« Viswanathan-gate | Main | U.S. versus U.K. »



I agree that certain lines that were allegedly "plagiarized" actually are cliches, not only of the teen/ chicklit genre but even of Stephen King novels.

I read your New Yorker piece at the time it was published and found it fairly convincing -- as you said, much more so than your post.

Incidentally, the practice you mentioned of regional papers' taking a news story from a major newspaper and merely rewriting it to avoid plagiarism seems niggardly -- why not just reprint it off the wire, giving credit where due?

The whole point of genre fiction is to make the shifts that turn an old story a little new. I read romance novels and look for authors who shift the conventions of gender, class and age. With "Opal Mehta," I had hoped that this would be the particular spin on the high school dilemmas of ambition and popularity that being Indian American entails. What about the social conservatism of Asian immigrants that would limit their children's ability to use alcohol and sex to be accepted by their peers? The least plagiarized portions of Viswanathan's novel appear to have been precisely those that dealt with the protagonist's ethnicity, perhaps because of the shortage of adolescent-oriented books with that perspective. (Even the supposed lift from Salman Rushdie was for drug-free ads rather than anything really about India.)

sean coon

"Don't worry. He'll talk. They always do." is a far cry from the paragraph's worth of obvious *borrowed* sentence structure (a.k.a. plagiarism).

while the genre is keeping me (and everyone else) from becoming overly upset, we should still just call a spade a spade and be done with it.

btw malcolm, feel free to use the href tag on your own blog. all the girls dig it.

sophie Cunningham

Actually, I agreed with most your post the first time around. Don't bail on me now.


I don't necessarily exactly agree with argument, but I do think it shines a much needed light on our conception of originality. In some abstract sense we seem to have this idea that originality means something that's never been thought of before. That's one conception of originality, but taken to its extreme, becomes absurd. Everything is borrowed. Everything builds off of what came before it. We can only make something intelligible to others as a worthwhile instance of originality by the use of shared reference points.

To take a counterpoint, the Japanese idea of originality is quite different. You'll notice, if you take a look at the list of Nobel prize winners for instance, that despite their technological prowess, the Japanese have never really been represented as such in terms of Nobel laureates. To paint with broad brushstrokes, the Japanese are more inclined to modify than to start from scratch.

In a social psychology experiment done some time in the past decade by Hazel Markus and her students, they asked Japanese and American students to look at a photograph of a lego "artwork" and to make their own original design using the same lego pieces. While Americans tended to make things that were very different from the model they were shown, and judged pieces that were more dissimilar from the original to be more creative, the Japanese did the opposite. To them, the pieces they held to be the most creative were those that appeared to be only slight variations on the theme of the model.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that, while I have problems with Viswanathan's actions, we as a society sometimes hold an unrealistic ideal of originality. Viswanathan may not have given credit to the original author of her words as she should have, but in some form or another, just about everyone else is guilty of the same thing at a sometimes less-easy-to-detect level of analysis. I really don't think there's anything wrong with that. Our attempt to deny that copying happens in even the most original cases is based on an idealized conception of originality that doesn't really exist.

Mike Bruce

Not all genre fiction is created equal, mind.

And, yes, the Kinkos line was funny.


"My point was simply that genre fiction is by definition derivative."

Not true. This statement is a perfect example of a stereotype: it assigns a characteristic to all members of a group, based on misinformation and/or exposure to a few examples. A full discussion of genre fiction is probably beyond the scope of this thread, but there are many places on the web where you can learn more, if you are so inclined.

"The issue is what else the writer did with the story: did he take that cliche and the conventions of the genre and add something to it of value or originality? I guess that's what I want to know about the "Opal" book before I condemn it."

The issue is not whether _Opal_ does something new with the genre; the issue is whether it contains passages identifiable as having come from a specific source. A novel can be entirely conventional without being an example of plagiarism. If you want to argue that the cited textual resemblances qualify as ordinary genre cliches, you need to find similar passages in many other novels. If you can do that, your argument will gain a lot of weight.

Robert Richardson

Well, you saved me having to write the definitive counterargument, constructed from phrases lifted from your earlier piece and the blog entry. So I thank you for that.

More to the point, and not to encourage people to blog with wreckless disregard to sense, but I think this is a good example of what a blog might be supposed to be "for": trying out ideas that may subsequently appear, in the light of reader examination, less than stellar. And then changing one's course when one gets shown the light.

I *do* think there's a good point about cultural re-use of material in your overall train of thought. There's no question, for instance, that the situation regarding sampling in recorded music these days is indefensible. And there's probably an argument to be made that if the object is the "best" literature, then letting pieces pass through several authors (as with epic poetry) probably gets you further than letting the first hack sue the second into a career driving taxis.

But somehow we have to address what happens when some fresh new face on the literary scene turns out to have borrowed a pastiche of work from other authors without credit. (Perhaps its as simple as just giving credit). And maybe what happened here wasn't the worst--the borrowing was acknowledged, the current edition withdrawn, and the writer shown the door (oh, wait, that last didn't happen, did it?).


Benjamin Kite

I didn't agree with every word of your assertion, but I totally agree with what you said and I'm actually a bit disappointed that you've retracted an idea that I feel really just needed some refinement.

Ali L.

Loved the Kinko's line! But "alright" instead of "all right"? I know you're not a 19th century Englishman -- do Canadians really spell it that way?


i agree that genre fiction is by definition, to some degree derivative. and yes, a cliche is just plagarism the sixth or seventh time around; however, when someone has blatently copied as many as thirty individual passages from someone else's novel, then this is an entirely different matter. kaavya said herself in her interview with the hindu (one of indian's leading newspapers) that she didn't enjoy the writing process and that she wished she could just time travel forward straight to the promoting. what kind of author says that?


I think the key issue, which fascinates me, is "what's going on in the minds of plagiarists?" i.e., what makes them think they won't get caught?

Is it just a matter of time management? They get a contract to write something, leave it to the last minute, then go a little crazy trying to meet the deadline?

Is there perhaps some kind of mental state where they don't know they're plagiarising something they read earlier? Something more subtle like, they think they're paraphrasing, but they're actually quoting verbatim, due to stress?


Points for Kinkos, I'll give you that.


MG, while clever, asking about the Kinko's line is like the rock star visiting a mall on the weekend... ;)


I agree with the jist of your original argument. The furor that has errupted is totally insane. She definately shouldn't have take as a direct of influence from the other books as is now apparent. Let the poor girl sleep.

The original article does make a very fine point about our obsession with plagarism.


I thought your post was right-on. Not because I approve of plagiarism but because it illustrated both sides of it.

If I started a book with "He woke with a start from his bed" - I'm sure there are hundreds of books with that line. But the author was definitely copying line for line.

It was almost like one of those writing class assignments where students are told to "copy the style" and the student copied the words.

But still, GREAT post - and I forwarded it to a local reporter who had been arguing about how horrible all of this "non-attribution" is in the current world.

And I loved the comment about kinko's.


This is definitely a tempest in a teapot. Shakespeare "plagiarized" most of what we now accept as his original works. His gift was in burnishing the "original" (most of which probably was also plagiarized at some level) with a poetic and dramaturgical sophistication that is largely unmatched. I guess that gets him off the hook. But I generally agree with the point that there are different classes of similarity in works. When genre fiction is similar, it's likely driven as much by the genre as by anything else. Similarity doesn't prove plagiarism. Correlation will be high in genre fiction, but that doesn't prove causation (i.e., stealing). In non-fiction biographies or essays, liberating passages without attribution goes against the academic code, and is clearly avoidable, so is much more aptly called "plagiarism." To stigmatize an author of genre fiction over this seems wrong. It's more interesting to me that the work that was supposedly so "original" that it was plagiarized was, essentially, pedestrian genre fiction -- nice to read for some, but a dime a dozen on the book shelves, especially in the age range these books are targeting. What exactly is being defended here?


HA HA. Don't backtrack too much. People are often going to take a contrarian tone in comments by reflex. And there is no sense in jumping on a bandwagon.

I thought I was a hardened cynic. But apparently I must be naive, because apparently I am one of the few who is willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Perhaps most people aren't so absentminded as to mistake someone else's words for their own. But some people are quite capable of doing exactly that--unconsciously.

I thought Seinfeld solved this one a long time ago with the Ziggy cartoon episode.


I think the category "genre fiction" is problematic; it suggests that there's some fiction that can't be reduced to genre because it is somehow a true expression of the author's "individuality," while other kinds of writing are only variations on a theme. I think this is a better description of how books are marketed than of how they are written. And what gets labeled a genre is totally colored by categories like race and gender (i.e., "ethnic literature," "chick lit," etc.).

I agree, though, that much of what is being called plagiarism barely rises above the level of cliche. This is especially true of Viswanathan's supposed borrowings from a second book:
This article proves Viswanathan's a crappy writer, but the idea that these "borrowings" (vs. those from the McCafferty book, which are much more clear-cut) are actionable is just silly.

Charles H. Green

I'd like to steal the Kinko's line, actually, regardless of how one might characterize that act. It's a good line indeed, thanks.

A White Bear

Teaching freshman college English is very instructive on this issue. Eighteen-year-olds often have a mind-numbingly cliché repertoire of introductory sentences, like, "In today's society, we as humans tend to think that x" or "Love. What is love? I have been asked to define it and I'll define it now. Love is when you feel..." These aren't examples of plagiarisms, just because I've seen a hundred papers that start with each of those lines. They're what I often call "freshmanese" -- phrases only 17-19-y.o.s are likely to use and that mean precisely nothing.

I can tell the difference between cliche and plagiarism because the energy of the writer's own voice suddenly changes, takes on new cadences, and jogs out away from where I thought the writer was going. Plagiarism is startlingly common among 17-19-y.o.s because they have not yet developed confidence in their writerly voice. They often can't tell when they are using their own words or someone else's. How many papers have I gotten in which some writerly kid yanks a line or two from "Fight Club" without knowing he's done it? "That's my style," he says. "Actually, that's Palahniuk's style, hon." Although I was a writerly, precocious teen myself, I'm glad no one published my work, as I'm sure it owed a frightening amount to Irvine Welsh.

Andrew Wheeler

I mostly agreed with your original post as well -- though, as an editor of genre fiction, I thought you came across as a bit too dismissive.

What I think happened to Viswanathan is that she was a very young, very inexperienced writer, writing a novel in a cliche-ridden genre, for a packager that was geared to create the same kind of book over and over again. All of those factors added up to a book that was not only derivative (which was to be expected), but far too obviously derivative, and derivative of far too specific things.

Of course, now that she's the subject of a feeding frenzy, we're seeing just how many influences one book can have. That's interesting to follow, but I do have to wonder how any work of fiction would fare when looked at that closely.

Matt Forsythe

The greatest artist have always stolen - it's the ones who do it too obviously that we punish.

John Green

Right, but the salient point here is that teen literature is NOT genre lit, at least not in the sense that spy novels are.

You can argue that OPAL MEHTA and SLOPPY FIRSTS are both chick lit (as E. Lockhart pointed out, Ms. McCafferty's novels are published for adults, not teenagers), and that chick lit is a genre.

But I don't see what OPAL MEHTA has in common with, say, a sprawling, 550-page metanovel about death and narrative, like THE BOOK THIEF.

(In fact, I'd be happy to send you 10 or 12 books--most of them pretty short--that I think reflect the diversity of contemporary YA literature. Just email me your address. No charge. And I'm serious.)

All those two books have in common is that they are both published (and, arguably, written) for teenagers. You can't define a "genre" solely by the age of the audience, or else you'll end up claiming that cozy mysteries starring cats share a genre with Reader's Digest, simply because they are both read primarily by old people.

Your article on plagiarism, however, was excellent and very well-argued.

John Green


Clever, yes, but it still was crappy. :)

Pablo Mayer

All this discussion reminds me of an essay written by the argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges titled “Pierre Menard the author of El Quixote” (I’m argentine too:) ).

In that article, Borges tells of one Pierre Menard, a French symbolist, who had undertaken the task of rewriting Cervantes' Don Quixote as a product of his own creativity. Write it again, from scratch - not to copy or write another Quixote, but to write the same book, word for word.

Borges calls Menard's achievement "infinitely richer" than that of Cervantes, due to its modern philosophical perspective and the obstacles Menard overcame to produce it. He means that the modern context imbues the same words with different meanings.

I quote:
“It is a revelation to compare the Don Quixote of Menard with that of Cervantes. The latter, for instance, wrote (Don Quixote, Part One, Chapter Nine):
[...truth, whose mother is history, who is the rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, example and lesson to the present, and warning to the future.]
Written in the seventeenth century, by the "ingenious layman" Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical eulogy of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:
[...truth, whose mother is history, who is the rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, example and lesson to the present, and warning to the future.]
History, mother of truth; the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of Willam James, does not define history as an investigation of reality, but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what took place; it is what we think took place…”

You can find more about Borges in Wikipedia or read the whole Pierre Menard text in here http://web.archive.org/web/20030719111921/http://krakken.arrr.net/content/practice2.html

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