Wednesday, April 26, 2006

What was Little, Brown thinking when they gave a high school kid $500,000 for an unfinished novel?

Ah, everything seemed so much more cute and innocent back on April 6 when the NYT ran Dinitia Smith’s feature, “A 'How to Get Into College by Really, Really Trying' Novel.” Since then, of course, Harvard freshman Kaavya Viswanathan's "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life” has blown up in everyone’s face over plagiarism charges. But three weeks ago, the NYT was in full superachiever mode.
Her parents were not immune to the competitive pressure, however. Because they had never applied to an American educational institution, they hired Katherine Cohen, founder of IvyWise, a private counseling service, and author of "Rock Hard Apps: How to Write the Killer College Application." At the time IvyWise charged $10,000 to $20,000 for two years of college preparation services, spread over a student's junior and senior years.

But they did have limits. "I don't think she did our platinum package, which is now over $30,000," Ms. Cohen said of Ms. Viswanathan.

Ms. Cohen helped open doors other than Harvard's. After reading some of Ms. Viswanathan's writing (she had completed a several-hundred-page novel about Irish history while in high school, naturally), Ms. Cohen put her in touch with the William Morris Agency, which represents Ms. Cohen. Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, who is now Ms. Viswanathan's agent, sold the novel that eventually became "Opal" to Little, Brown on the basis of four chapters and an outline as part of a two-book deal.

Ms. Viswanathan, who said she planned to become an investment banker after college, finished writing "Opal" during her freshman year, in Lamont Library at Harvard, while taking a full course load.
You’ve got to ask, what were they thinking? The girl’s parents. The NYT and their wide-eyed hype and lack of restraining skepticism. But especially Little, Brown for forking over $500,000 to a high school student with four sample chapters and an outline.

What’s striking about the pattern of Viswanathan's “unconscious borrowings” is that they’re so like the plagiarism in a term paper written by an overstressed and underscrupulous high school student -- minor changes in word order or a single word that in no way disguise the theft.

But what do you expect when you contract with a teen-aged novice writer to complete a novel while taking a full course schedule at Harvard?

UPDATE:Blowin’ in the Wind has a whole other angle to this -- the role of a "book packager" -- with links. Looks as if the book may have been a team effort.

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