A Passage to Harvard

By Ruth Marcus
Tuesday, May 2, 2006

The most interesting -- and in a way most egregious -- thing about Harvard University sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan isn't the plagiarism. It's the packaging.

Viswanathan is the 19-year-old who got a $500,000 book contract and a DreamWorks movie deal, and has since admitted appropriating numerous passages from another writer's teen angst novels for her own, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life." This borrowing, she insists, was not deliberate; she must have unintentionally "internalized" language from author Megan McCafferty. Implausible as this explanation seems, Viswanathan delivers it with an air of such apologetic earnestness that you want to write her a letter of recommendation, maybe offer her a summer internship.

The novel, now withdrawn by its embarrassed publisher, tells the story of a stressed-out Indian American girl fixated -- along with her Range Rover-driving neurosurgeon father and obstetrician-turned-stay-at-home-mother -- on getting into Harvard. So fixated that when Phase One of the hatched-at-birth family plan, HOWGIH (How Opal Will Get Into Harvard), threatens to come undone because the Harvard admissions director deems her too serious, the family launches Phase Two: HOWGAL (How Opal Will Get a Life).

The curry-scented slapstick that follows is more product placement (Moschino miniskirt, Jimmy Choo stilettos, Habitual jeans) than literature -- though not much worse than the usual formulaic teen novel. Opal is the anti-Holden Caulfield, so welded to her parents that she complies unquestioningly with their HOWGAL checklist.

Like the character in her novel, Viswanathan is "an Indian-American girl who got good grades, from New Jersey, who wanted to go to an Ivy League school." It was only to be expected, then, that Viswanathan's, yes, Range Rover-driving neurosurgeon father and obstetrician-turned-stay-at-home-mother signed their only child up with IvyWise. This admissions counseling service will, for a fee -- the platinum package will set you back $30,000 -- "take all the raw material and help you put it together in the way that an admissions officer is going to be most impressed by," as Viswanathan explained.

It's best, of course, not to start so late. The IvyWise Kids division offers a nursery school package with a "focus . . . on creating a list of specific schools, strategizing the application process for each school, and formulating a plan and timetable for the admissions process." Little Joey, no nap time today. Get out your crayon and let's draw a spreadsheet.

It was, unsurprisingly, IvyWise founder Katherine Cohen (Brown '89; Yale PhD '97) who got Viswanathan into the book-writing business. Cohen (author, "Rock Hard Apps: How to Write a Killer College Application") wondered why Viswanathan hadn't listed her novel-in-progress on her résumé. You can almost see her application-glazed eyes lighting up: Okay, here's our pitch: "Not just another high school newspaper editor-in-chief, Indian American science nerd!"

Which is where the next round of packaging comes in. Cohen sent Viswanathan's work to her own agent, who hooked up the teenager with Alloy Entertainment, a book packager (yes, this is really a business) that specializes in churning out teen-lit like so many Moschino miniskirts. Deeming her original concept too dark, Alloy "helped Kaavya conceptualize and plot the book," according to the company president.

It's no excuse, but with all this third-party positioning, is it any wonder that a person -- especially a teenage person -- could forget (or ignore) the fact that some of the writing in her book is not actually hers? How easy it is for authenticity to be obscured in a world in which hired help packages preschool applications, in which the line between a real relationship with an adult and strategic sucking up is blurred.

"Cultivate your relationships with teachers," IvyWise advises. "Meet regularly . . . outside of the classroom for extra help so you can build a better relationship." Hello, Mr. Chips, could you write me a recommendation?

In fact, as it emerges from interviews she gave before the plagiarism scandal erupted, Viswanathan's unpackaged story was better than the processed story she -- or her helpers -- produced: the maternal grandfather in Madras who bought the 6-year-old Kaavya a copy of "Great Expectations" and made clear that his own expectation involved a doctor granddaughter. (She's thinking investment banking, actually.) The mother immersed in planning an over-the-top book party. ("They wanted to have a red carpet strewn with rose petals. And I've just woken up and I'm still in my pajamas and my mom will call, and she'll say like, 'Kaavya, would you prefer pink or white rose petals?' '')

The cutthroat environment of Viswanathan's science magnet school ("People would ask, 'Who's writing your recommendation for Yale?' And they wouldn't tell you because it gives you a competitive advantage if people don't know.") Viswanathan's own overwrought Harvard admissions story (the e-mail server on which she was supposed to get her early action notice crashed, three other classmates got in, and Viswanathan, assuming that meant she'd been rejected, "spent the whole night -- 13 straight hours -- weeping inconsolably and trying to look at life ahead.")

Life that is, in this case, more engaging, more nuanced and ultimately more disturbing than art. And Viswanathan, perhaps, has learned a lesson that the admissions industrial complex does its best to obscure: There are more things to cry about than not getting into Harvard.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company