The Tale of a Chick-Lit Plagiarist

When accusations of plagiarism began to spread this week about a hot new
novelist — a 19-year-old Ivy Leaguer who’d pulled down a reputed $500,000 two-book contract and a DreamWorks movie
deal to boot — one of Kaavya Viswanathan’s classmates detected more than a whiff
of schadenfreude in the blogosphere.

“A Harvard student had been found in a compromising position, and less
than 24 hours later, a frisson of sadistic glee was creeping up the Internet’s
electronic backbone,” Shane Wilson, Harvard ’08, wrote in The Harvard Independent,
an alternative campus weekly. The paper lists its coverage under the heading KaavyaGate.”

Viswanathan, the
daughter of Indian doctors who live in suburban New Jersey, wrote a
book about the daughter of Indian doctors who live in
suburban New Jersey.

It’s not glee I feel about the hot water she
finds herself in, but dismay. As a teacher, I’m not interested in
piling on this teenage writer, but rather in using her experience as a
cautiounary tale for other writers, editors, teachers and publishers.

David Zhou, a reporter for The Harvard Crimson who broke the story Sunday, found more than a dozen
of passages in Viswanathan’s novel, “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got
Wild, and Got a Life
,” that that were “nearly identical” to two
earlier novels, “Sloppy Firsts” and “Second Helpings” by Megan F. McCafferty.
(McCafferty’s publisher has since upped the ante to more than 40 prose-lifts.)

“No comment,” Viswanathan initially responded. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Her tune changed the next day. “I was very surprised and upset to learn that
there are similarities between some passages in my novel … and passages in
these books.”

In her mea culpa, the wordnapping writer had added a new excuse — the
unconscious defense — to the litany of justifications plagiarists use to explain
away their purloined texts. “Any phrasing similarities between her works and
mine,” Viswanathan insisted, “were completely unintentional and
unconscious.” Her latest explanation, she confided to The New York Times: her photographic memory. “I remember by reading,” she told the Times‘ Dinitia Smith. “I never take notes.” 

“At best disingenuous and at worst literary identity theft,” a
spokesman for Random House (its Crown imprint publishes McCafferty) shot back. In a rare move, Little, Brown, Viswanathan’s publisher, has asked bookstores to pull the book from shelves and return unsold copies.

Who knows, perhaps Kaavya Viswanathan is guilty of nothing more than
confusing a novel with a term paper, minus footnotes. If it ever came to legal
action, I suppose she could claim she was suffering from “cryptomnesia” — a
condition described by Harvard psychologist Daniel L. Schacter in his book “The
Seven Sins of Memory.” He maintains there is “evidence that people can, in
good, faith, produce from memory another individual’s writing or ideas while
unknowingly misattributing these to themselves.”

It’s an interesting defense (look for it in an upcoming “Law and Order”
episode), but one undercut by research into the condition. Schacter maintains
that, while everyone is “potentially subject to cryptomnesia,” someone
suffering from the condition (a cryptomnesiac?) can catch themselves in the act
before any serious damage is done. He cites the case of a psychologist who woke
up in the middle of the night with a catchy tune in his head. When he woke up,
he tried to make a complete song. It was only when he tried to give it a title,
that “he realized it already had one — ‘The Blue Danube
Waltz.’ “

The most charitable explanation, given the Crimson’s side-by-side comparison
of the novels of Viswanathan and McCafferty, is that the young author is guilty
of performing an abysmal job of paraphrasing.

“In a bad paraphrase, you merely
substitute words, borrowing the sentence structure or the organization directly
from the source,” writing instructor Judy Hunter has advised freshmen at Iowa’s Grinnell
College. “In a good
paraphrase, you offer your reader a wholesale revision, a new way of seeing the
text you are paraphrasing. You summarize, you reconstruct, you tell your reader
about what the source has said, but you do so entirely in
your own words, your own voice, your own sentence structure, your own

That methodology and fidelity to truth must reside within any writer’s DNA,
whatever their choice of genre. Sadly, this young writer’s fate is yet another
reminder of the twin perils of plagiarism and fabrication that tarnish
contemporary literature, even as echoing or made-up passages are drowned out by
the ka-ching of bookstore cash registers.

Plagiarism is usually an act of desperation. A common defense of
journalistic plagiarists is deadline conflation of notes — what I
think of as the “sloppy housekeeping” defense. In an age when shoe-leather reporting has been
replaced by sedentary Googling, reporters easily fall into the trap of mistaking
their unoriginal and poorly organized research for their own compelling prose, as have prominent historians, dead or alive. Fiction writers are not immune to deadline pressure, either. In one
pre-publication interview, Viswanathan described the dual pressure of cramming
for freshman finals “while trying to get the last 50 pages down,” a sure-fire
recipe for shortcutting.

Opal Mehta’s creator seems to suggest that her fandom of Megan McCafferty
explains her problems because she “wasn’t aware of how much I may have
internalized Ms. McCafferty’s words.” To be sure, literary modeling has a long
history. “Numerous writers — Somerset Maugham and Joan Didion come to mind –
recall copying long passages verbatim from favorite writers, learning
with every line,” according to Stephen Koch in “The Modern Library’s
Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

Viswanathan, however, is confusing inspiration from another writer with a license to
steal their words.

But what about the complicity in this literary crime of teachers,
editors, publishers, perhaps even the book-packaging outfit that engineered the teenage
writer’s sweet book-cum-movie deal
Unconsciously or not, they too fail, in
their duty to educate student and professional writers about plagiarism
other prose pitfalls and, more important, ways to avoid them. One
memory expert Schacter says, is to “require people to pay careful
attention to
their sources,” also known as teaching. Plagiarism can be forestalled,
believe, by focusing more attention on the ways honest writers can
learn from and be influenced by other writers without stealing their

My oldest daughter, a freshman college student, says that her composition
teacher repeatedly warns her class to rigorously track, quote and cite their
sources and to be especially attuned to the perils of the paraphrase. “She’s got us all scared to death.”

Caitlin’s teacher, bless her, recognizes that transparency is perhaps the
best way to combat plagiarism. Imagine the consequences if Kaavya
Viswanathan had supplied this author’s note for her novel:

“Some of the words, phrases, even whole sentences in my book have been
borrowed from Megan F. McCafferty’s novels ‘Sloppy Firsts’ and ‘Second Helpings.’ “

Such an admission to one of her Harvard professors could, according to the
university’s policy on plagiarism, merit exile from Cambridge.
From a responsible editor, I’d expect a rejection note, perhaps with a
boilerplate lesson on plagiarism. 

I’ve got another book packaging idea for “How Opal Mehta Got
Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.” Grind it into pulp, dump it in the
trash and tell its young author to do it over. This time in her own words.

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