How Opal Mehta Got Pulled from Bookstores

By Neal Comment

Motoko Rich and Dinitia Smith share the byline on the NYT announcement of Little, Brown’s decision to recall How Opal Mehta… Got a Life, the Kaavya Viswanathan novel that contained numerous turns of phrase that mirrored the writings of Megan McCafferty. A Thursday afternoon statement from Little, Brown publishers calls upon retailers “to stop selling copies of the book and to return unsold inventory to the publisher for full credit.” It was the first statement from Viswanathan’s publisher in over a day, presumably since both sides had lawyered up. A few hours later, McCafferty announced that she wouldn’t be seeking restitution, which may indicate that the pullout isn’t a prelude to a “corrected” edition coming out in a few months but a complete obliteration of the book. How ironic, then, that it should occur just as Janet Maslin got around to reviewing Opal Mehta: “a blender-made mishmash of every teenage movie hit from Mean Girls to Legally Blonde.” (Quite the range you’re working there, Janet!)

In line with everything Sarah and I have been curious about all week, here’s an interesting tidbit from the report:

“Ms. Viswanathan’s parents sent her to a private college counselor, Katherine Cohen of IvyWise, who is also the author of a book on writing college applications. Ms. Cohen showed some of Ms. Viswanathan’s writing to Suzanne Gluck, her agent at the William Morris Agency. Ms. Viswanathan said that she had written a piece in the vein of The Lovely Bones…but that Ms. Gluck thought that it was too dark…No one at Alloy suggested she read Ms. McCafferty or any other author’s work, Ms. Viswanathan said.

The summer after graduating from high school, she wrote four chapters and a synopsis of what became Opal, and sent them in an e-mailed message to Alloy. After some minor editing, Alloy said it would get back to her. In October of her freshman year at Harvard, she received a call from Ms. [Jennifer Rudolph] Walsh, also an agent at William Morris, who told her she was going to start shopping the manuscript around.”

Now, the connections between Alloy and William Morris (and Walsh in particular) are extensive—see, for example, the deal Walsh made for Sara Shephard’s Pretty Little Liars at Harper, Sarah Miller’s Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn at St. Martin’s, or Zoey Dean’s A-List series for the children’s wing of Little, Brown—and, come to think of it, did they ever see the Opal Mehta manuscript? (We hear they did!) Anyway, how Kaavya got shuffled from Gluck to Walsh and ended up with Alloy is just one facet of the story we’ll look forward to seeing the Harvard press uncover, since (as others have noted) they’ve been doing such a bang-up job all week long. They’ve already started by looking into Cohen’s role in Viswanathan’s rise.