Blogging about the media, commenting on the cult of celebrity, and critiquing the U.S. feminist movement.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Harvard Plagiarism Scandal Exposes Modern-Day Machinations to Get Into College

It's hard to know what part of the plagiarism scandal involving 19-year-old Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan is juiciest -- but oddly enough, it probably isn't her lifting of other authors' work. First up is the fact that first-time Viswanathan landed a breathtaking $500,000 two-book contract with Little, Brown & Co. -- a publishing house unit of mega-media powerhouse Time Warner Inc. -- as a result of the work of a firm hired by her parents to help her get into college.

Viswanathan is the daughter of Indian parents, both doctors; Viswanathan, born in India, grew up in northern New Jersey. The book that got her into trouble, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, tells the story of a New Jersey girl's effort to get into Harvard to fulfill her Indian parents' lifelong wish -- the character's parents lay out a strategy for getting Opal into Harvard when she is still a toddler. How much of Opal's story is actually fiction -- as opposed to nonfiction draw directly from Viswanathan's own life -- is highly questionable, given Viswanathan's apparent inability to come up with entire storylines (nevermind sentences) of her own. Viswanathan appears to have creativity problems when dealing even with banal nonfiction: Like Opal's parents in the novel, for example, Viswanathan's father is a neurosurgeon who drives a Range Rover and her mother is a doctor who gave up medicine.

Interestingly, it turns out that long before the mainstream media began writing about Viswanathan's plagiarism scandal -- heck, even before Viswanathan wrote the novel -- major news outlets were quoting Viswanathan about ... her strategy to get into Harvard. Bloomberg's online business reporting outlet revealed last week that Viswanathan, "an English major who wants to be a banker, wasn't unknown to major publications before her book came out." Specifically, Bloomberg reporter Lisa Kassenaar found:

"As a student at Bergen County Academy in Hackensack, New Jersey, she was quoted in a Forbes magazine article on private counseling services like IvyWise. IvyWise's services can cost more than $30,000 and include guiding a child as young as 14 toward classes, awards and performances that will impress college admissions departments. Viswanathan was also featured in a 2004 essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, she speaks of sending monthly messages to the admissions officers at nine colleges, including Harvard and Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. "I think a lot of applying to college is about strategy," Viswanathan says in the piece.

The Viswanathans did indeed hire IvyWise's services to help get Kaavya into college. IvyWise connected Kaavya to a book agent and also got her representation by the William Morris Agency. The agent, meanwhile, connected Viswanathan to Alloy Entertainment, which, according to Bloomberg, "pulls together writers and ideas and shops a refined 'package' to publishers and movie houses."

Little, Brown earlier this year held a luncheon for its new authors at an Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan, one publishing insider told Bloomberg. Viswanathan arrived after interviews for summer internships that morning at Wall Street firms, he says she told him. "She said she loved writing but didn't feel she would pursue a professional writing career after college," Bloomberg reported the insider as saying.

Wow. In the convoluted process of getting into Harvard this young woman landed a $500,000 two-book contract and did not even aspire to be an author.. That tells us something about not just the modern-day college admissions process but also about the crank-'em-out cash-cow "chick-lit"publishing industry -- but that's for another blog.


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