Novel written by Harvard student is pulled from stores

Saturday, April 29, 2006

NEW YORK -- The future of a Harvard student's "chick-lit" novel is, for now, a mystery.

Kaavya Viswanathan's highly publicized "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life" has been pulled from the market, brought down by acknowledged borrowings from fellow author Megan McCafferty. But publisher Little, Brown and Company's decision, announced Thursday night, left some questions unresolved.

Just weeks after her book was released, Little, Brown issued a statement that "all editions" would be pulled from store shelves and that retailers had been asked to return unsold copies for "full credit."

The publisher has said that "Opal Mehta" would be revised, but in its statement did not refer to a new edition. Neither Little, Brown, nor Viswanathan's agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, would offer immediate comment when asked if the book was being changed, or canceled altogether.

Little, Brown and Walsh also had no immediate comment on what would be done with the audio book and whether Viswanathan will have to return her advance. She has a two-book contract, reportedly worth six figures, and a film deal with DreamWorks that may also be in doubt.

The 19-year-old Viswanathan, a sophomore at Harvard University, has apologized repeatedly to McCafferty, saying she had read her books voraciously in high school and unintentionally mimicked them.

But McCafferty's publisher, the Crown Publishing Group, believed Viswanathan guilty of "literary identity theft" and urged Little, Brown, which initially said her novel would remain on sale, to withdraw the book.

In a statement issued soon after Little, Brown's announcement, Crown said it was "pleased that this matter has been resolved in an appropriate and timely fashion" and praised McCafferty for "her grace under pressure throughout this ordeal."

McCafferty, in a statement released by Crown, said she was "not seeking restitution in any form" and hoped to put the affair behind her.

"The past few weeks have been very difficult, and I am most grateful to my readers for offering continual support," she said. "In my career, I am, first and foremost, a writer. So I look forward to getting back to work and moving on, and hope Ms. Viswanathan can too."

Phone messages left with Viswanathan were not returned.

One of Viswanathan's high school teachers, Richard Weems, expressed surprise over her misfortunes. Weems, who taught literature to Viswanathan when she was a junior at Bergen County Academies in New Jersey, remembered her as a gifted student and the winner of a number of writing contests.

"Kaavya did not strike me as the kind of student who would deliberately take material from others. Nor do I recall her talking about Megan McCafferty's books -- the most contemporary book we did for her junior-year world literature class was Shakespeare's 'Hamlet,'" he said.

"I find the recent events involving Kaavya shocking and sad. Kaavya is a talented writer."

"Opal Mehta" came out in March, and sold moderately, although the book's imminent withdrawal could make it a collector's item: It was No. 96 on the Amazon.com best seller list Thursday night and had jumped to No. 10 as of Friday afternoon. A first edition, apparently unsigned, was being offered on eBay for $79.

McCafferty, a former editor at Cosmopolitan, has a new novel out, "Charmed Thirds." She noted Thursday on her blog that it had made The New York Times' "extended hardcover best-seller list for the second week in a row.

"I can't help but mention that this list reflects sales for last week," she wrote. "Before. You know."

Viswanathan's novel tells the story of Opal, a hard-driving teen from New Jersey who earns straight A's in high school but is rejected from Harvard because she forgot to have a social life. Opal's father concocts a plan to get her past the admissions office.

McCafferty's books follow a heroine named Jessica Darling, a New Jersey girl who excels in high school but struggles with her identity and longs for a boyfriend.

Similarities to McCafferty's books, which include "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings," were first spotted by readers. They alerted McCafferty, who then notified her publisher. Crown alleges that at least 40 passages "contain identical language and/or common scene or dialogue structure."

Viswanathan's misdeeds could be blamed on inexperience, but literary theft is not only for the very young. Doris Kearns Goodwin was in her 30s when she started working on "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys" and took large blocks of text from author Lynne McTaggart. Stephen Ambrose was past 60 when caught stealing for "The Wild Blue."

And Viswanathan's fall is not necessarily fatal. In 1980, debut author Jacob Epstein acknowledged plagiarizing Martin Amis' "The Rachel Papers" for his novel, "Wild Oats." Epstein found forgiveness in Hollywood, where his writing credits include "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law."

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