marketing culture.

“Is it hard work being a poser?” One of the Haute Bitchez at Woodcliff High School puts that taunting question to Opal Mehta, the protagonist of the teen novel by Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan, whose confession this week that she unconsciously plagiarized the work of the best-selling young-adult author Megan McCafferty has stirred controversy. The dig comes near the end of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life when Opal’s parent-driven self-packaging mission has been revealed to the entire high school. As her peers now know (from a tell-all Treo that she dropped), the senior has been devoting her fall semester to a marketing plan that the Mehtas fondly refer to by the acronym HOWGAL, How Opal Will Get A Life—a plan geared toward turning a science grind into a glamour girl. Heretofore she had been doggedly pursuing a more conventional marketing plan, HOWGIH, How Opal Will Get Into Harvard. The inspiration for the strategic swerve is Harvard’s dean of admissions himself, who, at Opal’s August interview, suggests that a girl who has been engineered since birth to be a super high-achiever needs to “Have fun. … Find out what you’re really passionate about.” Harvard doesn’t want “automatons.” By the January application deadline, he says, come back and “show us what a well-rounded candidate you’ve become. Sound good?”

The ensuing formulaic story is far more poignant in light of the accusations that Viswanathan—a super-achieving, Scholastic Art & Writing Award-winning, Johns Hopkins program-attending high-schooler who went on to become a Harvard student with a half-million-dollar book advance—is a poser herself. In Viswanathan’s novel, Opal’s parents get right to work on R&D, scrutinizing trashy TV shows and teen magazines; they marshal their whiteboard, spreadsheets, to-do lists, and Photoshop technology to the end of packaging a new hip, popular, less uptight product. They even vacate their house so Opal can throw a big party when their dutiful daughter points out a paradox in the enterprise: “How can I get wild with my parents in the picture?” The upshot, predictably, is that Opal discovers the emptiness of the purely instrumental, image-obsessed approach to life. Exposed as a manipulative phony, a “master liar” who has betrayed her old wonky friends and exploited her new bitchy friends, she pays the price by becoming a pariah at school. The experience allows her at last to get in touch with the real Opal, who proclaims herself “sick of doing stuff just because it’ll get me somewhere”—and who, of course, gets into Harvard. (It’s worth noting that Opal’s parents, only briefly upset by the ordeals that their best-laid plans have visited on their daughter, end up totally pleased.)

Viswanathan herself has not been so lucky. The darker moral of her story seems to be that if you succeed by packaging, you can expect to fail by packaging, too—and you alone, not your packagers, will pay the price. McCafferty’s publisher, Steve Ross of Crown, has rejected as “disingenuous and troubling” Viswanathan’s apology for her “unintentional and unconscious” borrowings from two McCafferty books, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, that she says she read and loved in high school. He’s right, it doesn’t sound like the whole story. I don’t mean simply to let Viswanathan off the hook, but her own book—indeed, its very copyright line, Alloy Entertainment and Kaavya Viswanathan—suggests a broader culture of adult-mediated promotion and strategizing at work. It’s a culture, as her novel itself shows, that might well leave a teenager very confused about what counts as originality—even a teenager who can write knowingly about just that confusion. In fact, perhaps being able to write so knowingly about derivative self-invention is a recipe for being ripe to succumb to it. Viswanathan may not be a victim, exactly—she’s too willing for that—but she is only one of many players here.

Before the scandal hit, Viswanathan emphasized that her own route to Harvard was not as obsessively scripted as Opal’s. Still, no one would mistake the fruition of her novel for a case of independent creative genius unfolding. The project got its impetus from none other than Viswanathan’s professional college packager Katherine Cohen, a founder of IvyWise, a premier outfit that choreographs the college application process from ninth grade onward, and, crucially, helps produce essays that convey students’ “passions.” Working with Viswanathan, Cohen sensed “a star in the making” merely from surveying the teen’s writing samples. Just how the publishing deal evolved from there gets a little fuzzy—just as it can be a little hard, often, to say just how a carefully coached college essay evolves, or how, exactly, a particular résumé-enhancing after-school club membership came to be. Whose idea it initially was, how much massaging was involved, what relation the final result bears to the first impulse: Students and consultants alike can find it hard, or uncomfortable, to clarify such matters.

A story a year ago in the New York Sun said Viswanathan’s “plot was hatched well before she signed up with Ms. Cohen,” and reported that a manuscript went from Cohen’s own literary agent at the William Morris Agency to the fiction specialist there, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, and from her straight to Little, Brown. According to a Boston Globe article of two months ago—which, strangely, comes in the novel’s media packet—there was considerably more intervention than that. Several recent articles in the New York Times add more confusing details about a less-than-streamlined process. What the Morris agent saw wasn’t “commercially viable” work, the Globe reported. The fiction Cohen saw involved Irish history, a New York Times article noted last month; this week, the sample her agent saw is described as “dark,” in “the vein of The Lovely Bones.” In any event, Viswanathan was referred to 17th Street Productions, now owned by Alloy Entertainment, which describes itself as “a creative think tank that develops and produces original books, television series and feature films” with a focus on the teen market. Their properties are carefully targeted—and they’re not known as showcases of authenticity in the sense that most writers usually mean it. The whole idea is to produce variations on a tried-and-true formula, so perhaps it was no surprise that, according to the Globe, the producers of the “Make Out” and “Gossip Girl” series suggested Viswanathan try something, well, lighter. McCafferty, it’s worth noting, is the kind of popular teen author whose cynical-but-smart first-person school daze narratives almost surely get marketers thinking along similar lines.

To be sure, there were “lots of discussions about ‘finding my voice,’ ” as Viswanathan told the Globe, no doubt reminiscent of those conversations with Cohen about her various college essays—but probably even more reminiscent, to judge by the 17th Street Productions think-tank style, of the meetings convened by Opal’s parents to map out what could be learned and applied from the latest episodes and outfits on, say, TheO.C. Once the book’s concept had been “fleshed out,” the project went back to Walsh, who worked with Viswanathan further, according to the Globe. It doesn’t sound as though the Morris Agency’s goal was to tap into her unique imagination. “We had all recognized that Kaavya had the craftsmanship, she’s beautiful and charming, she just needed to find the right novel that would speak to her generation and to people beyond her years as well,” Walsh told the Globe. “We worked on it some more and sold it for oodles and boodles of money.” Having bought it for those oodles, Little, Brown then did its share of meddling. “There was more shaping to this book than we generally do,” Asya Muchnick, a senior editor, said in the same piece; she declined to comment in the Times this week. Who knows when and where, exactly, McCafferty’s voice crept in. An overloaded Harvard freshman with plenty of other writing to get done, Viswanathan might almost be forgiven for having forgotten that originality was even the goal she was striving for. Not that she would think twice, either, when Little, Brown’s publisher touted the “freshness of the voice” in a special publicity letter  about her book. A veteran of a college packaging process that puts a premium on audience-targeted expressions of “passion,” she’s surely used to that hype.

The historian Steven Ambrose, a one-man book production company, ducked plagiarism charges in a late book, The Wild Blue, by attributing them to his overhasty entourage of assistants, his five kids. It’s tempting to wonder whether Viswanathan, if she could find her own voice, might foist some of the blame for her borrowings onto her endlessly enabling elders. But that is, of course, the last thing a much-mentored superkid, intent on success, has been reared to do. Opal dares only once to tell her parents to back off, and then she bolts to her bedroom.