Monday, May 01, 2006

The Plagiarism Merry-Go-Round

I've kept out of the Kaava Viswanathan muddle mostly because I didn't have anything in particular to say. I mean, yes, she does seem to have used phrases and sentences from another writer's work, and that is Bad, m'kay?, but all of the specifics I've seen looked deeply, intensely generic -- and not copied word-for-word, either. So I've been crouching down, thinking "it doesn't seem all that bad to me, so I must be missing something. I'd better shut up, so I don't look like an idiot."

But I've just seen that Malcolm Gladwell had a similar reaction to mine, but -- and this is key -- he is a professional, thoughtful writer, and so can put that reaction into carefully chosen words that add up to a meaningful argument. So everyone go read that: I think he's right, but nobody important in publishing will agree with him. (He also takes a back-handed swipe at "genre fiction" along the way, but I'm so used to those by now, I can always duck in time.)

Viswanathan used stock characters, stock phrases, and stock ideas. Unfortunately, she got almost all of her stock from Megan McCafferty, so the borrowings were very evident. If she had read, and borrowed, more widely -- as better writers do, and particularly as older, more experienced writers learn to do -- there would have been no uproar. My guess is that she read the McCafferty books, and that they resonated so strongly with her that she wanted to do her own version -- and that it came out too much "version" and not quite enough "her own."

I guess it's possible that Viswanathan sat down with Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings and used them as her templates for How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, but, from the evidence, it looks much more likely that these books moved into her head when she read them, rearranged the furniture there, and strongly influenced her writing of a similar book. That's not good, but it's not nearly as bad as some people make it sound.

And as I was just poking around on this subject, I found another defense of Viswanathan, along similar lines, that also raises the issue that increased sensitivity to "plagiarism" may be part of the general tendency to have more and more intellectual property owned by individual persons, and less of it available to anyone. There's some meat there, though I think that writer is overstating the case for rhetorical reasons.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There was an article in The New York Times that she may have borrowed from another writer too, but the borrowing seemed so vague, I'm doubtful.

For example, she is supposed to have written that the male hero had eyes "so dark they were almost black." Nearly word for word from the other book cited. Well, yeah, but how many ways can you write such a color? I've read that description before. And the hero had a scar on his hand like in the other book. Okay...hands get scarred. I have one on my hand (cat scratch)and my husband has one (burn). That doesn't seem unique enough to be plagerism.

Maybe she did, maybe she didn't, but they've sure got her under a microscope now.

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