More on Kaavya, from my…

More on Kaavya, from my postings to SASIALIT:

[from another poster]:

> I am really more curious than anything else, what would constitute
> sufficient evidence for you. I am having difficulty understanding how so
> many passages would reside in someone memory with such clarity that the
> similarities in the transition to the page are so striking.

All I can tell you is that it happens all the time with young writers, and to make a real determination, I'd have to look at both texts in a lot more detail, and talk to the writer, and even then, it would be a judgement call in the end. It almost always is.

Perhaps part of the reason people have trouble understanding this is that they have different reading experiences. As someone who grew up reading 10-20 novels a week, some of them several times over, I know just how strange and fallible memory is. I can still quote passages from a book I read twenty years ago, while many other books have fallen by the wayside, entirely forgotten. How many passages are partially lodged in my memory by this point?

Beginning writers operate so much on instinct, they're particularly susceptible to this kind of imitation. As one grows more experienced as a writer, most writers craft their language far more consciously, and so they're far less likely to accidentally stumble into this sort of difficulty. For almost every scene in my latest book, I can tell you why I wrote them as I did, what I was consciously thinking about. That wasn't true for the stories I wrote ten years ago, and I dread to think what would happen if someone started taking those first ones apart; I'm sure they'd find all kinds of unconscious similarities to other texts. It's a problem you grow out of, if you get the opportunity. I think Kaavya probably made an honest mistake, and I'd like to see her get a second chance.

[someone else wrote]:

> Mary Anne, I'm willing to go part of the way with your argument. But how
> many bright young students get paid half a million bucks while they are
> still, as you put it, in the learning process?

Well, a lot of this can be blamed on the success of _Eragon_ (a similar young writer success story, which made its publisher gazillion bucks). Publishers are actively looking to repeat that success right now.

There are various kinds of writers, and types of books who get published. Two types of them are:

a) the solitary writer, working in isolation, struggling to bring forth their unique child of a book, which may or may not have any popular appeal

b) the group effort, in which a packaging company latches onto a concept (attractive young desi character trying to get into Harvard, novel written by an actual attractive young desi trying to get into Harvard), and does whatever they can to shape it into a bestselling book

It's very clear (and has been since I first read the book, and read that she'd worked with a packager) that Kaavya's book falls into the second category. Many books do, and the public buys them eagerly, happy to buy into the appealing or interesting story that the packager offers. Sometimes, when the public realizes just how much the book is a product that was created by many hands, they feel cheated of the 'authentic' story that they thought they were reading. But honestly, I think that's just readers being gullible, easily sold to by a savvy marketer. Publishers and publicists are constantly looking for 'stories' about authors like Kaavya -- it makes good press.

Some writers manage to get a book published through working really hard, listening to their hearts, doing the best and most honest writing they can. They're in the minority, but that's the most appealing story, that's the myth of the writer, and so it's the one that everyone loves to tell, and everyone loves to hear. It's a particularly appealing story to some if the writer is so young that we can be astonished at her brilliance. And that story gives everyone who secretly wants to be a writer, but who has never seriously worked at it, the hope that someday they too will somehow, magically, brilliantly write the novel that they have waiting within them.

I was talking this whole thing over with an editor friend recently, and he pointed out that the packager may well have provided Kaavya with a set of text, quotes, and the like, from McCarthy and/or other writers, and said something like, "You need to be funnier; try writing like this." And Kaavya, like many writers (and college students) in our experience, may have taken that too literally, and assumed that those writing samples were stuff that she was free to use. Foolish on her part, but it's not the same as malice or theft aforethought. If that's actually what happened, the packager bears some of the responsibility for not teaching her better, and not editing more carefully.

Look, I'm not objecting to people calling attention to the similarities, or feeling that some apology ought to be made to Ms. Mcarthy, and perhaps due compensation offered (which is probably most of what she and Crown actually care about, that they get a nice fat cut of the money Kaavya's book is making, which is why they want it to stay on the shelves as much as Kaavya and her publisher do). I imagine that's how this will play out, that the two publishers will make an agreement to pass along a percentage of royalties or some such. At this point, it doesn't really matter to them whether Kaavya did this consciously or not -- it's all about the money, and who can get the biggest piece of it. (If I were truly cynical, I would wonder whether the entire thing, start to finish, was a deliberately-staged ploy to dramatically boost the sales of both authors' books. But I know a lot of editors, and I don't actually think any of them would be a party to that. They love books too much, more than they love money.)

What I'm objecting to primarily is the rush to presume malice and foreknowledge on Kaavya's part, and honestly, the harsh and mocking tone of many of the comments I've seen (primarily on other boards than this one). That smacks of schadenfreude to me, and I think if people weren't so envious about the big advance, they would be far less 'outraged' by the entire incident.

What bothers me the most about the whole thing is not what Kaavya did or didn't consciously do. It's that if she had been paid $500 for the book, instead of $500,000, most of the people ranting about it clearly wouldn't care. So many of the comments have been along the lines of, "She's gotten exactly what she deserved -- we *knew* that huge advance was a big mistake. Ha ha, the publisher screwed itself!" And that's just mean-spirited and unproductive. It makes me sad, and I'm glad I'm not the young writer on the other end of those comments.

7 thoughts on “More on Kaavya, from my…”

  1. I agee with you that going after the sophomore alone does seem like a witch hunt. Her publisher should have been way more careful — given their 109 year old history. She very well may have intentionally plagiarized but it might be important to look at why she felt she HAD to do it. Not to condone it in anyway but as a lesson to other young aspiring writers. I see this in class all the time with student papers. The easy thing to do is to copy and paste and my task as their professor has become even more difficult — becuase most never attribute sources. I know there are some tools that help with finding whether an article has been plagiarized or not but we need better tools.

    The Harvard Crimson article today reported that Random House has rejected the author’s claim that this was unintentional and called her explanation ‘disingeuous'(they found 65 passages that were similar). The article also made a mention of how a student was not admitted to Harvard when they found out that s/he had plagiarized. Don’t know if the Harvard Crimson is moving towards pushing the administration to expel her. That would be sad.

  2. What bothers me the most about the whole thing is not what Kaavya did or didn’t consciously do. It’s that if she had been paid $500 for the book, instead of $500,000, most of the people ranting about it clearly wouldn’t care.


  3. Mostly I don’t care about Vishwanathan and her possible plagarism, but for some reason this is just nagging at me.

    Mary Anne, do you think your reaction here would differ at all if this was a student in your class rather than a published author? If you assign your writing students a project in which they’re supposed to, say, write a short story that deals with non-Anglo cultural themes, and someone submits something that you recognize as being heavily borrowed from one of Nalo’s published stories. How would you feel about it?

    The reason I’m asking, I guess, is I’m finding your response here (and the responses of a number of other people I know) to be baffling. If I find that a student in one of my classes has been lifting passages from some published work, I’m not going to be sympathetic and write it off as “oh, kids just do that kind of thing.” And I don’t see why I should treat Vishwanathan’s actions lightly just because it’s a published novel and not a term paper, you know?

  4. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    If I flunked every freshman at Roosevelt who did something like this, I’d be flunking a third of my class. I give them a lot of leeway, the first time around, mostly because I really do think a lot of them get honestly confused about what counts as plagiarism, how to paraphrase, etc. Lots of them have been very badly taught on the subject in high school. Generally I find that with a little guidance, they do much better on their next paper, and the problem corrects itself.

    I’ve also cheerfully flunked students who just buy papers off the internet, or otherwise blatantly plagiarize.

  5. Interesting. I find that actually surprising, that you have a really significant number of your creative writing students just straight-out lifting sentences or passages from published works. Do you do some sort of plagarism talk early in the semester? I know that nonfiction and fiction writing is different, but at Berkeley it’s very strongly suggested that we do a quick plagarism talk in each class. (In classes with TAs, the TAs do the talk in section; in classes without TAs, a lot of professors don’t bother to do the talk, but some still do.)

  6. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Oh, sorry, I meant that more for comp, which I teach a lot of. In creative writing, that doesn’t happen so much, but I also don’t teach formula fiction of the sort Kaavya was writing, so I’d be surprised if my students could easily find work by other fiction writers to plug seamlessly into their stories.

    And yes, we do a quick plagiarism talk at the start of each semester, but I don’t want to take up half an hour of the first class really going over in detail how not to plagiarize — seems unfair to use the time that way for the students who don’t need that explained. So I end up covering it in office hours, which is usually better anyway, I think, since I can point to the offending passages in their own work, and explain how I could have flunked them for it, but I’m now giving them a second chance. Put the Fear of Mary Anne into them. 🙂

  7. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    There’s also a difference in motivation between the two groups — the creative writers are really taking the class to become better writers. Whereas the comp students are taking the class because it’s a requirement on the way to graduating — it’s something to get through, for a desired reward. Which seems more directly parallel with the formula fiction situation, at least potentially, though of course, some writers do put a tremendous amount of heart and effort into formula fiction as well.

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