Novelist's Unconscious Borrowed a Few Phrases

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 25, 2006

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 24 -- That long list of excuses authors have given for writing a book that turns out to contain parts of somebody else's book just got a little longer. Add to the "Oh, I thought those were my notes" and the "I was in too much of a hurry," this one: unconscious copying.

It belongs to Harvard undergraduate and first-time novelist Kaavya Viswanathan, who yesterday was trying to explain how about 13 passages similar to those of another author ended up in her book, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life."

Viswanathan's novel was ranked 32nd on the New York Times's hardcover fiction bestseller list and reportedly has landed a movie deal with DreamWorks studio. But this week, Viswanathan's college daily, the Harvard Crimson, accused her of using passages similar to those in two coming-of-age novels by Megan McCafferty.

In a statement released by her publishing house, Little, Brown and Co., Viswanathan said she had read and loved McCafferty's books a few years ago, while she was in high school.

"While the central stories of my book and hers are completely different, I wasn't aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty's words," Viswanathan's statement read. "I am a huge fan of her work and can honestly say that any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious."

Viswanathan also apologized to McCafferty and "to any who feel they have been misled by these unintentional errors."

Viswanathan, a Harvard sophomore, said the book would be revised to eliminate any inappropriate similarities. Little, Brown and Co.'s publisher, Michael Pietsch, also promised an investigation.

The parallels between Viswanathan's book and the McCafferty novels, "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings," were first reported Sunday on the Crimson's Web site.

The echoes include similarly turned observations about Diet Cokes and tube tops, as well as a 14-word phrase that is repeated verbatim. In "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life," Viswanathan wrote about Miss Moneypenny, the secretary to James Bond's boss in 007 movies: "Moneypenny was the brainy female character. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: smart or pretty."

In McCafferty's "Sloppy Firsts," a story about an adolescent girl published in 2001, there was a similar rumination -- with a similar use of italics -- about one of TV's "Charlie's Angels."

"Sabrina was the brainy Angel. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: Pretty or smart," McCafferty wrote.

Another echo could be found in Viswanathan's description of an old neighbor of her heroine: "Priscilla was my age and lived two blocks away. For the first fifteen years of my life, those were the only qualifications I needed in a best friend."

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