Let me get this straight. Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarizes a series of passages from Megan McCafferty's teen novels "Sloppy Seconds" and "Second Helpings" for her debut novel: "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life." After the story breaks, McCafferty's publisher starts huffing and puffing and threatening legal action, Viswanathan apologizes and goes on the Today show, her publisher Little Brown (which is incidentally my publisher too) withdraws her book from the market, Harvard launches an "investigation" and Viswanathan gets pummeled by a hundred angry columnists, pundits and bloggers.
Can someone tell me why? This is teen-literature. It's genre fiction. These are novels based on novels based on novels, in which every convention of character and plot has been trotted out a thousand times before. If I wrote a detective story, set in 1930's Los Angeles, about a cynical, hard-bitten private eye, with a drop dead gorgeous secretary and a series of lonely housewife clients, would anyone bat an eye? Of course not. It may be a stolen premise. But we accept that within the category of genre fiction a certain amount of borrowing of themes and plots and ideas is acceptable—even laudable. I buy lots of spy novels, not because they diverge from the spy novel model, but because they conform to it. I want my spy to have a troubled home life, and an inpenetrable gaze and to be handy with a revolver. But once we have conceded that in genre fiction its okay to borrow themes, why do we get so upset when genre novelists borrow something a good deal less substantial—namely phrases and sentences? Surely an idea is more consequential than a sentence.
I wrote about some of these issue in my New Yorker piece on plagiarism a year and a half ago. gladwell.com/2004/2004_11_25_a_borrowed.html. I was plagiarized, and, after thinking about it, decided that I wasn't particularly upset.
Here's the relevant passage:
. . . this is the second problem with plagiarism. It is not merely extremist. It has also become disconnected from the broader question of what does and does not inhibit creativity. We accept the right of one writer to engage in a full-scale knockoff of another—think how many serial-killer novels have been cloned from "The Silence of the Lambs." Yet, when Kathy Acker incorporated parts of a Harold Robbins sex scene verbatim in a satiric novel, she was denounced as a plagiarist (and threatened with a lawsuit). When I worked at a newspaper, we were routinely dispatched to "match" a story from the Times: to do a new version of someone else's idea. But had we "matched" any of the Times' words—even the most banal of phrases—it could have been a firing offense. The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of small differences: because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence.
When Doris Kearns Goodwin borrowed, without attribution, from a history of the Kennedys for her history of the Kennedys, that's serious. She's a scholar. And we have an expection of scholarship that it is supposed to reflect original thought. We have no such expection for genre novels, Harlequin romances, slasher films, pornos, or, say, the diaries of teenagers.
It is worth reading, I think, the actual passages that Viswanathan is supposed to have taken from McCafferty. Let's just say this isn't the first twenty lines of Paradise Lost. My question is whether it is possible to write a teen-lit novel without these sentences:
From page 7 of McCafferty’s first novel: “Bridget is my age and lives across the street. For the first twelve years of my life, these qualifications were all I needed in a best friend. But that was before Bridget’s braces came off and her boyfriend Burke got on, before Hope and I met in our seventh-grade honors classes.
From page 14 of Viswanathan’s novel: “Priscilla was my age and lived two blocks away. For the first fifteen years of my life, those were the only qualifications I needed in a best friend. We had first bonded over our mutual fascination with the abacus in a playgroup for gifted kids. But that was before freshman year, when Priscilla’s glasses came off, and the first in a long string of boyfriends got on.”
Calling this plagiarism is the equivalent of crying "copy" in a crowded Kinkos.