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Harvard author’s fall a lift for some students

The rise and crashing fall of the Harvard University sophomore accused of plagiarizing passages of her debut novel has made of some of her classmates smile, some sympathize.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The rise and crashing fall of the Harvard University sophomore accused of plagiarizing passages of her debut novel has made of some of her classmates smile, some sympathize.

A quiet jealousy circulated on this hyper-competitive campus when Kaavya Viswanathan’s hefty two-book deal became public, before allegations surfaced that she cribbed from other teen novels.

On Thursday her publisher, Little, Brown and Co., yanked “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life” off bookstore shelves nationwide.

“Some people are downright gleeful about this. I think the word is schadenfreude,” said junior Rita Parai, 20, of Buffalo, N.Y., invoking a German phrase that means to delight in the misfortune of others.

Target of ‘inspired private butchering’Other Harvard students are disillusioned — and even sympathetic — to the plight of the 19-year-old author. Most agree, however, that there are too many similarities between Viswanathan’s book and two works by novelist Megan McCafferty to be a coincidence.

“I just feel bad for her, even if it was totally intentional,” said Katherine Mims, 20, a freshman from Sterling, Va. “I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, like most students. But when you lay the passages next to each other, it’s hard to deny.”

Viswanathan did not return phone messages and e-mails seeking comment. She has said that she unintentionally “internalized Ms. McCafferty’s words” and that “any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious.”

Before the Harvard Crimson broke the story about the similarities between Viswanathan’s novel and the other books, staff writer Elizabeth W. Green opined in the student paper about the “soul-burning jealousy” of Harvard students when others get ahead.

The splash from the sophomore’s novel brought that envy to a new level, Green wrote. “Almost as soon as her success became public knowledge, Viswanathan became the target of an inspired private butchering,” she wrote.

Pressure from the startIn an interview with The Associated Press before the controversy, Viswanathan talked about the pressures of her new fame and described the first time she saw her novel in print. One Saturday in March in the Harvard bookstore, she happened upon a prominent display of her books, each slapped with a head shot that took up most of the back cover.

“I started to hyperventilate, and I burst into tears,” Viswanathan said at the time.

At noon Friday, the bookstore pulled the book with its fuchsia binding out of its front display window and off the local best-seller list. Just last Sunday, the novel hit No. 32 on the New York Times hardcover fiction best-seller list.

Viswanathan’s book tells the story of Opal, a hard-driving teen who earns all A’s in high school but gets rejected from Harvard because she forgot to have a social life. The heroine bears superficial similarities to the author, including Indian heritage, a New Jersey upbringing and Harvard.

McCafferty’s book is also set in New Jersey; it follows a protagonist named Jessica Darling who excels in high school but struggles with her identity and longs for a boyfriend.

The Crown Publishing Group, McCafferty’s publisher, alleges that at least 40 passages in Viswanathan’s book are similar to their author’s novels “Sloppy Firsts” and “Second Helpings.”

At Harvard, most student agree.

“I think we have all accepted that she plagiarized parts of it,” said Jessica Lin, 19, a freshman from Warren, N.J.

‘It’s kind of disillusioning’The school has largely stayed out of the controversy. Robert Mitchell, spokesman for the undergraduate segment, said plagiarism policies do not relate to work performed outside class.

Still, the fallout is palpable among the red brick buildings of the campus. Some students worry that Viswanathan may have scared publishers away from other young authors.

Others saw the headlines as a new knock against a school still recovering from the media circus that enveloped the resignation of its president, Lawrence Summers, in February.

Parai, the junior from Buffalo, stood in the grass outside Lamont Library, where Viswanathan says she wrote her book on a laptop during her freshman year.

“It’s kind of disillusioning,” Parai said. “Being at a campus full of accomplished people, it’s hard to believe that somebody would cheat.”