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April 28, 2006

Geesh, What Ya Gotta Do to Get into Harvard These Days.

By Sarah

Who knew?

Who knew that you could hire an "Ivy League" consultant for $10,000 to $20,000, who had her own agent at William Morris, who could read your daughter's college application essay and get her a $500,000 book deal based on that alone? Because the idea will come from the book packager, and maybe so will the plot and the characters and the cover and the copy editing. It's the "author" they've got to find, and she better be pretty and marketable. I can hear the conversation now - "She's attending Harvard. She's adorable. And Indian!"

Well, now I know. And as a writer, as a mother of a teenage girl, and as a former teenager who was once rejected by Harvard because - as the Harvard admissions geek told me - my high school was "really lousy," I'm disgusted. I tried to be amused. Then the angels took my red shoes. Whoops! Speaking of plagiarism.

But mostly I'm very disappointed in the more cynical members of the publishing industry who are treating teenage girls like junkies, feeding them a destructive anti-feminist fix of sex and meanness and designer name dropping. And the cost is nothing short of our daughters' brains. Maybe, one wonders, their very souls.

In case you haven't heard the story of Kaavya Viswanathan, you can click on her name and read it in detail in the New York Times. In short, Kaavya was an ambitious New Jersey student bent on getting into Harvard. After she strikes a deal with a book packager (Alloy Entertainment, creators of such fine series as the A List and the Gossip Girls), she gets a deal with Little Brown, which pays her a rumored $500,000. Somewhere along the way she gets into Harvard, too. Happy times at the Viswanathan house.

The problem is that Kaavya's a kid. She might even be a devious kid. Or not. The thing is, she's a freshman at Harvard and she hasn't written the book yet. And she doesn't know what the hell she's doing even though she's just been paid this obscene sum of money. So she turns to her inspiration, for lack of a better word, the chicklit books of Megan McCafferty, a Cosmopolitan editor with a heck of a lot of experience. According to McCafferty's people, Kaavya ripped off no fewer than forty scenes from McCafferty in writing her own book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. First print run - 100,000.


For her part, Kaavya claims to have a photographic memory and she just "internalized" McCafferty's passages. Well, that's the thing about being a teenager, isn't it? I went through a Hemingway period in college and suddenly my stuff was bad SUN ALSO RISES. Then I read David Mamet's plays and my dialogue was bad Mamet. That's Mamet. David Mamet. Mamet? Yeah, Dave. That's it, Dave. Mamet. But I didn't have a $500,000 book contract, either. I had a Tandy computer that came with a delete button. Thank GOD!

Apparently, Kaavya's excuse wasn't good enough. Little Brown announced last night it was pulling every book off the shelves and requesting that previously sold copies be returned. We'll see how that plays out on Ebay. In the meantime, part of me feels sorry for her. Charlie thinks I'm an idiot. But maybe it's the mother in me. I see a kid who was pushed too hard, too young. In my heart, she's a metaphor for a lot of privileged kids in that situation. Too much pressure.

And this is why I blame certain members of the industry, whether they're from Alloy Entertainment or William Morris. Everyone wants to find the prodigy. The brilliant, gifted child with instant talent. It's not good enough to be a workhorse, trudging out to pasture day after day, getting the field just right. You've got to be a Man O' War. You've got to be a genetic freak.

This my bottom line opinion of the case: I think first and foremost about all the kids whose parents can't afford a $10,000 to $20,000 "Ivy League Consultant." I think about all the kids who can't afford to send out the 18 to 20 applications that have become standard or the trips to exotic places or the expensive private schools or the houses in prime public school districts or the tutoring and SAT prep - all of which certainly put you at the top of the list in getting into exclusive joints like Harvard.

Then I think of the struggling Young Adult authors. I meet them all the time because Vermont College runs an excellent YA program. They are so sincere. They are working so hard. And their aspirations are so modest. My friend, Patty McCormick, attended that program. Later she published CUT in a small press. It became a national sensation, the paperback rights for which were bought by Scholastic. I love her books. Her books stick with me.

Other YA books do not.

There are great contemporary authors out there for teenagers. So many more than when I was that age. I read AVALON HIGH by Meg Cabot and loved it. I'm reading Gingerbread by Rachel Cohn and my fifteen-year-old daughter, Anna, adores Louise Rennison and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Laurie Halse Anderson (SPEAK) and Betty Smith (more on her later) as well as Meg and lots of others. I'm sure you can add your own. Curtis Sittenfeld's PREP, though not technically a YA novel, was superb and spoke to Anna as well.

What good can come of this? Well, Kaavya is going to learn a lesson the finest professor at Harvard couldn't have taught. So will her classmates. I feel sorry for Megan McCafferty, kind of. On the plus side, this scandal will send her numbers rocketing. On the negative side, who wants to be in the position of blowing the whistle on a kid like this?

But what I really, really hope is that teenage girls stand up for themselves and refuse to be manipulated. I hope they find the great authors who are out there, whom they will think about and draw strength from for years to come. Like Betty Smith. Not a day goes by when I don't think about A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, about Francie and Sissy and Katie and, especially, Johnny. Smith didn't have a book packager. She had a voice. And a gripping story about ordinary people who tried their best and often failed and sometimes achieved a minute of happiness if they were lucky. She is Anna's favorite author, too. That says something about what the YA market should be publishing. We want stories about real people, not The O.C. knock offs.



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Bravo, Sarah. Excellent and perfectly said.

This child's parents ought to be charged with child abuse. What the hell is wrong with these people?

By the by, I got in to Harvard and didn't go there, even when they sweetened the deal. Now I realize it was devine turnaround for you, Sarah.

I agree that Charlie is being a bit judgmental here. But the real question is, in this day and age, how did she think she could get away with it, when one can Google text? And didn't anyone who read it before it was published notice the similarities?

Josh, for a while there I think they may have shared a common editor so, yeah, good question.
Okay, Kathy, you are too cool for school - i.e. Harvard! So why didn't you go? And how come?
BTW, I ended up at Tufts one hour after my Harvard rejection (I think they used to run a fast track between the two) and had the funniest interview with a funny admissions director who picked funny students. One of them was Rob Burnett, who lived across the hall from me at Miller, and became Letterman's producer and is now producing the Mick Jagger reality show/sitcom. It was a class full of humor thanks to that guy in admissions, who also enticed Hank Azaria. I am grateful for it.

Pushed too hard? Maybe. Or she could just be lazy.

My husband teaches high school. It doesn't matter what socioeconomic stratus his students come from; they all think of themselves as privileged. College is a right. A's are a right. Skipping school is a right, whether it's to smoke weed or show off a new car. Nothing needs to be earned, and the kids deserve everything they want - it's what they've been taught by parents and culture alike.

A term paper is an entirely different animal from a novel. It's a lot easier, for one thing. Writing a novel - finding a fresh new way to say that which has already been said - is hard, gutwrenching work. For kids who don't even want to do the research associated with a term paper, why should finding their own voice in fiction be any different?

Kaavya could be an innocent victim... or maybe not. Let's not make *too* many assumptions about her!

Geesh, Christa. Is it really that bad? I hope not.


Wonderful post. I too am suspicious of overnight success that is truly overnight without a track record.

The young lady was naive IMO, and the sad result is she probably did some talent, which could have been nurtured with the RIGHT mentoring and hard work. Now are dreams are in the toilet.

Yes, Sarah, it is that bad. I went to a 'privileged' high school twenty years ago, and it was amazing what the students got away with then. They'd walk out of class, talk back to teachers, refuse to do homework...and no one stopped them because no one wanted to fight with their rich parents - who were all of the 'it's not my kid' mentality. It got so bad that a few of teachers actually rewarded these students for doing WHAT THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO BE DOING! 'Oh, you sat and listened to me today. You don't have to do any homework. But, for the rest of you who always listen to me and do as you're told, 20 chapters by tomorrow.'

I think that's why I ended up at a local university instead of a prestigious college -I couldn't take the snobbery anymore. Of course, I probably shorted myself some...I haven't run into anyone willing to pay me $500,000 for a book I have yet to write - but I still think I made the best decision ever.

I know I've had to become better about writing ideas down as I have them, and taking notes on my reading, because I've found myself not remembering whether I came up with a funny bit, or read it somewhere.

The problem of publishers wanting only autobiographical books written by attractive writers with dramatic life stories isn't going away. Unfortunately, I don't think they will realize that part of the answer is to sell books, not authors.

The most interesting theory on what happened that I found on the net (sorry, on a different computer, so I can't track it through History), was that the copying was the work of a disgruntled ghost writer who had worked on both books.

BTW - I'm not bitter or anything... =)

Sarah, you are missing the obvious here. Anna's going to college when? In a couple of years? Do you have a clue what that costs now?? $35,000 a year in some places, higher in those New England schools just down the road from your house. She's going to need a book deal to pay those tuition bills! Get her started working on her novel right now. Maybe she has a photographic memory, too.

I'm afraid to say that Anna has one goal: To go to Oxford and have British boys fall in love with her. The Oxford part being optional.

On the other hand, there is an author, Elizabeth Kostova, who spent quite a while fashioning a new spin on the legend of 'Drakula', part of it while in college. Titled The Historian, it is a monster of a book but well worth the read and I recommend it to anyone looking for a 'can't put down'
novel. Her research is astounding, and,if you believe the legends, the premise really plausible.
I'm not sure whether to feel sorry for Kaavya or not, but as a bookseller I can tell you that many high school students wait until the last moment before running in to the store asking in panic for the Cliff Notes on ( name any classic on a HS reading list)...because they have to have it NOW!
I waded through Anna Karenina, The Scarlet Letter and most of Mark Twain without the benefit of Cliff and his notes. How can you appreciate a classic if you miss out on the nuances? All about instant gratification...which could have been the case with Kaavya.
Love "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn"...have read it so often I need a new copy. So much detail and such unforgettable characters (oh...and it has a Cliff Notes version. Sigh)
Thanks for the great post, Sarah.

Tuition for international students at Oxford is less than I thought. Under L10,000 a year. Of course, that's in pounds. http://www.brookes.ac.uk/international/finance/fees

I've been writing for 25 years and reading for a lot longer than that, and I can't say with complete certainty that I never turned a phrase that didn't sound awfully familiar to me. I often wonder why I choose certain words and combinations.---Because I'm a genius? Hahahhahaha---Or because I've read it used to good effect elsewhere? If Doris Kearns Goodwin has done it, I bet I have, too. Gulp.

great post, but one quibble:

it's not 40 scenes she ripped off. It's 40 similarites, many of which are 4-5 similar words and phrases in about 2 paragraphs

Sorry, anon. You're right. For anyone looking for a free sampling of the "similarities" - they can be found here:


It was the Harvard Crimson that broke the story, too. (Oh, what jealous preppies will do for revenge!!)

Okay, now I want to know who anon is.

As we discussed in an earlier blog, children are no longer allowed to be 'normal' or 'average'. They either must be 'gifted or talented' or have 'special needs'. The pressure is enormous, and this starts at a VERY early age (birth, or even PRE-birth, I believe). I think you are right, Sarah, that this situation is a direct result of society's expectations, and is tragic for all involved. There is no hope for the ‘average’!

Juanita - but NOW you are posed to write the musical of the century! Could Harvard have prepared you for that? I think not! (Script note: be sure to include some of these high school characters in your cast! I feel certain some of the D D songs will work in a classroom setting . . .) Just make sure you do not plagiarize anyone else’s work and Google every phrase – even the ones you have subliminally internalized! Perhaps you could hire Josh - or a Stunt Tart - as your 'creative consultant' and absolve yourself of all responsibility!

(Blogging disclaimer - I am aware that I may have just posted some blogging ‘similarities’, consisting of 4-5 similar words and phrases in about 2 paragraphs. My excuse is that I was an 'average' student.)

The Reflex - is a homework assignment to be done in the hall...

Her Name Is Rio, she don't need to understand....Her parents will get her into the best schools in the land...

It just might work, wndrgrl!
But, am I now plagarizing your idea???
This writing stuff gets more and more complicated...

I posted about this two days ago over at First Offenders, and am happy to see that Little, Brown is pulling the books. Plagiarism is serious. I think all writers go through stages where we try other styles on for size until we find our own voices. At age 17, I think it's really hard to have that maturity.

There's plenty of scoop on this subject from a variety of sources at Galleycat:


Lately the publishing biz has been anything but boring, huh? ;-)

Meg Cabot makes a good point that if you have a photographic memory or internalize other people's voices, uh, maybe novel writing isn't for you. What is?...You can see at:


Hey, with all the plagiarism scares out there, I'm not taking any chances paraphrasing.

I heard her interviewed a couple weeks ago but missed all of this. How sad.

As to the point that if you have those things maybe writing isn't for you - why do you think I am not working on a novel. It would be way too much like this and that and this and that....


Great post, Sarah, with wonderful responses and many tangents to comment on . . .

As a college teacher who now deals with large numbers of freshmen, I can definitely confirm that an attitude of privilege is becoming increasingly common. As my husband and I have frequently discussed, students (not all, but many) see themselves as fully deserving of good grades because, well, they got them in high school without working, so hey, college should be the same, right? And they're consumers, dammit, paying good money for that degree. What they don't understand is that, to the extent that they are consumers, they are buying opportunity, not outcome (the relevant model is the gym, not the mall).

And plagiarism? They don't know what the word means. It's so weird. They can actually give you a definition and know it's an Honor Code violation, but are shocked when they receive 0's on assignments because they have lifted whole paragraphs verbatim from web pages. I swear, it's the strangest thing -- I've talked to a couple of students who want to "discuss" their grades, and it's absolutely clear that they don't connect the definition of plagiarism in the University catalog (or the warnings I put on all their assignments, or the warnings the GTA's give them in class) with what they, themselves have done. The ones I've dealt with have been good students: bright, hard-working, eager to participate. So it's not laziness and it's not deceit. It's complete cluelessness on an order I can't fathom.

I'm sure there's a musical in all of this somewhere . . .

Hi Kerry,
Maybe the cluelessness about plagarism comes from the internet itself. I've talked to people who believe the information there is theirs to use however they choose, so why wouldn't a college student feel that way, most having been raised in the Time of the PC? (Especially if they have been allowed to do so in high school) We have students at the local university who get downright angry because we don't have a book in the store that they "need" for a paper and look surprised when we mention the local libraries (we have 2) or the campus library or the local Community College. Do they want to order the book? Nope. Just wanted to 'look' at it, and "I thought you guys carried everything!" Huff huff!

(There probably is a musical here...have you seen High School Musical? The CD with music from it is a best seller! How about College Capers?)

I'll be the odd person out here. I'm hesitant to make a statement that this girl is or was a victim of some sort. I think there are many parties who should be held responsible for their actions - the writer, the agent, the house, and so on. I don't think that it's correct or totally justified to imply that she is blameless or a victim. When I was in my teens, I knew right and wrong. I'd hope that a woman intelligent enough to get into a prestigious school would be able to make that differentiation as well. And apply that knowledge, no matter if a parent, friend, teacher, mentor, or whomever is guiding her down a darkened path may say.

I cannot help but wonder what happened to honoring hard work and great writing instead of the writer being from the "right" demographic with the preferred credentials.

I guess I ask for too much.

I'm not disagreeing with you, Lisa. I definitely feel the same way. That's what I meant about the workhorse, etc. It's unfair and, by the way, it's weird to assume that someone can "look" like a writer before she "is" a writer.
Boy, puts a whole knew emphasis on author photos and backstory, doesn't it?

I don't feel that she's a victim, either. I read the Harvard Crimson article and the passages are just too blatant to be accidental. Entire scenes and sections of dialogue were almost identical--only the names and a few words were changed.

If that girl was dumb enough to believe that she only had to change a few words to make it her own work, she has no business being in any college.

I also feel the publisher had a responsibility to pull the books immediately when they found out the work was plagiarized.

And kudos to Megan McCafferty for showing what a true writer is made of by not seeking monetary compensation. Now that's class!

It had to be blatant for Little Brown to have pulled all the copies. Apparently, 55,000 were in the stores already.

Joyce, the sections I saw were just about verbatim, too, save for characters' names. Even italicized words were identical. It was pretty damned blatant, and, honestly, she had to know what she was doing. It's like she copied passages for a term paper, thinking only one person would see it and not know; not realizing that readers who've read Megan McCafferty's books would eventually find her out. I'm stunned that Megan McCafferty isn't taking any legal action. That is extremely generous and big-hearted. I keep thinking back to when Janet Dailey basically copied one of Nora Roberts' books (do I have that right?), and the shit hit the fan. What a big mess, and I'm sure this young woman has learned an invaluable lesson the hard way. Let's hope so anyhow.

Was it just one love scene Janet copied? That was a very bizarre case. I mean, she had tons of experience. It was as if the grind of turning out those romance novels got to her.
I guess I'm willing to see everyone as a victim, huh?

I think it was more than one love scene, and I'm furiously Googling to get the scoop. Looks like it was "passages":


Just think, it's readers who love books who're tripping these folks up. Not legal departments at publishing houses. Somehow, that warms my heart (if that doesn't sound bizarre to say!).

I remember reading Nora's comments about it. It was a tough year for her. Oddly enough, no one's ever ripped off my golden prose. Gee, I can't imagine why. I guess if I found out they'd gotten half a million dollars for it, I might be slightly ticked.

//Now are dreams are in the toilet.//

Since this is a predominantly female blog, I will use the famous comment by Col. Sherman Potter, 4077 MASH..."HORSEPUCKEY!" I use that word instead of the one I would rather use.

Between the movie of the week, the books that will be written, the lecture circuit, interviews, then the "Ten Years Later" nonsense, the little "victim" of all this will be just fine.

Look at Monica Lewinsky...only in America could a woman become famous for what has been classed as "The Job" on this blog.

This is why the Cynic Laughs....

My goodness, all this anonymity. Of what do we fear? We're all friends here, no?

Not that I have any special information in this matter, but here's how I see it going down:
Attractive and privileged young woman wants to be a writer, writes typically dark and self-important teenager novel. Encounters savvy, connected 'admissions consultant' with an eye on the main chance, shows her the work. AC knows this book isn't worth much, but can recognize an opportunity when she sees it. Calls her agent. The pitch: "She's an attractive and privaleged young woman who can string together a decent sentence. Plus, she's one of those new ethnicities everybody is talking about."
Agent finds book packager, book packager supplies shallow plot emphasizing materialism and social success as the American female's only route to happiness. Large sum of money offer to young woman to write this book.
Young woman accepts money, attempts to write book. Discovers that, while beginnings and endings can be fun, trying to get all the stuff in inbetween them is hard work. Deadline approaches. Young woman, afraid of losing the newly found money and attention she always knew she deserved, picks up a couple of books she's sure no one has ever heard of and starts using them as guides and sources of material.
Book gets published.
All hell breaks loose.

It's one theory, anyway.

Plus, I don't think there will be any movies of the week or books. I think her life is pretty much in the dumps for a bit.

While the astute readers who comment on this blog - and bravely add their names - have convinced me that Kaavya as not as much a victim as I initially believed, I do worry about her mental stability in the light of all this. I know it would have cracked me at that age. Maybe even now.

I'd say you're pretty spot on, Daisy.

I've heard that a ghostwriter may have been involved in the book. Or is that just another theory floating around (I actually typed "bloating," but caught myself...a Freudian slip?). I'm thinking now that if a writer wants HUGE publicity, the best route is either to write a memoir that's really a novel (and make sure to plug it on Oprah), or to plagiarize from well-known books, hoping you'll get caught so your copycat novel moves up to #15 on Amazon. Although there's always the internship in the White House option, too, but La Lewinsky is such a tough act to follow. (Wow, that sounded super-cynical. How could that have happened?)

Culture of priveledge.

When I was in high school (1992), a group of students, including football players and the student body president, rented a bus and showed up to the homecoming dance drunk.

The principal did the right thing, and suspended the students, meaning the student body pres lost his post and the football players were cut from the team. All the students got a five day suspension.

The parents of the students were up in arms and many let their students spend the suspension at a cabin in Lake Tahoe.

My mom pointed out if I were one of the students, I would have spent the suspension digging ditches. Not that I was ever interested in drinking, before or after my 21st birthday.


After looking up Susan's link, I think that Janet may have the answer to Kerry's student dilemma: "I recently learned that my essentially random and non-pervasive acts of copying are attributable to a psychological problem that I never even suspected I had," Dailey said. "I have already begun treatment for the disorder and have been assured that, with treatment, this behavior can be prevented in the future." (I have plagiarized this DIRECTLY from Susan's link, but note to anyone planning to sue me - I will claim the above nameless disorder as my defense!) Perhaps Kaavya should make a mental note . . .

How can the younger generation be expected to have original ideas when they dont use their imagination? Everything is done for them. Why read books when you have video games and hours of tv? Why play make believe when all your toys do all the work for you? Why learn to get along with people and learn manners when you can be invisible on the web? Why learn a good work ethics when you can sit on your butt and collect welfare? Why learn from your mistakes when your raised to believe its everyone elses fault, not yours? Why learn good sportsmanship when they are not allowing one side to be the winners? No chasing, no cowboys and indians, no dodgeball, no cops and robbers, nothing. God knows little Johnny might come down with a horrible mental problem if he plays games that have conflict, or where he might not be the winner everytime!
Kids and young adults are being programmed to fail now days. They cant think for themselves, they cant keep jobs cause they believe they should get the money without doing the work. They dont seem to have much respect for anyone. Where does the blame lay? I think it started with Dr. Spock and it went downhill from there. So the moral of this rant is this : Turn off their TVs and pcs. Take them out and play games with them and let them lose or win. Teach them manners. Tell them you love them but what they did was wrong. Yes and even their fault. Teach them for every action they take they can expect an equal reaction. If they do something good, something good can come out of it. If they do bad, then you expect them to own up to it and accept responsiblity. Teach them truth, love and respect for others.
I know, I know, I get so serious, dont I. Sorry just a sore subject with me.
But I do thank you for allowing me to rant.
Susan Ilean Treacle Herzberg

SusanCo - you should write a book. I would buy it and force everyone I know to read it. I have printed out your rant and made it into a poster! (Oh, by the way, I plagiarized it and I admit it and take full responsibility.)

I realize this will most likely start a major riot, but for those interested, I'd like to recommend WHEN I WAS A KID, THIS WAS A FREE COUNTRY by G. Gordon Liddy. The entire book is about the way things used to be, and how they have been changed and corrupted, mostly for the worse.

Liddy was talking to a teacher, and showed the teacher an old textbook of his (math, as I recall). The teacher said "This is graduate level work." Liddy replied, "This was freshman high school for me." (This is from memory, so don't scream if it's not an exact quote.) Another favorite is yet another teacher who passed all students, as he did not feel children should have to deal with competition. Liddy's response? "Wait until they get out into the Real World."

("Mark", it sounds to me like our parents might have been related..:) My one experiment with underage drinking ended badly; having gotten home around 3am Saturday morning, my parents woke me a little after 6am. Summer in Nevada, 102 in the shade, hellaciously vicious first hangover, performing brute manual labor under the close, personal, and intense supervision of my father, my mother offering her sage advice along the way. It was not pretty, and cured me then and there. Haven't had much to do with alcohol ever since.)

And this is why the Cynic Laughs....

Really, Laughing Cynic? How about prison? Is that not how G. Gordon remembers it? Or maybe it was invading the privacy of others. Back in "the day" you got caught for that, man, and condemned to a 20-year prison sentence. Now, heck, it's the president's prerogative. Thanks, in part, to G. Gordon Liddy paving the way, desensitizing the public.
Yeah. Don't talk to me about G. Gordon Liddy griping about corruption. Maybe you need to drink more.

That's a joke, right? I mean, citing G. Gordon Liddy as a reference in a discussion about the truth would be like asking the late Ted Bundy to teach a seminar on dating etiquette.

Well, I knew that would start a riot..:) I never said I supported Liddy's politics; I don't. I never said I believed every word he said; I do not. Nor did I say I approved of the things he has done in his life. I was talking about how things have changed overall in this country, and how it's not always a good thing. It was supposed to dovetail with the above discussions about those who feel they are "priveleged" and everyone owes them something.

And I don't drink. At all...:)

"It's not because of fate, it's because of Tequila" That may be the best thing I have ever read in my whole life!

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