I’ve gotten embroiled in…

I've gotten embroiled in this whole Kaavya Vishwanathan plaigarism debate. If you haven't heard about this yet, you don't read the NY Times or the Boston Globe; here's a recap:

Initial allegation

Here are some of my responses:

Honestly, I think everyone's being too hard on the kid. It's really easy to internalize words, phrases, even whole chunks of narrative and details of scene. If she's a voracious reader, and these are books she's loved and read more than once, it makes total sense that she might have unconsciously mimicked them, without realizing it.

And honestly, I can't imagine that a Harvard-bound student, who knew that with that big advance would come a lot of publicity and scrutiny, would consciously take such a risk as to deliberately plagiarize.

They're planning to revise the passages in the next edition, and provide an acknowledgement of influence to McCafferty. Seems appropriate to me.


Response from a mailing list (attribution stripped):

> I am pasting the url for this article that quotes the author about her
> literary influences, and how she never mentioned McCafferty. I don't think
> anyone is being hard on the "kid."

> http://www.harvardindependent.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ArticleID=9910


Response from me:

Firstly, she is a kid -- she's still underage, not a legal adult by many U.S. standards. So I don't think the quote marks are necesssary.

Secondly, that article is unreasonable in its analysis of her literary influences, based on various interviews where she talked about either literary fiction or children's books. I've been interviewed tons, and they always ask this question, and no more than one percent of my favorite books have I ever managed to mention -- there are just too many authors I love, and too little time/space in interviews. I can quote huge passages of Guy Gavriel Kay, but I don't think he's ever come up in an interview -- ditto Dorothy Sayers, and hundreds more. The article's analysis is nonsense.

Thirdly, the situation with the book packager is clearly complex; there's no doubt some question of the extent to which Kaavya actually wrote the novel. But plenty of people employ ghostwriters or co-writers; that's part of the industry, and well-accepted. Readers may not love the practice, but it is practiced extensively, and isn't generally considered unethical by the publishing industry.

In any case, that's not the reason people are burning her in effigy; that's a separate question from the issue of plaigarism. To whatever extent the passages did imitate Ms. Mcarthy's, they were almost certainly Kaavya's writing, not the packager's. And that's what I was addressing when I said that the imitation was likely unconscious.

My college students do this constantly -- and often, the brighter students are more likely to internalize and imitate the most vivid passages of writing, without realizing it. It's a learning process, and as you become more experienced as a writer, you learn to recognize that imitation and find your own voice. If anything, this entire debacle should be a cautionary tale for the publishing industry about the dangers of glorifying the very young writer.

2 thoughts on “I’ve gotten embroiled in…”

  1. I see your point about how the book packager could have played a part and that the author is young so hasn’t found a voice yet, but what should we use as a yardstick to decide on what constitutes plagiarism vs. what is allowed?

    As more and more material is coming out on this episode, one finds that it wasn’t a sentence or two here and there but several sentences and the plot to some extent.

    Is it enough for her to say that she internalized the other novels so deeply that she came up with the exact same sentences at times – here are some instances:

    For instance, page 67 of Second Helpings reads: …but in a truly sadomasochistic dieting gesture, they chose to buy their Diet Cokes at Cinnabon.

    And Viswanathan writes on page 46 of Opal Mehta: In a truly masochistic gesture, they had decided to buy Diet Cokes from Mrs. Fields…

    Marcus then leaned across me to open the passenger-side door. He was invading my personal space, as I had learned in Psych class, and I instinctively sank back into the seat. That just made him move in closer. I was practically one with the leather at this point, and unless I hopped into the backseat, there was nowhere else for me to go.

    ”Sloppy Firsts,” page 213

    Sean stood up and stepped toward me, ostensibly to show me the book. He was definitely invading my personal space, as I had learned in a Human Evolution class last summer, and I instinctively backed up till my legs hit the chair I had been sitting in. That just made him move in closer, until the grommets in the leather embossed the backs of my knees, and he finally tilted the book toward me.

    Seems to me that the internalizing stopped right at changing key things such ‘Human Evolution’ class instead of ‘Psych’ class. The above instances and some of the other ones make it hard to believe that she did it unintentionally.

    Don’t know what this means — I do feel bad for her because it seems like she got caught up in the pressure to achieve and perhaps took on more than she coudl handle. One of the articles talks about how her parents had hired a person who helps with trying to get into an Ivy league institution and it was thsi person who put her onto the book packager. Seems like some of the themes in her book perhaps happened to her — the pressure to get into Harvard and to stand out from her peers etc.

  2. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    It’s hard to say, I admit. And I’m not saying that I’m sure she didn’t plagiarize. I just hate to see her crucified like this in the court of public opinion; the response seems disproportionate to the offense. I mean, jeez, the NY Times! If there weren’t so much money at stake, they’d never have picked the story up.

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