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I've been trying to find out the real cause for concern; so far no luck. It's a bit dismissive on my part, but I blame the media for having nothing better (or more interesting?) to report on.

This otherwise nameless Harvard student is as equally uninteresting and irrelevant to me as the name Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes gave their daughter, yet somehow both are still in the news.


People love controversies, regardless of how mundane the actual issue is. Still, I wonder why the author or the supposed ghostwriting outfit did not bother to just simply rephrase the alleged plagiarism. With all the hype from the book's marketing, they should have expected that people will scrutinize the book, and throw a fit when something is amiss.

Pablo Garcia

Great New Yorker Article. Plaigarism is getting way out of hand. everything, if you get down to it, is plaigarized. you could say that the lord of the rings was plaigirized from the bible, with aragorn being the chosen one. same with music, there is only so many patters of chords and keys that will sound, catchy to the mass audience, and those are the ones that artist who want to make money, are gonna copy. No one is going to make something absolutely new if its gonna be garbage.

charlene prince

I agree but only to an extent. At some point a line does need to be drawn, don't you think?


Your remarks are well taken. The 500k book deal, which must only be very canny marketing, has been taken by most to signal the arrival of a fresh voice in the dully uniform chick-lit genre. The plagiarism has only served as explicit evidence of banality, which is more dissapointing for an audience eager to hail the next big thing. I don't think anyone would have cared if she happened to be an anonmyous ghostwriter for the Nancy Drew series,outed for similar theft or liberal borrowing.


Mr. Gladwell, in general I hold your opinions in the highest esteem, but on this matter I must respectfully disagree. Frankly, I was hoping your take on the issue would address Ms. Viswanathan's defense (which was not an apology, as you called it, because it was not an admission of guilt) that it was "unintentional" and that she had "internalized" the words of McCafferty, perhaps due to her "photographic memory". I have no doubt that you have an erudite opinion on the plausibility of that, given your interest in memory research. But your defense of her actions, or more specifically the act of plagiarism in "genre" literature, rings quite hollow to me.

While anybody can write a story about a haunted hotel, I must assume that you would agree with me that nobody should be able to take the text of Stephen King's "The Shining", retitle it "The Shinning", and be able to sell it on Amazon as their own. So what if somebody took the first half of "The Shining" but wrote a whole new second half? Should they be able to profit from that? Again, I gotta assume you'd say no - even though it's "genre" literature - because nobody else should profit from Mr. King's work, or even a large chunk of it .

So your position must be that it's okay in this particular instance because it's only 40 or so similar passages. Well at that point, as somebody noted above, it's a brightline argument, and while I acknowledge that the minimum standards for plagiarism, especially punishable plagiarism, are hard to define definitively, given the evidence we have been presented it is clear to me that this a case where an author crossed the line and should be punished for it.

I don't think your it's okay becayse it's "genre" literature defense holds up. Take my Shining example above and apply it to "Gravity's Rainbow". Is it really so much more egregious? Apply it to "Bridget Jones Diary". Does it really matter less? I don't think so. The original author's ambitions shouldn't be a determining factor in the plagiarist's guilt. You may not be zeoulously protective of your work, but don't every other author have the right to be?

Alright, I'm making plenty of assumptions on your part, but I think they're safe for the most part. For example, I think it's safe to say that you know that it is entirely possible to write a teen-lit novel without those sentences. Ms. Viswanathan had a near-infinite number of options for conveying the same information in a completely different way than Ms. McCafferty. But she didn't. And given all the amazing opportunities she received, it boggles my mind why she would risk it all by not taking any of those other options. It is that mystery that fuels my interest in all this, but hell, I'll be honest, the schadenfreude factors in just a wee bit.


Like ChiefK, in general I hold your opinions in the highest esteem, but on this matter I must respectfully disagree (yes, I did plagiarize that line).

When it comes to matters of integrity or artistic merit, I agree that there is a murky line between what is excessive copying and what is not. However, in a legal context it is necessary to have clear delineations. Generally, in copyright law ideas are not protected and can be freely copied. The expression of those ideas, however, cannot be copied.

It is understandable that a single standard should apply to all writing whether it is teen lit or Paradise Lost. There is no objective way to determine which qualifies as an expression so unique that it should not be copied, versus art that is cliche and therefore merits no protection.

Whereas it is acceptable to copy the idea of being friends with the neighbor just because she lives nearby, is is probably not acceptable to copy the phrase "her boyfriends got on." That expression is not an essential characterisitic of all teen lit and probably was the unique creation of Ms. McCafferty.


According to this bloggingheads.tv (http://bloggingheads.tv/?id=83), there is a lot of speculation that Kaavya Viswanathan's book was ghost written by a committee, which is much larger literary crime than a few lifted passages.

"Sloppy Firsts" is the title of the MM novel, btw.


Zai summed things up perfectly. This was not merely a case of borrowing ideas in a well tread genre, but of making slight alterations to someone else's work in the hopes of making it appear to be her own. Were she just trafficking in tired plot points she wouldn't have needed to bother with the whole line about unintentional internilization and her 'photographic memory'. By the standards you've set, such assets wouldn't have been necessary on her part.

To your point regarding whether anyone would have noticed had she been working on the Nancy Drew series, you're absolutely correct. But pointing out that in some other context her behavior would not have been noticed is not an excuse for that behavior.


sorry. should have said that ChiefK summed things up perfectly. no offense to zai, who summed things up adequately.


I think to see the big deal you need to follow the connection to another article of yours, Malcom--about Harvard. Being at Harvard vividly suggests the spoils of the deed of plagiarism, which I think we detest not because we are fussbudgets about a point of procedure, but because to plagiarize is to steal glory that doesn't belong to you and in a sense belongs to somebody else. In this case it looks like that glory is Harvard, which makes this act of plagiarism look like a particularly big haul, regardless of the number of words or the exact operation involved.


Watch this Google Current episode (2 mins long) to see Google’s take on the issue, and how Viswanathan copied paragraphs and only changed some words to fit her novel:


Hope this helps to show that this isn't a case of reusing a theme, but rather a writer being lazy or unoriginal enough to resort to copying.


I too hold your opinions in the highest regard. However, I have never read anything of yours that I agree with less. I too must respectfully disagree. To dismiss what Ms. Viswanathan did as being almost unavoidable in the genre of teen-lit is unfair to everyone who can be inspired without cutting and pasting.

It is unfortunate how this will affect her future. She is only 19, and is being eviscerated by critics, fellow students, etc., for a crime that people commit- knowingly or unknowingly- ALL the time. She is not unique in her literary transgressions, she simply got caught by some peers who were ready and willing ( I wonder why?) to expose her and ruin her career. The Harvard Crimson article reflects the rather jade hue of the Harvard “community”. While engineering her fall in no way advances the careers or the lives of the brave journalists of the Crimson, it destroyed Kaavya for good. She will probably never publish again, and the merit of the book minus the 40 passages might never be recognized (if it exists at all).

However, what she did was wrong, Malcolm. In her clamber for success, she took someone else's work, tried to pass it off as her own, and profited from it. It is not fair.

What annoys me about what she did is this: she wanted to be a successful writer, so she went through all the most uncreative routes available to become a writer, wrote the most formulaic teen novel possible, and didn't even have the decency or originality to come up with her own paragraph structure. Yet she was rewarded by getting into Harvard (but we must not forget to help her admissions consultant for that too), with a HUGE book deal (for a genre of literature that is considered to be of the lowest quality), a movie deal, and tons of recognition etc. No one likes to hear about someone who’s success is so disproportionate to their efforts or talent, and is so undeserved.

Still, in the end, I agree that this shouldn’t have been the huge scandal it has been. Whether or not what she did is a big deal, or a rare occurrence, is not what bothers me about the whole thing. What bothers me is that it feels so similar to the Martha Stewart scandal: yes she was wrong, yes it sucks, but why did everyone feel the need to single her out from the crowd of corporate criminals and humiliate and destroy her? Perhaps because she was a successful woman, and was being crucified for all ambitious women in America to see. For some reason, perhaps the same reason why so many double standards exist for women, miss-prefect’s transgressions are more horrible, more despicable, and therefore more punishable. They were happy to take her down, and that is what is scary.

Norman David Gerre

You might be interested in this defense of Viswanathan at Language Log: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003068.html

Jeremy S

Of course there is a line. But when does the line go from inspiration to appropriation? I think what Viswanathan has done is fine, although she perhaps should have used her own words rather than writing with the same words and sentences as McCafferty's. My Mom always told me copying was the best form of flattery, and shouldn't we be appropriately flattered in an instance of plagarism? Yes. We should. Although the question is asked, if the flatterer stands to make a profit from the original work of the flatteree should credit and profit not be due to those who created the work in question? In writing, more than art, the case is more blak and white (excuse the pun). I had my own work "borrowed" just a few weeks ago, without permission and was instantly not sure how to feel. One of my t-shirt designs was appropriated, into a (very gawdy looking) copy by a foreign entity.
It was obvious that it was my design (see the original here: http://www.peoplelikeuscollective.com/tshirt.php?id=5
and the copy here: http://youreyeslie.com/M3.htm)
After a few hours of deliberation abotu how I was supposed to feel and what, if any, course of action was to be taken, I decided that it was harmless enough - for the moment - for me to be flattered and use it as publicity for my works. If it looks like the flatterer stands to make a profit from the design however, I might just cease being flattered and start feeling violated. I think what I'm trying to get at here is context. While I tend to disagree with Malcom's final line, he has it spot on when talking about context.
We must view these things in context, even when the media blows it way out.


I have to take issue with the dismissive comments about fiction written for teenagers. I have read neither McCafferty’s nor Viswanathan’s novels, so I am not making any specific comment about the relative merits of the books in question. What I do object to is statements like these:

“This is teen-literature. It's genre fiction.”

This is a remarkably uninformed comment. Teen, or Young Adult fiction is a very broad field, encompassing many genres—horror, science fiction, historical fiction, realism, crime, fantasy… Some YA fiction is highly literary, some is schlock, much falls somewhere in between. A bit like fiction for adults, really.

“My question is whether it is possible to write a teen-lit novel without these sentences.”

Well, yeah, of course it is. Read any YA fiction lately?

I also think it’s entirely disingenuous to quote two such clearly similar passages in defense of the plagiarist. But I get it—it’s coming from a place of dismissive (and, again, uninformed) contempt for YA fiction.

Having said all that, I have to say that I feel desperately sad for Viswanathan. So young to be so ruined, whatever her culpability.


I'm torn on this issue. Yes, what the young lady did was wrong, in the same sense that eating grapes in a grocery store before you reach the check out line is wrong. But, although that is technically stealing, is it really wrong?

Whether or not one writer of forgettable fiction regurgitated 4 or 40 lines of another writer's forgettable fiction, it really doesn't matter.

How silly is it that some people are getting very upset at this? Just as silly as if a grocery store manager chased you down the aisle screaming at you to stop STEALING the half dozen grapes you ate before you bought them.

Real plagirism is a serious issue. This isn't. Just as breaking in a grocery store after closing and stealing the payroll is a serious crime, but eating a few grapes is not.


"I feel desperately sad for Viswanathan. So young to be so ruined, whatever her culpability."

Judith, I get the feeling that not many people thing a $500,000 is the definition of "ruining" someone. Whatever the controversy, and however slight her crime, it was at her own doing. She's the only one culpable for any ruination or her life and/or future careers.


[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.
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.]

Seems like a clear-cut instance of plagiarism to me. The "qualifications" line is a clever phrasing that is not the sort of thing that will occur naturally to other writers in the same genre. If Viswanathan had written in more general terms about Priscilla's having been her friend merely because of her closeness in age and location, I'd give her the benefit of the doubt and chalk up the similarity to the type of fiction involved. But use of the clever and distinctive "qualifications" phrase, well, that's hard to attribute to anything *except* plagiarism.


As a librarian, I've taught high school and college students how to avoid plagiarism and emphasized the importance of *not stealing* from others. I could never take the position that plagiarism doesn't matter. Of course it matters. Also, I'm fond of young adult novels, but this work sounds as though it was in the schlocky "Gossip Girls" tradition. Even schlock should be free from plagiarism.


I really enjoyed the New Yorker article--the Malcolm Gladwell standard. I have the same feelings: intellectual property is important, but should we allow breaches of the code destroy someone's career?


It's plagiarism, but that's ok, because it's genre fiction? Is that your argument?

If so, please explain further....how does 'genre' fiction borrow themes any more than 'literary' fiction? You can start with the Pulitzer-Prize winners 'A Thousand Acres' by Jane Smiley and 'March' by Brooks.


You seem to be searching for a distinction between copying the general concept or plotlines of a book (a spy novel where the hero has a troubled home life...) vs. copying exact sentences.

It seems to me like the magnitude of the plagiarizing offense is proportional either to the level of detail at which the offense occurred, or, somewhat equivalently, to the number of alternative possible expressions which were forsaken in order to copy.

For example, if we are to draw an equivalence between copying sentences and copying plotlines, why not go one step further and say that since one person wrote a book, shouldn't the second person to write a book have been accused of plagiarizing this form of expression - but this is absurd.

The same principle holds in all areas of life. We would (potentially) get irritated if someone started wearing the same shirt, pants and shoes as we did because they liked our style, but we would never get upset at somebody because we always wear shoes, and they always wear shoes too. After all, everybody wears shoes.

Because it is a higher level of abstraction, the number of possible interesting storylines is far more limited than the number of possible sentence constructions. If we were to only permit new works which don't re-use plotlines and ideas from earlier works, we wouldn't have any new works. Such a restriction is entirely unpractical.

There are pretty much an infinite variety of sentences, however, so it is not unreasonable to ask that authors at least contruct their own original sentences.

Another distinciton is that it is much easier to match words and sentences than it is to match ideas and plotlines. So restrictions on plagiarizing sentences and paragraphs are more practical, because they are much more enforceable.


When someone buys a book (or any creative endeavor, for that matter), isn't there a reasonable expectation that they are paying for the creative work of the author/musician/etc? You can't copyright an idea for a book, but you can copyright the specific words used to convey the story you tell. There are different levels of creativity, and hence different values applied to the resulting work, but should the quality of the original really have a bearing on the offense of the copy? That seems like an elitist slippery slope that you really don't want to start sliding down, Mr. Gladwell.


I must agree with Judith--your comment "This is teen literature. It's genre fiction" rankled. Yes, there is an incredible amount of fluffy bubblegum teen fiction, but in this case the part does not represent the whole. Would you casually group Herman Melville and Danielle Steel together as writers of adult fiction?

I know it wasn't the point of your article to pan young adult fiction as a genre, but your remark still stung. Since I'm already on the soapbox I'll throw out the names of a few of my favorite YA authors, whose books are often callously sandwiched between attention-grabbing pink, sparkly bubblegum-lit tomes: Scott Westerfeld, Robin McKinley, David Levithan, Cynthia Voigt, Diana Wynne Jones, and Philip Pullman, to name a very few.

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