Indian-born Kaavya Viswanathan, a Harvard sophomore, is being accused of plagiarism after news got out that her bestseller about student life will be made into a Steven Spielberg movie.
But it has also revealed that Harvard Crimson newspaper reporters and editors can’t count.
Count the words in this passage from Viswanathan’s book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got A Life: "Moneypenny was the brainy female character. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: smart or pretty." Twenty-three words.
Now count the number of words in this passage from Megan McCafferty’s 2001 novel, Sloppy Firsts: "Sabrina was the brainy Angel. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: Pretty or smart." Twenty-two words, right?
Not according to Harvard. The Crimson says: "At one point, Opal Mehta contains a 14-word passage that appears verbatim in McCafferty’s book Sloppy Firsts."
And then it quotes those two passages.
The Crimson quotes 13 passages in all where Opal Mehta has "some similarities" with Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, another McCafferty novel. But only two are almost identical.
What’s more is interesting is how the Harvard newspaper covered the story about one of its own students.
An early report said: "While the two novels (Opal Mehta and Sloppy Firsts) differ in plot, the similarities in language begin in the opening pages and continue throughout the works."
Later reports by the same reporter, David Zhou — who can’t count — don’t mention the difference in plots. One wonders why.
Not mentioning the difference gives the impression that Viswanathan plagiarised the whole novel.
I can understand McCafferty, a former editor at Cosmopolitan magazine, complaining about the similarities. Her publisher, Random House, has sent lawyer’s letters to Viswanathan’s publisher, Little, Brown.
There are no copyrights on words and phrases yet. But who knows what the outcome will be if it ever comes to court? This is certainly different from The Da Vinci Code.
Viswanathan had better be careful in her next book. It looks like the 19-year-old with a $500,000 two-book-deal can’t expect much sympathy even from her own college newspaper.