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M,

As you note, stories are the easy part. Writing a book, however, is hard work. Writing a good book is real hard work. Writing a good best selling book is next to impossible, which is why so few people make a living as authors. Nevertheless, everytime someone does get published, invariably, other talented people do not. Like the movies, the publishing world can only sponsor so many horses.

So when someone plagairizes a novel, they are not just stealing from the original novelist. Nor are they just cheating. They are usurping the opportunity from the legit, unpublished author who would have been published absent the plagairizer's hackery. (Non-fiction is a little different).

In this case, the copying seems almost silly. Unless, of course, you are staring at a pile of rejection letters for your own good teen novel

Karen H.

Oh pish. Of course she will be published again. Look at the Janet Dailey plagiarism of Nora Robert's work that happened a few years ago. While most of the world laughed that any romance novel could be plagiarized, the romance reading community was angered and appalled at the very clear lifting of whole paragraphs. It was, in fact, a reader who noticed and who brought it to the attention of Roberts and her publisher. Why? Because aside from the fact that she was Robert's fan, she felt she was not getting her money's worth from a book that was clearly copied from another author she also read.
Regardless of what non-genre readers think of genre books, it's the reader's perception that drives what sells and what doesn't (though that, of course, can be manipulated by marketing to a certain extent). If a reader can tell the difference in what's copied and what's not, and if the reader values the difference so that it affects whether she puts money out for it or not, then I suggest a difference exists.
Janet Dailey lost sales because of her plagiarism. I suggest therefore that readers not only perceived the difference, but it made enough of a difference to affect sales.
Is Janet Dailey being published now? Of course she is. The publisher had already sunk enough money into her career that unless they published her books, they wouldn't get enough of a return. Are her books being carefully scrutinized? I'm sure they are.
Will Viswanathan be published again? Probably so. She is young, she is writing a book in the style that is popular now, and these are marketing points that publishers are more than willing to exploit. The publisher has already sunk a great deal of money into her books, and they'll want to get a return.
Reader awareness of past performance in writing will affect sales. I expect the next time Viswanathan publishes a book, she will see fewer sales than before because readers will approach her books with caution--if, of course, her next books come out soon so as to exploit the youth and ethnic angle.
That said, I feel sorry for McCafferty. She worked her way up to the bestseller list, and she had a family to support while she did it. The money Viswanathan made from copying McCafferty's book isn't going to appear in McCafferty's kid's college fund. And trust me, the way publishing works, especially in the way you get paid, it doesn't matter how honestly successful you are now, you can be flipping burgers the next year to make ends meet. The more money a writer can make while he or she's successful--and is careful with it--the less likely he or she will have to subsist on mac and cheese later. As it is, MOST writers are working full time while working another 15 to 20 hours per week on their books so as to make ends meet, or are relying on a spouse's income.
People have NO clue how much writers really get paid, how long it takes to get paid, how they get paid, and how financially insecure such an occupation is. If more people knew, a lot fewer would write for publication.

Maynard Handley

You ask why this stuff is being made a big deal of.
Simple --- we are living through a period where corporations are trying to nail down ever idea, ever utterance, every visual image, every tune that has ever existed and will exist as "intellectual property" and subject to control by them and them exclusively --- not individuals, not courts, not the political system.
Any story that increases this meme that IP is a valid concept, that it should applied to everything under the sun, and that the world is undergoing mass "thefts" of IP every day which threaten to destroy the economic (and moral) foundations of society will be hyped to the skies.

The most depressing thing about all this is the number of educators and scholars, who at least claim to view things through independent eyes, who have fallen for this hook, line and sinker and are quite willing to add their contribution to the insane frenzy with narry a thought for where their actions are taking us long term.

Anne

Plagiarism is OK or it is not OK. When we start making value judgments about genres in which it *is* OK, we're on a very slippery slope. The quality of teen fiction varies widely and you cannot paint it all with one dismissive brush.

roxy

I am a sophomore at a Canadian university. I don't know how it works at other schools, but we must be super super careful to cite our sources. Infac, we have to run our papers through a software program called "turn it in.com" which checks our work for plagiarism and then submits the work and a report to our professors. This is a form of digital surveillance, yes. It is scary, yes, because I fear sometimes that MAYBE someone else said the same thing as me at some time in litterary history.

What Viswanathan did was not unintentional. Let me just tell you, I would know a lot better than to pull what Kaavya did. We are both young and inexperienced. If I could get kicked out of school for what she did, why shouldn't she get her book pulled? It doesn't matter if I am writting a brilliant thesis or a teenlit piece of crap, there is no reason why I should be held to a higher standard than Ms. Viswanathan.

Gerald

I hate to break it to you Mr Gladwell but your phrase "a tipping point" is probably the most plagiarised phrase of the 21st century so far.

Kelly Link

A couple of points: all works of art -- music, writing, visual arts, etc -- are in conversation with each other. If you're well read, it's impossible not to see the places where books more or less brush up against each other, where writers/artists are working with the same material, or with the same ideas, or even in response to each other's work. Sometimes this makes a book seem thin or formulaic, and sometimes it adds richness. (Provide your own examples.)

Point number two: Genre fiction (young adult, science fiction, mysteries) is not necessarily more formulaic than any other kind of art. Formulaic fiction is formulaic. That's about as far as I think you can push this argument, and even then, the most original works of art depends -- just as formulaic fiction does -- on the writer and the reader being aware of (or emotionally attuned to) certain patterns or formulas. Writers set up and then elaborate on, or break, or distort certain patterns. Or else they present the same formula, but so elegantly (or at least so capably) that the reader is charmed into seeing it in a new light.

Point three: the similarities between the passages (language, structure, etc) in Viswanathan's book and McCafferty's book are striking. It isn't just one or two passages. It's over and over again. All YA fiction will have certain elements in common, but only someone of very limited imagination would suggest that all YA fiction -- will therefore be limited to the same vocabularies, voice, or almost-verbatim sentences.

You seem to be suggesting that many readers want the same story over and over again. Sure. That's true. I'd add that these same readers want to feel that they've found something absolutely new and astonishing at the same time. Picture the reader saying something along the lines of, "Give me something brand new that I've never seen before that's exactly like X (the last thing that I read and loved.)" Patterns are important -- we feel pleased when we recognize them. But as a reader (and a writer) I'm not at all pleased when the sentences in a book I'm reading appear to have been lifted (and slightly disguised) in a way that does not say anything larger about Story or Narrative. (Kathy Acker, for example, intends for her reader to recognize/discover what she is doing, and to read the passage in question in a different way.) Perhaps you could persuade me that patterns and plagiarism have more in common than I'd like to think they do, but this post conflates (and simplifies) too many ideas and arguments about language, ideas, formula, art, creativity, and readerly expectations.

Eudaimo

I have to disagree with you also, Mr. Gladwell. You're absolutely right that many ideas in genre fiction have become "mis-en-scene" (The haunted house is a given in horror fiction. The uptight lady is commonplace in period romance pieces.) However, the conventions of genre do not provide a unique set of words from one book to another. We find that ethically dubious. We call that "ripping off."

Notably, that reasoning applies to section you posted but not to any series of sentences. "It was a dark and stormy night" can start just about any ghost story, and we would wisely resist from calling it "ripping off."

A note to Gerald: plagiarism is not the coining or reuse of a phrase (which rings close to trademark issues), even without citation, it is the copying of actual text (which is closer to a copyright issue).

hypocriticist

Unfortunately, I must concur with the majority of posters here who find Gladwell's comments on Kaavya to be sub-par, at best. It is hardly logical or fair to insult the "genre", lowering it to a level that justifies or somehow validates plagiarism. But otherwise I'm a huge fan. Blink was kick-ass.

In any event, I got on here to say something else: what strikes me about the whole event is just how deeply psychological this whole event must be for her: Kaavya IS (clearly) the same girl- Opal- the girl in her book who is trying to live up to societal standards of what Harvard girls do. They don't just get A's, they don't just write good papers: they actually get PUBLISHED. I find it ironic and really twisted: Kaavya was essentially criticizing the whole college process system through Opal. But what we learn is that Opal really enabled her to play the game better- to be that stellar candidate with a publishing deal, who beat out 50 other valedictorians that didn't get into Harvard her year. So "internalizing" is what she had to do to get the edge in that game, the game she was apprently writing a criticism of. That is why, in my karmic view of things, Opalaavya- as I call her- cannot really be defended. You can't blame the genre, the pressure or the corporations. When this whole New England style witch-hunt is said and done, it will be recounted under the following title: "How Kaavya Vinaswathan Got Published, Got Busted, and Got a Whole New Perspective on Academic Integrity", by... some smart-ass writer.

hypocriticist

(Oops I got cut off) and so at the end of it all, who got cheated the worst: that kid, that one kid- who was just as qualified as Kaavya to go to Harvard, but who got a rejection letter. I'd be pissed if I were that person.

Johnny

I hope this doesn't come off as racist, but I wonder if there is a cultural thing going on here.

I went to high school in NJ very near this young woman, and an Indian friend of mine ended up copying one of my English essays word-for-word, resulting in both of us getting F's for that essay. I did lend it to him, but never expected him to do something as stupid as copy it word-for-word. Luckily, I still got an A in the class (I guess the teacher gave me a break - we never really discussed the incident after I got the grade back).

Something very similar happened to one of my younger brothers with another Indian classmate/friend. And another friend a year under my brother had this happen with one of his Indian classmates. Weird, huh? And me, my brother, and this "victimized" friend are all of Taiwanese descent. But don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to claim some sort of self-righteous moral superiority here.

Anyhow, yeah, I think that Mr. Gladwell is underplaying the plagiarism aspect. There is a slippery slope going on here, I agree, but you got to draw the line somewhere.

Michelle

Mr. Gladwell, I've only recently had the pleasure of reading (actually listening) to Blink. I've played it over and over again for about 2 weeks and enjoy it immensely. I googled your name just to find other books of yours and found this blog. As a struggling author who works in Boston, Ms. Viswanathan's story has also been of interest to me. My heart completely sank when I read your defense of the lifted passages. Having dated a Harvard prof and a couple of other Ivy League types - I don't feel disillusioned by the Harvard pedigree. Intelligence is NO indication of a person's character. In Ms. Viswanathan's case, I see countless raving reviews and articles about the young lady's rise to success - oh and at such a young age to have accomplished so much. So naturally, the backlash is just as sharp. I have a hard time believing that Ms. Viswanathan (or whomever actually) could alter one or two words in a paragraph unless it was intentional. Cliche is the term we use for those phrases that are so common in colloquial use, that no one can really claim them as a product of their individual creativity. If you use a cliche in your writing you won't be well-thought of but it's not plaigarism. Entire passages of creative writing is an entirely differnt thing. Mr. Gladwell, your own book describes how in WWII the German morse code users code be tracked by a trained ear because eacy person has an inherently distinct way of working their keys - so much so that each one is identifiable. It can't be faked, it's entirely individual. Well in creative writing, that individuality is exactly what authors strive to achieve, that is their voice: word selection, and how you string them together on the page. It is unique and it is a skill and an art. When someone copies that, they've plaigarised, and in my opinion should not profit from that.

Conor

I think all these comments (including mine) constitute the real schadenfreude here.

Pablo Garcia

way of topic, but how bout the mexican people rallying. it seems odd that illegal immigrants want rights in this country. but its not about wanting rights, mostly i believe is about getting respect. illegal immigrants have been getting exploited like overseas cheap labor has, and have never said anything. and now the government wants the people that some business need, to get deported. it doesnt make sense, the price of anything that has to be hand picked or hand-anythinged, will go up. i must say that it takes alot of courage as an illegal immigrant to go out and rally like that. i respect that very much and if i didnt live in a small town where id be the only one rallying, i would be out there.

Michelle

I don't really think so Conor. The fact that we know this woman's name and face is an indication that it's not all bad for her. Does she know who you are? Does she know who I am? NO, she's already ahead because she's getting her 15 minutes. In this day and age getting recognition is almost everything, and it hardly matters if it's positive or negative. There's no such thing as bad publicity. This predicament might sting for the moment - but this is the nation of short term memories when it comes to bad behavior. If she wants to go on to write a novel, in her own words, I'm sure she'll do that - and she'll already have household name recognition to boot - I don't consider that a terrible misfortune.

Conor

Michelle, thanks for the recognition. But what I meant, as you point out, is that we are peons, and that I am taking some delight in seeing everyone disagree with Mr. Gladwell on a seemingly easy topic for us all, when he has enlightened me with such ease on so many topics out of my intellectual reach.

Stephen

I think the language log link has it right. They key point is whether it was intentional. And it is clear that no one would intentionally lift passages from a widely printed book, to use in another widely printed book in the same genre.

People parrot other people's work all the time without even knowing it. I've read that our brains aren't designed to remember where we heard things. So unintentional attribution problems are very common.

I also agree with Mr. Gladwell that in the grand scheme of things borrowing a few lines from a novel (good or bad) is meaningless. And focusing on it is small-minded.

Only in poetry or artistic literature are the exact words important. Because they then reflect a unique voice.

Brian McArdle

As an avid fan of storytelling, it is not the set-up that matters so much as how you knock'em down. Of course many thrillers start with someone babysitting and then the phone rings, and we're already moving to the next step in our minds, and I would suspect, to different places. My point is, I wouldn't call the theme of the book Kaavya was writing to be plagirism, but, as said by many laudable bloggers here, it is how she handled telling the story that is plagirism. When one examines the passages in question, it is quite hard to differentiate between original work and hack. And make no doubt, if there was only one passage that was an issue then, yes, we could chalk it up to Kaavya's higher intellect and memorization. But there are almost 40!?! How can that be a coincidence?
I also agree that the reason this is such big news is that it is a Harvard student, who is a freshman, with a book deal and a movie deal, and her illegal actions may have gotten her everyone of those most coveted accomplishments. When Blair got caught making up stories, the surprising thing wasn't that he was making things up, but that it was at such a reputable newspaper. The higher standards we associate with Ivy League schools, half-million dollar book deals and movie deals has been defiled and we all want to collectively say it's not alright to do this. Yeah, they're making a big deal about it, but we're trying to restore integrity to associations we thought strove for integrity.
How can this be brought up without talking about the Da Vinci Code trial that has concluded. Again, the authors from Holy Blood, Holy Grail sought damages for an idea being lifted and used as the central theme for DVC. The Judge ruled that while similar thoughts were expounded in each work, it was how they were presented to the reader that made them inherently different. Such is the case here. If just the theme of a teen maturing through high school were on trial, I would bet that the Judge would find the works to be presented in so similar a manner as to be cause for a McCafferty to win this hypothetical case.

davee lell

Malcolm,
Get a grip, sir! You are way off base! Kaavya is NOT a writer, she got hoodwinked into this entire scheme as a way to get into Harvard with her IvyNotWise pal. She is no writer. Never wanted to be. She just wants to have a happy life, like everyone else. She got taken. YOU sir need to refocus your mind. You were WAY wrong here, what the eff?

Koranteng

Funnily enough I wrote about this on Sunday, it must be silly season when we pile on the "model minority" albeit packaged and focus-grouped while ignoring the plagiarist president, Mr Putin. And all for a piddling half a million dollar contract...

http://koranteng.blogspot.com/2006/04/huhudious-or-silly-season.html

paul

Looking at your example -- the snippets of prose from each -- it looks a lot like the second was written with a copy of the first open on the desk.

It's not as if you and I saw something or interviewed someone and came up with different but similar descriptions or articles. This looks more like my reading your work and copying the subject matter, the style, even the sentence constructions and paragraphs.

While we may not have high expectations for the quality or erudition of teen lit, surely we expect it's authors to be as original as we expect their readers, high school students, to be.

I think you need to re-examine this. While I agree it's hardly newsworthy, given everything else that's going on in the world, it still looks to me like someone got caught stealing.

rone

Calling this plagiarism is the equivalent of crying "copy" in a crowded Kinkos.

I love your work, but this is a really crappy analogy.

TQ

To compare the act of lifting someone else's prose to falling victim to common literary tropes is sloppy, I think. If your point is that plagiarism is not as black and white as it is often presented, I will give you that. But surely there are some important shades of grey here that you're neglecting. Do we need to go as far as labelling anyone a plagiarist who has written about love, jealousy, or death? Is there really a reasonable connection between basic literary themes--even if it may be teen lit--and very closely copied prose?

Ted

"Surely an idea is more consequential than a sentence."

In the context of copyright law, this is not true. Copyright is intended to protect the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. One can decry the extremism of recent intellectual-property legislation and rulings and still support this basic premise.

Almost all fiction deals with the same basic ideas: love and death. What distinguishes Shakespeare from Joe Blow are the sentences.

Moe

I am surprised to read your condescending attitude towards novels for young adults. This may be your opinion piece but please check your facts the next time you smear an entire category of literature. Editors will surely be the first to tell you that YA novels-- in fact, children's books on a whole-- their audience is the most difficult of all to mislead. Young readers sniff out bad writing-- and slam those books shut forever--faster than you can say "Jackie Collins' bestselling 10,000th novel about Hollywood."

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  • 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.

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