How One Young Writer Got Bought, Packaged, and Ended Up With More Than She Bargained For
Although it’s been a few years now, the media–print, broadcast and online, all—still occasionally buzz about the sad tale of the Harvard student, Kaavya Viswanathan and her misguided adventures in the belly of the publishing beast. The simple outline of the story is this: a bright, talented, 17-year old woman about to embark on her education at one of the world’s most prestigious institutions lands a two-book publishing contract, a $500,000 advance, and the promise of the rosiest of futures; soon after the release of the first book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, someone at The Harvard Crimson, a student run newspaper, noticed some striking similarities between Viswanathan’s book and another young adult novel; The Crimson broke the scandal, the book was pulped, and a very embarrassed Viswanathan retreated behind dark glasses and a wall of silence.
Just another instance of plagiarism, this time brought on by inexperience and over-ambition, right? The controversy around Viswanathan might have died down quickly enough, except for a nagging question: Why would a publisher risk that kind of money on a 17-year old who had never before written a book and who, we learn, had only the barest concept for the story when she first contacted them? Digging deeper, The Crimson writers and others uncovered a larger scandal, one in fact that has implications for writers everywhere and that also happens to reveal a lot about the publishing world today. Because one possibility is that Vishwanathan was sized up, snapped up and made use of.
Apparently, she submitted a few chapters of a novel she was working on to the William Morris literary agency who spoke about it with a publisher. Little, Brown responded with a comment that her work was “too dark”, but if she could lighten up they might be interested. They also referred her to 17th Street Productions, a subsidiary of Alloy Entertainment, a company that develops properties for TV and film. Alloy Entertainment is owned by the parent company Alloy Media + Marketing. A closer look reveals that the copyright to Opal Mehta is held jointly by Vishwanathan and Alloy. This is definitely fishy. And it also makes perfect sense. Scary sense. Little, Brown was willing to take the risk of publishing the untested work of a teenager and offering a six figure advance because the machinery of Alloy was behind it.
17th Street Productions is a book packaging company. Their specialty is putting together deals for books along the lines of a film or television production company, replete with ghost writers, brainstorming sessions, properties, spin-offs, and product placement. They even organise launches, not in bookstores as one might expect, but at make-up counters in major department stores— because the audience they are targeting might not shop in bookstores but always need lipstick and eyeliner.
This is the same company that developed Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. During a brainstorming session, a staff ghost writer presented the idea, drawing from her own life. 17th Street gave the project to Ann Brashares to develop. (Brashares just happens to be a long-time Alloy editor and executive). As everyone knows, it became a bestselling novel and a major motion picture. This outcome is the inverse of the Opal Mehta tale. The unfortunate ghost writer received neither money nor glory for pitching Sisterhood. And the more unfortunate Kaavya Vishwanathan has been made to bear the full brunt of the Opal Mehta scandal. It seems that however things turn out, 17th Street Productions (and Alloy) just can’t lose.
Typically, the books produced at 17th Street Productions are filled with brand names. A sentence like: She stood up indignantly, grabbed her bag and stormed over to her car, nearly tripping in the process might read instead She stood up indignantly, grabbed her Gucci bag and stormed over to her BMW, nearly tripping in her Manolo Blahnik shoes. According to Alloy’s website, the company was developed to help advertisers reach 10-24 year olds, a demographic with an estimated annual spending power of $250 billion in the US alone. Roberta Clarke, associate professor of marketing at Boston University, says that Alloy attempts to “elevate brands as a part of daily life. That means, not just sticking an ad out there for Coke, but also having it in movie trailers, on TV shows, direct mail, building it into the school, the home—wherever a teenager is. They understand the daily life of teens, how to infiltrate the daily lives of teenagers.”
In her defence, Vishwanathan released this statement: “Recently, I was very surprised and upset to learn that there are similarities between some passages in my novel…and passages in these books,” referring to Megan McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. Those titles “spoke to me in a way few others did. I wasn’t aware of how much I may have internalised Ms. McCafferty’s words…Any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious.” Although such internalisation can happen, it’s unlikely that it would 40 times in one novel. And by a bright Harvard student? C’mon. Adding to the scandal, a close look at the acknowledgements of both books mentions an editor by the name of Claudia Gaber. Apparently, she worked with Vishwanathan on Opal Mehta, and she also worked with McCafferty on her books. More than a little fishy, if you ask me. How could an editor not recognise such blatant similarities?
So who is Kaavya Vishwanathan? In a piece she wrote for the Times of India before she was disgraced, this Harvard English major discusses her favourite writers. The list is impressive: Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, Henry James, Jane Austen, the Brontes, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Margaret Atwood. Megan McCafferty was not mentioned. In an interview with the Hindu, Vishwanathan said, “The essays and pieces I’ve written before were more realistic pieces touching on current events and everyday life. Writing a funny piece was a first for me.” And in another interview with UniversityChic.com, Vishwanathan said, “I’m not so much into pop culture…” And yet Opal Mehta was applauded by critics for being hysterically funny and stylishly hip.
Lizzie Skurnick is a former editor and ghost writer for 17th Street Productions. “A packager basically serves as both writer and editor of a book,” Skurnick says. “The advantage for a publishing house is they don’t have to do anything—they don’t have to design the book, they don’t have to think about a concept…They can just say, ‘Here’s $80,000 for twelve of these books.’ They don’t have to do any of the work.”
Skurnick discounts any malicious plagiarism on the part of Vishwanathan. “The impulse at a place like 17th Street is to have a house voice. There are reams and reams of stuff that’s written…It’s unavoidable that certain phrases will be recycled or said in a certain way…It’s not that anyone is copying, it’s just that [these phrases] are the first things a mediocre writer would reach for.”
In the case of Opal Mehta, the appeal of the story lies with the authenticity of its author. The novel is about a young Indian-American immigrant who lives in New Jersey, whose parents are doctors, and who is trying to get into Harvard. These details parallel Vishwanathan’s life. A nameless ghost writer just wouldn’t do.
So how much is the character Opal Mehta modelled on the writer Kaavya Vishwanathan? It isn’t clear. There is another question: how much was Vishwanathan’s marketing persona and writing altered to fit what 17th Street Productions, Alloy, and Little, Brown wanted for the novel? Since a shroud of silence has fallen over this scandal, we may never know.
Perhaps what appealed most to Little, Brown was the story of the Indian immigrant going to Harvard. The irony is that had Vishwanathan gone somewhere else or had she taken a year off to work and write, we might never have heard a word about these suspect passages. How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life might have achieved the success of Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. In the face of such enormous profits, scandal—particularly when someone else’s name appears on the cover—might just be worth the risk for the big business of book packaging.
The heading of a New York Times article (27/04/06) says it all: “First, Plot and Character. Then Find an Author”. And a fall guy. By Adair Jones.
(First Published in Arts Hub in 2006.)