To Plagiarize or Not to Plagiarize

I don’t know how much coverage this story has been getting outside the Boston area, but a big story in the Boston Globe lately has been the rise-and-fall saga of 17-year-old novelist and Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan. Viswanathan’s novel, “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life,” was published to great fanfare, then challenged by another author and publisher as being uncomfortably similar to a Megan McCafferty novel called “Sloppy Firsts.” “Opal Mehta” was withdrawn from retail stores—something like 50,000 hardcover copies!—with the promise of a revised edition. But with new revelations that some passages are uncomfortably similar to passages in Meg Cabot’s “The Princess Diaries,” the book has now been cancelled altogether. You can read a fuller summary on (you’ll need to register to view it).

It is, of course, impossible to know whether this young author knowingly plagiarized passages from other books, or simply unconsciously and unwittingly imitated works she had read and loved (which she insisted was the case). I felt considerable sympathy for her, at least before the later revelations emerged. All writers absorb thoughts and words and images from books and stories they read, and all that goes into the cerebral, intuitive percolator along with experiences from life. A young writer with relatively little life experience is naturally going to draw more on what she’s read (and seen on TV), relative to experience, than she will ten or twenty years later when she has more real life to draw from. As my friend, writer Rich Bowker said, “When I was that age, whatever I wrote pretty much sounded like the last book I’d read.” And I think that’s pretty universal.

On the other hand, plagiarism has become a common disease in today’s world. Students plagiarize. The CEO of Raytheon borrowed heavily from others, without giving credit, in a booklet of management advice—and now he’s not going to get his next raise. (Shed a few tears, people!)

This Harvard student was under pressure to produce a book to fulfill a half-million dollar, 2-book contract with Little, Brown (that’s right—half a mil to a first-time novelist for an unwritten book—why don’t I get those kinds of contracts?), and she was working with a big book packager, Alloy Entertainment, which “helped shaped her book” and incidentally shared in the copyright. So the situation was ripe for corruption. Why would a publisher offer that kind of money for an unwritten first novel to begin with? Was it because she’s young, beautiful (the Globe has printed her picture repeatedly), and smart? Was it because the book packager was a reliable creator of commercial successes? Damned if I know.

But as I think about this case, and all the other recent cases of award-winning writers who have fallen in disgrace when it turned out they lied or faked research or, yes, plagiarized—and when I think about the distressing number of cases of scientists who have falsified their research—I want to stand up and holler to the world: DON’T LIE AND CHEAT, YOU MORONS, BECAUSE YOU’RE GOING TO GET CAUGHT!

And then, after a while, I calm down again and fume about politicians instead. Them, we expect to lie and cheat.

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