« The Duke Case | Main | All right, all right, all right »



hmmm. your arguments are cool. i agree with most of them since i also believe in "the free culture" and the power of Creative Commons.

however, a more important, yet dicey, question to ask is: what was the intentionality of the authors? did they copy the work intentionally as opposed to "unconsciously remembering those passages?"

this is of course the same as in music. let's take rock and blues music for example. how many songs can you compase with a I-IV-V progression? well, if you add rhythm, and phrasing, you actually have almost an infinite number of combinations! so stop sounding like the Rolling Stones and make up your own tune for chrissakes! ;)

cool post though.




I'm stunned. This means it is ok for Joe Biden to steal all of JFK's dialogue and moan unwieldingly while unloading a defecation payload on the manicured lawns of Hearst Castle under a waning moon that was recorded on film by Steven Speilberg and then copied by Ozzie Ozborne?

Chick Lit writer

Sure, there are many novels with similar plots, but often that is more coincidence than stealing. Many a writer has written something whom he/she thought was original, only to howl in disbelief upon finding out that a movie is about to come out with a similar plot. But the point is, if you come up with it yourself, you put your own spin on it.

Common plot elements are far different from someone using someone else's words that, at times, take weeks, months and years to properly craft together.

As for why this is news, it's news because it shows that an industry that rewards youth rather than talent or hard work, an industry nearly impossible to break into, should be a little more circumspect when awarding HUGE advances to people who haven't proven themselves.

It is nearly impossible to get published, no matter what you write (have you forgotten that?) So when someone is handed an unusual $500,000, two-book deal, from an industry that wouldn't give more than $10,000 to literary (or, for that matter, lots of young adult fiction), and the person possibly didn't even do the work, it rankles. Perhaps that money can be better spent.

I'm not sure whether she did it on purpose or not, and I think people have been a bit too cruel to a girl who is only 19. The comments you can read on Amazon right now are very cruel and unfair.

But was this worth condemning and discussing in the news? Yes, it was. Most writers, and all other creative people, work too damn hard to have the world think it's ok to possibly steal others' work and make money off it.

By the way, it really hasn't been in the news as much as you think, Mr. Gladwell - you, like I, are in the writing industry so we follow it more closely. If you talk to non-literary people or non-New Yorkers, they actually only heard about it when the book was pulled from the shelves. I've had conversations w/people who didn't know anything about it.

Justin Chen

"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."

Sorry, but you've got it backwards. Ms. Viswanathan didn't borrow themes and plots and ideas; in fact, she began with the uniquely autobiographical (albeit cliche) premise of an overachieving Indian-American student hellbent on an Ivy League pedigree, then proceeded to lazily flesh out this basic skeleton with other people's prose (or anything she could bother to pull off her bookshelf). Apparently, the stress of actually writing anything of her own proved to be too much for her. An honest appraiser of this situation would have to conclude that the issue here is not "borrowing" but "theft" -- especially given Ms. Viswanathan's disingenuous assertion that the passages in question were merely a product of her "photographic memory." (Incidentally, the two passages that you cited above are so painfully similar that I think they actually do your argument quite a disservice.)

What's at stake here is NOT some inconsequential bevy of "genre novels, Harlequin romances, slasher films, pornos, or, say, the diaries of teenagers" that you so cavalierly dismiss. This incident is one more embarrassing example of the hollow pursuit of "achievement" (literary, athletic, corporate, academic... the list goes on) that plagues almost all aspects of our culture today. Kaavya Viswanathan wanted the glory (and the line on her CV) of being the youngest ____ to publish ____ and get a book contract worth ____ by the age of ____, without having to expend any actual effort in the process. Therefore her regret has nothing to do with the act of plagiarism itself, but in the ultimate humiliation of getting caught Crimson-handed (that she was ferreted out by her own college newspaper adds to the poetic justice of this saga, I think). I'm sure the good folks at Enron, Major League Baseball, James Frey/Nan A. Talese publishing, and Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk's entire stem cell cloning lab in South Korea are all with you (and her) on this one.


Do those passages constitute material that form the centrality of the book's structure? If they don't then I see no point in ripping the guts out of the tree for a few duplicate leaves, even though it was stupid of Vishwanathan to do it.

Dave Lucas

I wish I had been Kaavya's editor, and that she told me about her borrowings. I could have taught her how to re-arrange everything so NOTHING would look, or even BE, plagiarized! she "borrowed" from THREE authors, and I think that cuts her credibility! I honestly think I could have helped, but of course I'm nobody, so how could I????


Let us face it, she is a Brahmin lady. Plagiarism is in their gene. Most of the Brahmins are worth nothing, but somehow portray theselves as superior to others and claim someone's property as their own. Lord Buddha created Buddhism, to counter the caste system created by them; but they claimed he was the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu. With this simple lie, they wiped out Buddhism from India. They claimed a famous Indian dance style (given a Brahminical name of Bharatanatyam) as theirs, because some crazy Brahmin mentioned one line about the dance in one of their books. They didn't even leave people who are alive today- they claimed the famous Indian music composer A.R.Rahman was a Brahmin when he was young; never mind he was a born Muslim. Their philosophy is very simple- anything good should belong to Brahmins. When Kaavya got a $500,000 book deal at age 17, I thought she might be different. But the only difference was this Brahmin got caught!


with all due respects to my dear vishwamitra this is not a prop for you to air your ideas about the caste system nor is this the place where i would think to point out that your casual generalisation in terms of caste stands in very crude taste like im sure most of your other words..anyway you could have at least got your facts right...a r rahman was not a born muslim..he is a convert and buddha did not espouse buddhist phenomeno n as an answer to caste system..refer your history books my dear!

Kanya M

Dear Vishmatra, your crude characterization of all Brhamins itself affirms your belief in the system. Atleast before you assail all Bhramins, please get your facts right. Bharatanatyam was created to spread the knowledge of the vedas outside the realm of this class and for most of its existence it was dominated by devadasis (who are not Bhramins). Hence, Bhramins never held a claim to this art form. Furthermore, Bramins did not create the caste system, and as Partha said Budhism was not a response to India's social classes. In the modern world, caste does not have any significance whatsoever and nor is it remotely relevant to Kaavya's plagairism. She is a teenager who commited a mistake, let us not catalogue her as a Indian Bhramin who made a mistake.


Dear Kanya M. Sorry to say, but I think you are in a denial about caste system. This system is the most powerfull force in India Today as it was for the past 2000 years. Every marriage is based upon it. Just visit an Indian matrimonial site; next to the name, the second item listed is their caste. Recently Mr Narayan Murthy, chairman of Infosys, gave interview to a foreign magazine. The second sentence of that interview was "I am a Brahmin". If a man who is educated and wealthy beyond comprehension talks like this, imagine the mentality of the common man in India. No wonder in Infosys, there are no Brahmins in any high level administrative positions. Agree it or not, every promotion in India is caste based. Let me ask you a simple question - assuming you are old enough to having adult childrem - will you agree them to marry a person of a different caste? You will either murder them, which happens every day in India or go to a Brahmin who will perform pooja so that you could disown them and clear yourself from the "sin" they have committed.

Arun P. M.

Dear Vishwamitra,

Where you ever scared by a Brahmin bogey in your infancy? Your utter tommyrot about Brahmins seem to indicate either a pathological fear of them or a complete disregard for truth. Or, perhaps it is a combination of both. Nothing else explains this meaningless anti-Brahminical diatribe. After all, nobody talks like this any more - "plagiarism is in their gene", "most Brahmins are worth nothing", "..their philosophy is that anything good should belong to Brahmins" and so on. Such sweeping statements require a totally blinkered approach to facts. Perhaps people like Rabindranath Tagore, Tarashankar Bannerjee, Shivram Karanth, U.R. Ananthamurthy, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, V.S.Naipaul, Mahaswheta Devi, Girish Karnad, R.K. Narayan & so on were plagiarists? And I suppose scientists from Arybahata and Bhaskara to Dr. J.C. Bose to Dr. S. Chandrasekhar to Sir C.V. Raman to Shrinivas Ramanujam to ... are "worth nothing"?

You are right in asserting that the caste system is still virulant in India - supported and sustained by people of EVERY caste, not merely Brahmins. In fact (at least in the state of Kerala) a feeling of guilt (perhaps with sufficient cause) within the Brahmin community has led to changes that swung the pendulum far to the other extreme. You won't find "...I will murder you if you marry outside the caste" a lot within the Namboodiri community.

Kanya's point was not that caste system does not exist; she said that it is irrelevant in the modern world. It gains relevance only through such blind knee-jerk reactions. And as Partho said, this is perhaps not the forum to air our views of regarding the caste system (dalitstan.org, countercurrents.org etc would be sites that welcome your views). Let us stick to discussing Kaavya Vishwanathan and her book here....and leave the soap-box oratory to other forums.


Malcolm, you should ask your publisher about this, but technically Opal Mehta is NOT teen or YA novel. Little, Brown has a completely separate division that publishes those books. This was purchased, published, and marketed as adult fiction. Does that change things any?


Maclom, what you are saying is pretty irresponsible. No matter what the genre, plagiarism is wrong.

What's more, getting paid half a million dollars for a book you didn't write is wrong. It's easy for you, a best selling author, to let Viswanathan off the hook. An aspiring writer who doesn't have that perfect storm of youth, looks, and connections that Kaavya had can barely get his/her manuscript read. Viswanathan was given an unprecedented book deal without even proving she could write. Ultimately, she put her name on something that wasn't hers and you say "big deal." Well, it is a big deal.

You could characterize my statements as being jealous of another, more successful author. If she had indeed written the book, that might be accurate. But she didn't, she was, in essence, a cheat who got paid a lot of money for her forgery.

I don't care how insignificant you think her plagiarism is, it still holds true that over 40 passages in Viswanathan's book were copied from at least 3 different sources. If these "chick-lit" young adult ficiton novels are so easy to write, why couldn't someone as apparently talented as Viswanathan actually written it herself?

If you are caught cheating/plagiarizing in college, you are subject to severe penalties which could jeapordize your future. And yet you think it's fine to let a kid off the hook in this case? Why is she so much more deserving of forgiveness? She hasn't even owned up to her copying to this day, instead claiming she had "internalized" the books and has a "photographic memory" (by the way, there is no actual consensus that such a thing as a "photographic memory" actually exists. Furthermore, if she had a photographic memory, why couldn't she recall the sources of this material?)

And your "what if I wrote a noir detective novel set in the '30's " example doesn't really work. Probably no one would bat an eye if you incorporated similar themes, plotlines and characters from other stories. But if you lifted quotes and sentence structure wholesale (and those side-by-side comparisons with the source material were as jarringly obvious as Kaavya's), believe me, people would take notice.


Frankly, isn't there a difference between rehashing well-worn themes and blatantly lifting words, phrases and general sentence structures? I agree that the plot and general arc, format and feel of a narrative can be similar without the work in question being considered plagiarism. However, in this case, wouldn't you agree that there are places where the similarities are far too similar for this to have been unconscious?

Johnny Pain

Writing 'this is the way journalists do it so it must be right' does not convince me of shit.

This woman deserves to to jail. By existing, she encourages others to ape her (albiet, perhaps in a more clever manner than this Harvard chick was able to muster). Writers will never find the new, exciting voices at the edge of their times if they rely on what has come before. Though of course I could be wrong -- Lennon and McCartney are said to have based their extrodinary streak of hits on other people's songs.

Kate Hamilton

Hey, for any fans, if you want to see Kaavya reading from her book, the ONLY show that has it is airing it this Sunday at 8am! It's on A&E on their show called Breakfast With the Arts, you should check it out! I think they're gonna talk about all the dilemnas since too!

Yates Austin

I must aggree with earlier comments about the plagerism of music by Cap:

[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.]

We see the same thing in Architecture. Certain elements of buildings and structures are stolen every day without many people in the public or the press ever crying foul. Written words seem to be more exacting than forms or sounds. Perhaps one day all language will degenerate to the point where everyone speaks and writes in catch-phrases and cliches. That way no one will ever plagerize anyone again.


Because when someone is given a multimillion dollar contract to write for the best publisher in the world people dont take any bullshit, especially the media.

Ben Good

I wonder whether in calculating the seriousness of the offence some allowance should be made for "value added"? None of the disputed passages I've seen adds much to the value of either book- at the most, they function as handy props, getting important plot information across in a breezy, unexceptional manner. Compared to the passages Jacob Epstein took from Martin Amis for his 1980 debut "Wild Oats"- mainly brauvora descriptive riffs which did unequivocally enhance the quality of Epstein's novel- these seem like straighforward structural fixes. Viswanathan's reasons for appropriating the passages will never be clear- laziness or time pressure are my best guesses- but I doubt they include an intention to pass off top quality work as her own. If there were a spectrum of plagiarism, this might nestle in half-way up the scale (with Epstein's borrowings and the lifted t-shirt designs highlighted in an earlier comment coming right up the top end).



I hate to disillusion you but If you are caught cheating/plagiarizing in college, you are NOT subject to severe penalties which could jeapordize your future.

I have read on the blog that some body by the same name as Jinal at drexel University was caught lifting ideas or pretty much the entire thesis from other people.. but I believe she didn't have to face any consequences.. If such beahviour is encouraged then you can't blame the students...


Those are my ideas, thanks for the validation!

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo


  • I'm a writer for the New Yorker magazine, and the author of four books, "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference", "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" and "Outliers: The Story of Success." My latest book, "What the Dog Saw" is a compilation of stories published in The New Yorker. I was born in England, and raised in southwestern Ontario in Canada. Now I live in New York City.

    My great claim to fame is that I'm from the town where they invented the BlackBerry. My family also believes (with some justification) that we are distantly related to Colin Powell. I invite you to look closely at the photograph above and draw your own conclusions.

My Website


  • What the Dog Saw

    buy from amazon


    buy from amazon

    buy from amazon UK


    buy from amazon

    buy from amazon UK

    Tipping Point

    buy from amazon

Recent Articles

Blog powered by Typepad