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No need to retract. Brilliant New Yorker piece, I heart kinkos.


I think the best word to describe what happened isn't plagiarism, or borrowing, or derivative, or clichés.

But rather--channeling.

Which is a concept non-creative types are less likely to grasp.

sara zarr

I don't think referring to teen lit as a "genre" is as problematic as failing to recognize the dozens of sub-genres existing beneath that rather large umbrella. If you are truly unacquainted with the breadth and depth of young adult literature, take John Green up on his offer.
I, too, enjoyed your original piece in the New Yorker, but deciding that you are "not particularly upset" about being plagiarized does not mean that every author---whether a "literary" writer who feels that his particular expression of upper-class East Coast midlife crisis is profoundly unique, or an author of a spy novel, or of "chick-lit"---should necessarily take the same view. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun, but forgive a writer and publisher for taking umbrage when entire paragraphs are rewritten nearly verbatim, in the way a high schooler would change a word or two in a history book before turning in a paper.


I wonder how many of those who agreed with the original post write fiction themselves. Is part of the nonchalance about stealing another author’s words just a lack of appreciation for the laborious creative process? As difficult as investigative reporting or business writing is, (in my humble opinion) fiction is in some ways more difficult. If you’ve never written a short story or a novel – try it sometime. It’s just you and a blank page. Your tools are the extent of your vocabulary, your insight, and experiences. You must give birth to an entire universe or ‘slice of life’ in text, that your reader will trust you enough to engage in. Once you go through that labor with all its mental anguish, solitude, and setbacks, I doubt you’d be so ready to give away entire paragraphs to someone who just liked it so much they thought it should go in their book too.

Furthermore when someone goes about updating a previously published work, the usefulness of that is in acknowledging what came before. When we hear something along the lines of ‘It’s a modern day Scarlet Letter’ that gives us a frame of reference; we don’t expect to get Hawthorne’s actual words under someone else’s name. That would be plagiarism.

Manic Mom

OK. I like you now! : )


You say above:

>>So you can't judge a work of genre fiction simply on the extent to which it resembles other genre fiction--because of course it does.

We're not talking about "resembling" someone else's content, or even about cliches. We're talking about taking that other author's content, changing a few words, then claiming that this doctored content is now original...and then getting both credit (wow, a 17-year-old author! She wrote a fabulous book while in college! Genius!) and money (to the tune of $500,000) for that false originality. World of difference there.

Given the long road many aspiring authors face as they A) write a book, B) query literary agents, and, if they're successful at getting an agent (no small feat, that), C) go on submission with editors and D) get the book sold (again, no small feat), to say that this author stealing -- yes, stealing -- other authors' content is not a big deal feels like a betrayal.

It is a big deal. No matter what genre one rights in, no matter who the audience is -- children's or adult -- stealing someone's content is a big deal. It's wrong. Period. If palgiarism is cause to be expelled from universities, why should it be taken any less seriously in literature?

Yes, the young author's literary career is probably ruined. I have little sympathy. She's a thief and got caught. She's now on trial in the court of public opinion. (How's that for cliche?)



>> No matter what genre one rights in

That, of course, should be "writes."

See that? This has upset me to the point of typosis.


Okay, maybe I simply read what I wanted to read in the Viswanathan-gate post. I came away from reading it thinking, "Go Malcolm." The day the story broke, tv news called it a scandal. I was simply glad someone else noticed that the public attention given to the situation was a bit over the top. In my humble opinion. M


No, no, no! This is not good PR, Malcom! You are the decider! You don't cut and run! Don't you realize we need somebody to look up to? Sure we take pot shots, but you're not supposed to topple!


Copying other people's sentences doesn't take skill, talent, or imagination, and those are what I'm paying for.

I don't have an opinion of the Viswanathan ruckus. But near-verbatim lifting of other people's sentences is like setting up a TV in a circus tent and showing footage of some other troupe's trapeze act.

It's not just the idea of a triple-somersault that matters.


two things:

i agree with what zak said about genre. when you claim that there is genre writing, you're implying that there is also non-genre writing, without, of course, having to define or point to non-genre writing.

in this case, non-genre fiction is called "literary fiction", which pretends to be restricted by no genre tropes. this is false. american literary fiction adheres to equally strict generic codes as all other american fiction genres: a western tradition of "realism", aristotelian story arcs, joycean diction, psychoanalysis-based character-building, underlying conflicts being (of a requirement) familial or relationship dysfunction, etc. or didn't you notice the generic similarities between alice munro, john updike, lorrie moore, and jonathan safran foer?

either everything is genre or nothing is. stop dismissing genre

secondly, your new yorker article cited only one specific example of the plagiarism perpetrated upon you. this example was of a recorded interview with one of the serial killers which was shown in court. you quoted the exchange in your article and the playwright plagiarized the same exchange from your article.

but from whom did she really plagiarize? was it you? was it the shrink about whom you wrote? was it the serial killer, who was the real originator of the words that were plagiarized? as it is written, your article doesn't actually present a clear-cut case of plagiarism at all.

the only other example you give is of an *action* (not wording) that was stolen (the shrink kissing the killer.) there's no ethical or legal law against stealing a written action or gesture, *provided you put it in your own words, in your own context*.

if the "plagiarism" was no more extensive than this, then it is indeed questionable.

so, already, i think comparing your own case to the viswanathan case is specious. additionally, you made a point about crossing disciplinary boundaries which was well taken (although it doesn't excuse outright plagiarism.) but the viswanathan case was intradisciplinary, intragenre stealing. both writers were going for the same prize. the one who got the prize stole from the other one. so your argument has no weight in this case.

i'd love to get into why stealing wording is wrong but that's too long a discussion. i blogged it here yesterday:
http://clairelight.typepad.com/seelight/2006/05/plagia rism.html


Mr. Gladwell,

For a look at the bottom of the slippery slope when one dismisses "genre" fiction, check out H.D.S. Greenway's Boston Globe article yesterday:


He discusses Orwell's Julia from 1984, and her work swapping around the 6 available plots of fiction at her disposal.

I think this is the kind of cynicism about "genre" fiction that the above commenters want to eschew.

I admit I'm a latecomer to the whole KV/Opal Mehta ruckus but I'm glad you've maintained a rational approach to all this.

Alex Krupp

I agreed with your original post. I don't think there is anything ethically wrong with plagiarism at the level of grammatical constructions, as long as it isn't copywrite infringement.


Yes, yes, the Kinko's line was funny!


you had some good arguments though. but yeah sometimes you have to be a bit subtle coz people are out there to misinterpret you.

hahaha. yep! that kinkos line was the funniest!




It takes a big blogger to admit he was wrong.

I didn't want to hammer you for being what I thought was condescending, and now I don't have to.

Hooray for me! Hooray for you! Hooray for blogging, genre lit and the free world!

E. David Zotter

Hi Malcolm-

I thought the last post was great... guess I'm alone.

Regardless of genre, all fiction will be broken down into a fixed set of discreet formulas.

At the current rate in which Google is indexing text copy of the web and dark content of regular books - it will be impossible at some point to write a unique sentence that hasn't already been written by another this century or last. When all the text is universally translated from one language to another, the problem is compounded greatly.

Anyway - I like your thinking and couldn't agree more.

Say... you know... in regard to teen novels or spy novel text copy, the same thing happens with software. People pick up ideas and integrate them into their thinking - although, it isn't as obvious because the source code is hidden behind a nice fancy Graphical User Interface in most cases.

I wish the your same thoughts were generally accepted and applied to COMMON patents. That's getting out of control as well.

Be good,

Stephanie Greene

How about if you write a column asking Little, Brown to explain their role in this whole thing? I'm a children's book author and I'm seriously offended that Little,Brown offered a $500,000 advance to a 17-year old unpublished author. Why? Because she was Indian? Because she got into Harvard? Or because they wanted to jump on an adult chick lit trend and make some money? How does a Publisher justify working with a packager (the scum of the publishing world)to dictate the "frame" of four books to a 17-year old not-even writer? What's their responsibility in all of this? If Little, Brown were my publisher, you can be sure I'd be on the phone, asking where the other $490,000 part of my advance was. This shouldn't be an argument about genre; it should be a discussion about how publishers can justify their actions in publishing endless paraodies, wanna-bes, and imitations of good books in the name of profit. Who's holding the line here?

Go on, write it. Please.


I'm with Ali L. It's hard getting to the argument when faced with "alright."

And I also liked the Kinko's line.

Commendations on admitting defeat: rare to see in blogland.


I actually agreed with your original post). You want to talk about plagarizing on all cylinders, then don't go to students, go to the CEO. Check out this link: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/03/business/03cnd-raytheon.html

Its about the CEO of Raytheon who wrote a book that contained 33 rules of wisdom. They found he copied 17 of the rules word for word from a 1940s book written by a forgotten professor.

That's why he is the CEO, big picture (copied) vision ;)

Jeremy S

Malcom, I thought the Kinkos line was great! By posting todays response you've just given your blog a new meaning. This - whats going on on this page - is what a blog is all about! DISCUSSION. I think you should make this "post a comment" box into a "Enter into Discussion" box. I'm really glad to see you're interacting with your readers on a very personal level. Good job. An open invite to Sydney is here and waiting for you.

Salil Maniktahla

The "why's" of plagiarism are fascinating. In the case of literature, plagiarism is a sin because we pick up a book expecting it to be wholly original first and foremost. The sin is in the presumption, like a patent, of another's work, and the duly accorded accolades (or lambasting, as the case may be).

How can a reader read a work *justly* if it borrows from another work?

I think we place a little too much emphasis on fairness in our society, and not enough on understanding or appreciating things on their own merit.

To sum up, while Kaavya's age and the genre are ameliorating factors, it is a convention, like obeying the speed limit or not shoplifting, that we do not plagiarize when we write. Is it a real crime? Hardly. The punishment is best meted out in book sales.

Which brings me to think that the publishers are stupid for dropping her. You can't BUY PR like this, and they let her go?

Salil Maniktahla

Eh, the Kinko's line was alright, I guess. Stick with the day job. :-D

Sifu Tweety

Why is plagiarism bad?

That is, not "why is it bad to take credit for somebody else's work," but "why is it bad to use segments of other people's work in your own?" Some of the most remarkable and innovative art of the past century has involved the appropriation of other works (hip hop, Warhol, etc.). While these forms of art have come under legal attack, nobody seriously argues anymore that the very act of recontextualization is morally bankrupt. They argue in terms of the original author getting their cut; sure, fine, although I find the modern conception of intellectual property highly problematic. But in fiction there is simply no mechanism by which an author can appropriate the language and phrasing of another without being a cheat and a liar. If Viswanathan had frankly acknowledged to her publisher the sources she used in her work, would that have been more legitimate? Is there any mechanism in place for her publisher to "buy" those rights from Megan McCafferty? There is not. In fiction, unlike practically any other form of popular art, original works are expected to exist in a vacuum, and in the internet age, in the age of copy-and-paste, that's ludicrous.

She should not have lied about the provenance of the non-original portions of her book, but unless she wanted to produce a dramatically different creative work (something no artist is particularly interested in) she had no choice. Whatever plagiarism there might be, she still produced an original creative work, and the idea that nobody should be allowed to see it because portions of it have been seen before strikes me as exactly backwards.

Hard-working fair writer

Your apology is still weak. As someone said, a cliche is a far cry from re-suing someone else's sentences and passages (and making 500 grand off it).

>>>Did the writer "steal" that line from someone else? Sure.

How do you know? It's a short line. When I say hello and goodbye to my friends, I'm not stealing them - I'm using them because they seemed appropriate at the time.

You can do better.

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