Rush-job plagiarism

Author Salman Rushdie isn't able to muster much in the way of sympathy for 19-year old Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan, author of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, who faces allegations of significant patches of plagiarism in her now-withdrawn first novel.

Viswanathan's publisher, Little, Brown & Co., now says it will not reissue a corrected version of Opal Mehta and has dropped plans to publish her second novel.

Passages similar to those from several previously published books have been identified, including those from Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The Indian author is calling Viswanathan "a victim of her own ambition." He told CNN-IBN News:

You know, I haven't seen the book, I've seen the passages that were compared between the two books. I must say I don't accept the idea that this could have been accidentally or innocently done. The passages are too many and the similarities are too extensive. And I'm sorry that this young girl, pushed by the needs of a publishing machine and, no doubt, by her own ambition should have fallen into this trap so early in her career. I hope she can recover from it.

Rushdie does seem to be piling on a bit here (note bene: "piling on" is not just an American football metaphor, the idea applies to rugby as well); Viswanathan has been scorched by criticism from publishers, literary critics, authors and academics since the allegations surfaced.

I have a bit more sympathy for Viswanathan; admittedly she hasn't helped herself to my words or phrases, but if she had, I hope I would display a bit more compassion. (If I were Rushdie and concerned about my literary reputation, I would be more distressed about how my high-brow prose could be transplanted into a light-weight novel like Ophal Mehta than about the mere act of piracy.)

Let's not forget that the young woman in question is 19 years old. If you look at the comparative passages in question, there is the overwhelming sense of a just-get-by rush job. In fact, some of the coverage suggested that Viswanathan faced considerable deadline pressure to get the manuscript of Ophal Mehta finished.

The mental picture I get is of a desperate college freshman at 2 AM with an overdue term paper, cobbling together an essay from three or four sources, books open on the desk, Internet sources being cut and pasted into the paper. Finally there is a frantic last-minute bungled attempt to avoid plagiarism by moving around phrases and chopping long sentences into shorter ones.

(As an aside, I've been told by college students that today's clever late-night plagiarists don't borrow from respected sources because they are too easy to spot when professors use the new plagiarism software like "Turnitin." Instead, these plagiarists lift from other student's work, or borrow from the Internet and deliberately introduce grammatical or spelling errors in the material that they steal. This didn't make a lot of sense to me until it was explained that these copyists just wanted to get a passing grade, they weren't shooting for an "A." Quality writing, it seems, might attract attention.)

Yes, Viswanathan should have known better. Yes, Little & Brown was correct in withdrawing the book. But if Viswanathan hadn't received a huge advance and if she wasn't young and photogenic and a Harvard student, and if her book had not made the New York Times bestseller list, the episode would already be forgotten by now. There certainly would be a lot less obvious pleasure displayed at her downfall, as there has been more than enough "gotcha" and schadenfreude to go around.

There's another factor at play here. Viswanathan has not, and will not, get the benefit of the doubt on this matter–as a first-time novelist she has yet to prove herself. Her explanations and excuses have sounded like those of a, well, a college sophomore facing plagiarism charges. In contrast, prominent historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose survived plagiarism scandals largely on the basis of their reputations. Viswanathan's obscurity has made her particularly vulnerable.

Many writers will tell you that they occasionally worry about mirroring the prose of another. Slate's David Plotz, in a great piece on the subject, "The Plagiarist," expanded on this fear:

Writers are uncertain about plagiarism because none of us are certain that we are innocent. I frequently imitate the style of writers I admire. I surely have recycled snappy phrases I've read. I can't tell you what they are, but I bet they're out there. I have a fear—which I suspect is shared by most writers— that somewhere, in something I wrote, I may have even stolen a sentence. I don't remember doing it. I would never do it intentionally. But could I swear that it never happened? No. This is—to steal a phrase—our anxiety of influence.

There is a world of difference, clearly, between "recycling snappy phrases" and the sort of close mimicking of passages that critics of Viswanathan point to. Nonetheless, Plotz's piece does remind us that there are only so many words in the English language and that we all are prone to retain phrases, sentences and stylistic touches somewhere in our memories. If so, some of this stuff could end up on paper.

I remain confident, however, that I could never stand accused of plagiarizing any phrase employing the word "snappy." That's a word I hope to always put in quotes (along with "perky," "chick-lit," and other such dismayingly "snappy" additions to common usage.)


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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