Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Balanced Take on Kaavya Viswanathan/Opal Mehta

(Note: I had to resist the impulse to title this post something goofy like "How Kaavya Viswanathan Got Rich, Got Caught, and Got a Licking." This is one of those book titles that almost begs for parody; if you have good ones, I'm always game to hear them.)

This take by Ann Hulbert in Slate on the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism scandal seemed to strike the right note:
The darker moral of her story seems to be that if you succeed by packaging, you can expect to fail by packaging, too—and you alone, not your packagers, will pay the price. McCafferty's publisher, Steve Ross of Crown, has rejected as "disingenuous and troubling" Viswanathan's apology for her "unintentional and unconscious" borrowings from two McCafferty books, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, that she says she read and loved in high school. He's right, it doesn't sound like the whole story. I don't mean simply to let Viswanathan off the hook, but her own book—indeed, its very copyright line, Alloy Entertainment and Kaavya Viswanathan—suggests a broader culture of adult-mediated promotion and strategizing at work. It's a culture, as her novel itself shows, that might well leave a teenager very confused about what counts as originality—even a teenager who can write knowingly about just that confusion. In fact, perhaps being able to write so knowingly about derivative self-invention is a recipe for being ripe to succumb to it. Viswanathan may not be a victim, exactly—she's too willing for that—but she is only one of many players here.

Lots of good points there. Above all, I agree with Hulbert's suspicion that there's more to it than just Kaavya Viswanathan screwing up. (This article in today's Times supports Hulbert's conjecture.)

* * *

There's also another interesting article in Slate by Joshua Foer, on the relationship between plagiarism and memory, which brings up the phenomenon of "cryptomnesia":

Viswanathan is hardly the first plagiarist to claim unconscious influence from memory's depths. George Harrison said he never intended to rip off the melody of the Chiffons' "He's So Fine" when he wrote "My Sweet Lord." He had just forgotten he'd ever heard it. And when a young Helen Keller cribbed from Margaret Canby's "The Frost Fairies" in her story "The Frost King," Canby herself said, "Under the circumstances, I do not see how any one can be so unkind as to call it a plagiarism; it is a wonderful feat of memory." Keller claimed she was forever after terrified. "I have ever since been tortured by the fear that what I write is not my own. For a long time, when I wrote a letter, even to my mother, I was seized with a sudden feeling, and I would spell the sentences over and over, to make sure that I had not read them in a book," she wrote. "It is certain that I cannot always distinguish my own thoughts from those I read, because what I read become the very substance and texture of my mind."

Psychologists label this kind of inadvertent appropriation cryptomnesia, and have captured the phenomenon in the laboratory. In one study, researchers had subjects play Boggle against a computer and then afterward try to recreate a list of the words they themselves found. Far more often then expected, the researchers found that their subjects would claim words found by the computer opponent as their own. Even if cryptomnesia is a real memory glitch that happens to all of us from time to time, however, it's hard to figure how it could lead to the involuntary swiping of 29 different passages.

Hm, if I were Kaavya Viswanathan, I might claim cryptomnesia!


Lucy Tartan said...

Thanks for this Amardeep.

7:40 PM  
the Driver said...

Unlike you I couldn't resist making fun of the title. Check out my post and tell me what you think.

10:07 PM  
Ruchira Paul said...

Thanks Amardeep for linking to the Slate piece - by far the best one I encountered. There is a whole lot of opportunity for snarkiness here. Yet it is a rather pathetic story. I hope Viswanathan will be able to put this behind her - she will need a steely fortitude of mind and soul. I wonder if after this notoriety, she will be able to stay on in Harvard to finish the rest of her undergard years.

11:02 PM  
vk said...

She's young, probably spoiled (entitled), and got carried away by the money and stuff. On the whole rather unfortunate and a little bit pathetic. I think she is going to be punished out of proportion to what she did, if not already.

12:12 AM  
asuph said...


I've been following this blog very regularly for a while. It's very interesting and informative, and I like the non-dismissive tone even on subjects (like kavya ;-) for instance) which anyone will be tempted to dismiss with a shrug. Thanks for both the links. Made for interesting reading.


1:00 AM  
Anonymous said...

I don't see how she can be punished "out of proportion" to what she did. What she did was to steal someone else's intellectual property--their thought, their labor--and pass it off on her own. And then she tried to spin it as an unconscious homage to the author she plagiarized. These things are shameful. If she's smart enough to go to Harvard (where she probably got in partly because of her "writing" setting her apart), she's smart enough to know better.

This thing is reminding me, oddly enough, of the Ashley Simpson debacle on "Saturday Night Live"!

9:07 AM  
TK said...

oops -- "pass it off AS her own"

9:08 AM  
Amardeep said...

Tk (or anonymous? ;-),

Yes, Ashlee Simpson might be a good reference point. Interestingly, Ashlee Simpson has come back and had a couple of radio hits after the SNL mess.

So maybe KV will come back after three years with a repentant memoir called "A Plagiarist's Diary" or something like that.

9:49 AM  
Anonymous said...

I was thinking about Frey's situation and the irony was just too much. He got pumelled because it was his original work!

12:29 PM  
reader said...

Both the slate article and the times piece rehashes theories originally presented in the harvard student weekly:

The Independent has been giving this the most extensive coverage by far.

7:39 PM  
onlein said...

Good comments on plagiarism, intended and unintended. A parallel between Kaavya Viswarathan and Helen Keller? Both were young readers of something in a newly learned language. They later wrote from (hidden) memories rather than just from their imagination. (But is our imagination ever wholly our own?) Viswarathan's plagiarism seems closer to cryptomnesia than Jay McInerney's plagiarism of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. His denial rings false. Yet maybe Keller, Viswarathan and McInerney -- and George Harrison --were all unintentional plagiarists. Who knows?

12:00 PM  
Bhamini said...

Leave the girl alone. Hang the publisher instead!

1:06 PM  
Fadereu said...

am I late for the witch-hunt? Lets have an auto da fe!!

*being sarcastic*

6:16 PM  
Anil P said...

If 'those passages' constitute the heart of the story then maybe she deserves the flak she is getting. Do they? If they don't then we're using the leaves to hang the tree!

7:07 AM  
Anonymous said...

We now know she plagiarized from THREE books. Initially, I had sympathy for Viswanathan. But as more evidence comes out, it's not so easy.

And if this young woman continues to claim "internalization", then I think she may have some mental health issues.

1:27 AM  

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