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

Three examples are conflated to a cultural predisposition, and you hope it doesn't sound racist? Wow!

Julia Holcomb

I'm with Anne, the Canadian student. I'm not a student, I'm a college professor--English, in fact--and I'd have called Kaavya on an Honor Code violation in a New York minute. Whole sentences? Time after time? Of course it's plagiarism, and of course it matters. I'm having enough trouble with my students in the age of cut-and-paste stealing, without pundits acting as if it didn't matter. When I assign a paper on A Rose for Emily to a group of 18-year-olds, I won't get very original ideas--but I expect them either to be couched in words made up by the kid whose name is at the top of the paper, or cited as quotations. Or I'll bust the kid. And I won't make apologies for their youth or their race or the bad influences of the adults in their lives or the pressure they're under or any other d*mn thing. Oh--and I won't feel sorry for them, either. Cheating p****es me off.


This was the most relevant passage-

[Instead, as Thomas Jefferson said (and this is especially true when I copy the way someone dresses), "He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me."]

I don't believe that Kaavya Viswanathan had ill intentions when she used the same writing style-or words-as an author she admittedly admired. When passages jump out from the page and really speak to you, I would imagine that it would be easy to want to work the same kind of passages into your own work, for the same reason. Does the book by Kaavya Viswanathan lessen the value of the book by Megan McCafferty? Or did she take an idea of McCafferty's and internalize it, making it her own? The two stories sound dissimilar enough that people aren't picking up one and mistaking it for another. The value of literature is not in the sentences themselves, but in how the work makes the reader feel. Value is intrinsic, if the book wasn’t any good, as a work of literature, then no one would have ever even noticed the plagiarism. No one really owns ideas. Or sentences. It’s foolish to worry about the little details, sentence structure and what not, when it should be flattering for McCafferty to realize that her book so touched another, and in a ripple effect, ended up touching even more people than she first imagined.


While I recognize that there is far more important news out there, 1. We can't talk about Darfur, Immigration, and Iraq all the time and 2. I think this is at least as important as the Baseball Steroids scandal which has gotten so much play in the media. Instead of looking at it pessimistically as people wanting to destroy a young woman's career, try looking at it optimistically- I mean, doesn't anybody find it heartening that so many of us still care about the integrity of our authors, at least as much as the integrity of our professional athletes? Besides the schaudenfraude, imho the strongest sentiment underlying this fiasco is a wish for meritocratic justice. I think that of all the silly things that upset people, this isn't such a bad thing to get mad about.


If you really want to flatter someone whose work you admire, do the honorable thing and give THEM credit. Don't try to pass it off as your original work aka cheating.


While I recognize that there is far more important news out there 1. We can't talk about Darfur, Immigration, and Iraq all the time and 2. I think this is at least as important as the Baseball Steroids scandal which has gotten so much play in the media lately.

Instead of looking at it as people wanting to destroy a young woman's career for making a mistake, try looking at it another way- I mean, doesn't anybody find it heartening that so many of us still care about the integrity of our authors, at least as much as the integrity of our professional athletes?

Besides the schaudenfraude, imho the strongest sentiment underlying interest in this fiasco is a desire for meritocratic justice. I think that of all the silly things that upset people, this isn't such a bad thing to get mad about.


D'oh. Just so this isn't a another pointless post to apologize for a double post, I'll add that she is now suspected of stealing from several more authors


While some of those examples do seem a stretch, again, most seem pretty damning. Who knows though- in fifty years, maybe critics will hail "Opal" as a breakthrough work in the brand new genre of "Mash-up Remix Novels"


Just DON'T BUY the book(s).
End of story.

J.R.  Briggs

It makes me wonder if she would have been pummeled if it wasn't for the James Frey incident. It seems that in our society it's the second person caught that gets in trouble. Frey's less-than-integrous scandal breaks, it gives him more press and ultimately more book sales ensue. This young Harvard woman is found out and she is crucified.
are we surprised by this?
I'm not.

It makes me wonder how different she would have been treated had Frey's situation not occurred first...

Nancy Jane Moore

Assuming Ms. Viswanathan is telling the truth when she says her use of the similar material was unintentional -- and I'm not willing to actually read the two books so that I can come to a more informed decision -- I tend to agree that this is not a serious matter. As a fiction writer, I find it completely believable that she could unintentionally use material from similar books in hers -- especially since she is a beginning fiction writer.
Most fiction writers, when they start out, channel their favorite authors. It's part of the process of learning to write. That's why, if the publishers and editors are doing their jobs, very few beginning writers can sell their work: It's derivative. People who stay with the hard work of learning to write fiction eventually develop their own voices.
Given that very few writers actually find their own voices by the time they're 19 -- especially if they're running around doing everything else under the sun to get into Harvard -- I think the real crime here was encouraging this young woman to think she was already a writer and publishing her book.


I have a book called, "Writing from the Inner Self" by Elaine Farris Hughes. It contains "63 step-by-step" exercises to do when your writing needs inspiration. On p117 is a section that goes like this, I am excerpting it below.

--begin exerpt--

Studying excellent writers can do wonders for your own writing. In fact, one of the best ways to get variety into your writing is by imitating the sentence rhythms of some of your favorite authors. You can do this exercise any time you're sick of the sound of your own voice and feel stuck in the same old sentence patterns.

Choose a Short Passage from the Works of an Author You Like - The passage should not be long - ideally, one good paragraph.

Study It Closely - Notice any unusual techniques the writer uses. Pay close attention to the sentence patterns. What makes this a good piece of writing for you?


Keep It in Front of You as You Begin a Passage of Your Own - Begin your own passage of writing, using your author's sentences as patterns. Don't imitate the words, thoughts, or ideas in the passage. Concentrate solely on matching, as closely as possible, your rhythms and sentence patterns with those of your author.

--end excerpt--

What if Kaavya simply set out to apply a technique like the above and failed to do it correctly? If she did it right, she would end up with the similar sentence structure, which seems to be the aim of this exercise, but it seems Kaavya didn't apply it right and ended up with same words, thoughts and ideas. Something to think about for fiction writers looking to hone their skills.


Jinal Shah

Mr. Gladwell, you have solid points, but there is indeed a fine line between "borrowing" themes and concepts and "copying" phrases and dialogues.
The KV controversy is a big deal because she was paid an exorbitant amount to pen that book. Her insincerity in doing so, voids out all the media hype, the "NY's 20 under 30 to watch for mentions" and the expectations from her would-have-been readers.

However, in light of the new accusations, I'm beginning to think that KV probably didn't even write the books....

Michael Sigrist

When it comes to arts and crafts, I'm not sure that an idea is more consequential than a sentence (or a brush stroke, or a musical phrase, or whatever). I might some day get it in my mind to sculpt a pieta, but this idea would hardly make my butchered product on par with a MIchelangelo. I really appreciated your New Yorker article--like just about everything you write--when it came out last year, but I couldn't help thinking that in the end you were committing a slippery slope fallacy: just because the difference between plagarism and influence is not discrete or definable doesn't mean that there is no difference.


CF, I'm familiar with that writing exercise, and it's a good one. A couple of weeks ago I was told that Joan Didion repeatedly wrote out the beginning to As I Lay Dying in longhand, to study it better. Apocryphal, perhaps, but nonetheless a useful homiletic.

But... did KV do that 40 times? Then copied the paragraphs she had used, 40 times? Shouldn't she have noticed? Shouldn't someone have noticed?

R. Porter

Three points (one off-topic) to toss into the fray:

1. Patterns are found in all subcategories of art and certainly inform the works that are created for similar audiences. Comedy relies on basic motifs and schemes - the fish out of water, the Rule of Three - structured poetry goes so far as to dictate meter and rhythm. But if your five syllable first line of your Haiku copies mine, well, let's just say I'll invite you to a reading in the parking lot.

2. Malcolm, I grant that we don't like you for your prose stying but for your reporting and meta-pattern recognition. Still, you must recognize that for *writers* the only important thing is the words. A finely crafted phrase, a tuned word, a clever counterpoint, these are both their tools and their finished product. Ideas matter more for story-tellers. Writers depend on words.

3. I should be posting this in response to your piece on Ivy League admissions, but the currency of this topic is making me cheat. You seemed to imply that the buckets Harvard uses to classify students somehow hurts applicants from, say, Bronx Science. I'd argue that it hurts students from Exeter more. Now, those students aren't competing for all the open spots in the freshman class, but for the few spots available to their prepschool peers. I don't care if it seems elitist, but I suspect that Andover, Choate, and the rest of the venerable NE preps are producing more qualified candidates than the Rocky Mountain states.

E. Lockhart

I found your comments about plagiarism extremely interesting, but I think you make a mistake when you call teen literature a genre category. It is an age category.

We can not judge all adult lit by detective stories, nor all picture books by stories about new babies. Yes, Viswanathan's and McCafferty's books can both be categorized as "chick lit" -- but that's the genre, not teen lit. McCafferty's books are actually published for the adult market and aren't teen literature at all, technically.

Young adult literature, or teen literature, which ever you prefer, encompasses many many genres: thrillers, fantasy, romance, comedies, literary fiction, science fiction, etc. Some are high quality, some are mass market. Just like books for adults and younger children.

In dismissing it all as genre fiction, you make the same error being made in the New York and LA Times, both, in recent articles on the subject: dismissing an entire field of work without having read very much of it, at all.

Yours sincerely,

E. Lockhart


Mr. Gladwell, I'm 17 years old, and I live in Michigan. I read both of your books, and I adored them. I really respect your talent as a writer, and I strive to be as skilled as you one day.

That's why it's so dissapointing to see you so callously diminish this McCafferty-Viswanathan situation. This isn't a simple case of two books being similar, this is obviously one girl trying to be sneaky about almost blatantly copying one successful writer's work. If someone wrote a book about making snap judgments with passages almost identical to yours, I think you'd do a bit of a double take. You should really be giving credit to Miss McCafferty for being so gracious about the whole situation.

I don't know when was the last time you read a teen book, "genre fiction", but it's not commonplace for two books to say almost the same things, word for word. In fact, it never happens. If it did, this current situation wouldn't be front page news. And not just that, but it's so flippant for you to basically discredit a whole genre. I'm a teenager. I read teen books. In fact, I work in library; I can't get away from them. But no matter how petty, shallow, similar or generalized they are, I can still relate to them. I'm to some extent, a petty, shallow teenager. You don't just jump from Dr. Seuss to Hemingway. Something has to make me feel better about my melodramatic life, right? It seems like you'd have more respect for teen fiction, seeing as how the readers of McCafferty and the like will someday read your future books, if you plan to write any.

All I'm saying is, give McCafferty her props, don't just shrug off this Harvard coed's crime, and maybe go read some teen lit. You might be enlightened, because even you didn't go from Pampers to the New Yorker.

PS E. Lockhart writes teen fiction, you should check out one of her books.


If this is your case, that all young adult fiction is written in such a "formulaic" manner, then perhaps instead of simply showing how similar (or dissimilar, as you find them to be) the two passages are, compare the two books to others in the same genre. How many other books begin the same way, and have all (or even some!) of these same passages?

The history of property law supports the concept that society wants and needs those who work to create, and does not reward those who simply profit off another's efforts. There may be no bright line when it comes to plagarism, but if we are to respect her as an author, she should put something of her own effort into it.


I wonder if pornographers ever sue each other for plagiarism.

Debby G.

It's insulting to dismiss young adult literature as genre fiction in which, as you so snidely and ignorantly say, convention after convention gets trotted out.

Don't believe me? Read M.T. Anderson's FEED, a thoughtful condemnation of materialism and technology, or Joyce Carol Oates' recent young adult books, or Mary Pearson's A ROOM ON LORELAI STREET, which in lyrical language shows the devastation of alcoholism, or Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK, which addresses date rape with humor and poignancy.

If after reading these young adult novels, you still dismiss novels for teens as conventional genre novels, then I will eat Kaavya's hat.

John Green

Novels based on novels based on novels? Come now. We're talking about a literature for a particular audience, not a particular KIND of literature. There's a huge difference. In fact, there are very few cross-"genre" elements to YA literature (if you can tell me what defines the genre, other than tending to feature teenage characters, I'll give you five dollars).

I might not have entirely disagreed with you ten years ago. But these days, when critically acclaimed books like THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME and THE BOOK THIEF are considered teen novels, it's ridiculous to dismiss the entire genre as novels based on novels based on novels.

This speaks to a larger problem, which is that if a smart and well-read person like Malcolm Gladwell can make such a mistake, the world of young adult fiction has a long way to go before it can prove its literary chops.

Which is a particular shame when you consider it's been some 121 years since HUCK FINN was published for an adolescent audience.

John Green

p.s. Malcolm, ask your coworker Adam Gopnik about YA literature. He has read some, and has interesting things to say about it.

Jonathan Stephens

Your statement that -- "we have no such expectation for genre novels, Harlequin romances, slasher films, pornos, or, say, the diaries of teenagers." -- labels the YA fiction book as just another genre book. And I have to disagree with that.

I suppose you would place John Green's LOOKING FOR ALASKA in the same camp with Cecily von Ziegesar's GOSSIP GIRL, Lois Lowry's THE GIVER with Zoey Dean's THE A-LIST, and Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK with Lisi Harrison's THE CLIQUE.

I don't think you're giving YA novels the literary credit many of them deserve. Teen readers know when they're reading junk or gold. They are more critical of literature than many adult readers are. If all teen lit has those words you posted above, are you suggesting that teens are dumb enough to read them time and time again, purchasing new books they know are going to be just like the last one? You might ask a teen reader to get the answer.

And I must reject the notion that YA literature is a genre instead of an age bracket. Markus Zusak's latest novel THE BOOK THIEF was marketed for adults in his home country of Australia, but in America, the marketing gurus decided to sell it as YA. So is his book viable adult literature or mimeographed YA?

There's a reason it's called a "novel" and not a "copy." It's supposed to be something new.

Manic Mom

Dude. It's one thing to 'borrow' a plot or theme, but do your homework before you make statements. KV stole actual paragraphs, phrases from McCafferty. Word for word.

Mary R

Couldn't the argument be made that because genre fiction tends towards common plot elements and themes, that the uniqueness of "phrases and sentences" is even more important to the reader?

In fact, I would expect the standard for plagiarism to be higher for a fiction writer than a researcher. After all, the non-fiction writer builds their work upon foundations provided by others, writing with their notes and sources open beside them. The idea that a fiction writer would do the same is extremely odd.


You have to admit, though, regardless of genre, copying something almost word for word certainly appears to be plaigerism. I don't think it matters what kind of story it is, and she didn't just steal a premise, but actual words and dialogue belonging to someone else, changing just a word or two, in some cases. That's pretty much stealing, no matter how you look at it. So spin it however you want to - genre or literary - plaigerism is an ugly act in the world of writing.

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