HARVARD is widely regarded as one of the most famous, prestigious or best universities in the United States. Whether there is any objective truth to Harvard’s reputation is beside the point because recalcitrant fantasy is often more palatable than mere fact. And this fairy tale is potentially very lucrative.
A case in point is 17-year-old writer Kaavya Viswanathan, who received a $500,000 advance for her first novel solely on the basis, according to the advance publicity, of a manuscript of fewer than 100 pages, an outline and the fact that it was a novel about getting into Harvard. No one, at least in New York publishing, cares whether you were trying to get into Southern Utah State -- or Stanford for that matter.
The plot of Viswanathan’s “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life” is easily told. Super bright, overachieving Opal Mehta from New Jersey goes to an interview in the summer between her junior and senior years in high school and is told by the Harvard admissions officer that although she is well-qualified academically, she is not a well-rounded person. She has to go out and “get a life.”
It seems that Opal, egged on by her physician parents, has spent her whole life preparing to go to Harvard. She is president of three of her high school’s four honor societies, No. 1 in her senior class, captain of the debate team and editor of the school newspaper, and she took up welding as a hobby.
Because this is not a tragedy -- publishers don’t pay big bucks for that anymore -- the novel’s course does not surprise. Moving easily from HOWGIH (How Opal Will Get Into Harvard), she and her parents shift to HOWGAL (How Opal Will Get a Life) and make an assiduous study of American popular culture.
Remarkably, they accomplish this in less than a weekend, including studying plot summaries of every teen movie for the last five years. Their goal: to make Opal “popular,” to get her kissed and dancing on a tabletop.
This sounds as ludicrous as when Opal and her parents “hovered by the car for a few minutes” after the college interview, or that in Harvard Yard, the “flowers didn’t dare stray out of their closely tended beds.” But the publisher may well be on to something. Random House made a killing with the bestselling “Prep,” by Curtis Sittenfeld, a thinly fictionalized version of the author’s life as a student at Groton, probably America’s most prestigious prep school.
That such a novel could be a bestseller was not lost on the bean counters at Little, Brown who no doubt hope Viswanathan’s book will duplicate that success. Interestingly, the novel is copyrighted in the name of Viswanathan and Alloy Entertainment, a production company that specializes in teen market books and movies such as “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.”
In fact, “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed” is an elaborate film treatment that is about to become the inevitable movie (by DreamWorks, Variety reports), and maybe even a franchise as Opal makes her way into the world, the token plucky Indian girl with a brain and an attitude.
Young adults, indeed all readers, deserve better. The novel’s manufactured quality is disturbing; its total lack of individuality, of any genuine emotion, thought or reflection is discouraging, as is the calculated plan to advertise it in Teen People, In Style and suburban newspapers.
But a book about making the Harvard cut does seem to be a way Americans can talk about class without talking about it, while hinting at the harsh reality of winners and losers.
Winning and losing begins at a much earlier age, at least in Manhattan. Tuition for several highly selective private schools in New York City has crossed the $30,000 line. Just in time, Bloomsbury USA in late May will unleash “Academy X” by that constant and famous author, Anonymous, who tells a tale of what it is like to be a teacher at one such elite school.
We have come a long way from Evelyn Waugh’s hapless teacher in the novel “Decline and Fall,” whose strategy for dealing with crazy students is to offer a financial reward for writing the longest essay.
In “Academy X,” the teachers are bribed by the parents: “Others (teachers) gave all As, unless a student was really awful and insulted the teacher, in which case he or she was punished with an A-. These teachers were rewarded with teaching awards, endowed chairs, yearbook dedications, not to mention a whole array of end-of-the-year ‘gifts’ from grateful parents -- box seats to ball games, weekends in the Hamptons -- the list limited only by the ethical code of the teacher, which is to say that it was hardly limited at all.”
Readers, parents and kids: Beware.
Thomas McGonigle is the author of “Going to Patchogue” and “The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov.”