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Publisher rejects ‘Mehta’ author’s explanation

Cites too much ‘borrowed’ material in Viswanathan’s book
/ Source: The Associated Press

Teenage author Kaavya Viswanathan has acknowledged taking material from fellow novelist Megan McCafferty, but says the borrowing was an accident. McCafferty’s publisher doesn’t believe her.

“We think there are simply too many instances of ‘borrowing’ for this to have been unintentional,” Steve Ross, senior vice president and publisher of the Crown Publishing Group, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Viswanathan’s publisher, Little, Brown and Company, issued a statement later Tuesday, defending the author.

“We do believe Kaavya. She has apologized, publicly and profusely, for any difficulties that may have come from her actions,” Little, Brown publisher Michael Pietsch said in the statement. “We believe that this is an unfortunate but honest mistake, and we intend to give Ms. Viswanathan every opportunity to correct the situation.”

Viswanathan, a 19-year-old sophomore at Harvard University, was just 17 when she signed a reported six-figure, two-book deal with Little, Brown. Her first novel, “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life,” came out in March to widespread publicity. DreamWorks has already acquired film rights.

But readers of McCafferty who had read Viswanathan spotted similarities to McCafferty’s books, which include “Sloppy Firsts” and “Second Helpings,” and alerted McCafferty, who in turn notified her publisher. Examples of questionable passages were published Sunday on the Web site of the Harvard Crimson.

Viswanathan released a statement Monday apologizing for her borrowings, saying that she was a “huge fan” of McCafferty and “wasn’t aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty’s words.” She promised to revise her book, a process Little, Brown says has already started.

Ross said lawyers representing the two publishers have been discussing the controversy and suggested that Little, Brown pull the novel until changes have been made. But Pietsch said that while the publisher would not reprint any more copies of the current version, there were no plans to withdraw it.

“She will revise her novel to remove any inappropriate similarities, and we will reissue it with those changes at the earliest opportunity,” said Pietsch, who has previously acknowledged that several weeks will be needed just to print the new copies.

Viswanathan’s novel tells the story of Opal, a hard-driving teen from New Jersey who earns straight A’s in high school but who gets rejected from Harvard because she forgot to have a social life. Opal’s father concocts a plan code-named HOWGAL (How Opal Will Get A Life) to get her past the admissions office.

McCafferty’s books follow a heroine named Jessica, a New Jersey girl who excels in high school but struggles with her identity and longs for a boyfriend. McCafferty is a former editor at Cosmopolitan

In a recent interview with The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., Viswanathan was asked about books that might have influenced her novel. “Nothing I read gave me the inspiration,” she responded.

On Tuesday, Crown issued a statement saying that Viswanathan’s apology was “deeply troubling and disingenuous.

“We have documented more than 40 passages from Kaavya Viswanathan’s recent publication ... that contain identical language and/or common scene or dialogue structure from Megan McCafferty’s first two books. This extensive taking from Ms. McCafferty’s books is nothing less than an act of literary identity theft.”

Little, Brown gave Viswanathan’s novel a first printing of 100,000, the publisher said. According to Crown, McCafferty’s books have more than 400,000 copies in print. Her third novel, “Charmed Thirds,” was released two weeks ago.

“This has been an enormous distraction for Megan,” Ross said. “It’s been a very, very difficult and devastating couple of weeks for her.”