First-time authors dream of their work flying off the shelves--but not like this. One moment, Kaavya Viswanathan was a literary marvel, a Harvard sophomore with a reported $500,000 two-book deal and a highly touted chick-lit novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. The next, her publisher, Little, Brown, was recalling every copy of Opal from the shelves, like so many tins of bad salmon. The defect? Viswanathan, 19, had plagiarized dozens of passages from two young-adult novels by Megan McCafferty.
A hot writer, a scandal: this too sounds like something we have read somewhere before. The new element, following the James Frey and JT LeRoy scandals, is the role a little-known pop-culture tastemaker played in how Viswanathan got signed, got famous and got a comeuppance.
Viswanathan shares the copyright for Opal with Alloy Entertainment, a book packager, which develops book ideas, hires writers, then delivers a finished product to publishers. Packagers have been more common in nonfiction--cookbooks, joke books--but Alloy has turned itself into a giant of young-women's fiction. Headed by Leslie Morgenstein, 39, Alloy has put together hit series, including The Clique and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. It's a "fiction factory," as a publishing insider calls it, but one with a well-respected sense of the mercurial girl culture; Alloy's parent company also owns the teen shopping website delias.com What it provides publishers, says Publishers Weekly editor in chief Sara Nelson, is "the market researching of books, and every publisher is desperate for the teen market."
A typical Alloy book is farmed out to a contract writer, but Viswanathan (who declined to comment for this article) came to them. A college-admissions counselor liked her writing at 17 and put her in touch with the William Morris Agency. Her agent suggested she work with Alloy to develop a reader-friendly concept. Coincidentally, she and Alloy hit on a tale about an Indian-American teen who applies to Harvard, is told she has to prove she has a social life, hatches a plan to get one but realizes she has made a mistake by trying to be someone she's not.
The first sign that Viswanathan had, figuratively, assumed an identity came when the Harvard Crimson website reported the plagiarism. (From Opal: "Moneypenny was the brainy female character. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: smart or pretty." From McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts: "Sabrina was the brainy Angel. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: Pretty or smart.") Viswanathan said she had read McCafferty but called herself the victim of a photographic memory. "Somewhere in her mind, she crossed an invisible line with this material and didn't realize that the words so easy and available to her were not her own," says her agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh.