English 195

Secrecy and Authorship

Prof. Amardeep Singh (“Deep”)

Fall 2006

Lehigh University


Office: 221 Drown Hall


Office hours: Wednesdays, generally by appointment (email is best)

Email: amsp@lehigh.edu; amardeep@gmail.com


Blackboard site: http://bb.lehigh.edu,or http://ci.lehigh.edu


Brief Description

What do we make of authors who are not who they say they are? There have been anumber of recent front-page controversies about authors who misrepresentedthemselves, fooling publishers and readers alike. But such controversies arenot new; they have, in fact, been going on for as long as we have had themodern concept of authorship. The concern over the role of the author provokesdiscussions of anonymous and pseudonymous authors, racial and sexual"passing," as well as plagiarism. This course will explorecontroversies of authorship in literary works, contemporary and historical,fictional and nonfictional, analyzing what it is that makes an author an Author. Whydo some authors conceal their identities? Where does originality come from?What kinds of borrowings (or influences) are considered legitimate? How mightauthorship be changing in the digital age?

Required Texts

Oscar Wilde, Picture of Dorian Gray
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
Michael Cunningham, The Hours

Colm Toibin,The Master

Vladimir Nabokov, Despair

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory



In photocopies and on Blackboard


Thomas Mann, “Felix Krull” (short story)

Henry James, “The Aspern Papers” (long short story/novella)

NellaLarsen, “Passing” (novella)

On the life of Thomas Chatterton (photocopies from a biography)

Virginia Woolf’sdiaries (photocopies)

Excerpts from Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf: ABiography

Kaavya Viswanathan, excerpts from Opal Mehta

Oscar Wilde, "Ballad ofReading Gaol"

Michel Foucault, “What is anAuthor?”

Roland Barthes,“The Death of the Author”

Wimsattand Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy”


Nuts and Bolts of the Course

Attendance.I keep attendance every day. Since this class only meets twice a week, you canonly take three unexcused absences withoutit affecting your grade. More absences will adversely affect your participationgrade; a large number will mean an incomplete grade. Excused absences require aform from the Dean's office stating sickness, family emergency, etc.
To be clear: if you send me an emailtelling me you're sick, you have my sympathies. But you don't have an excusedabsence. That said, it doesn't hurt to drop me emailsevery so often to let me know what is happening with you.
Participation: Class participationis 20% of your grade, and is measured in somewhat obvious terms: do you a)attend class, and b) participate in class discussions.

Come to class prepared to participate in the discussion. Do the reading! If you do the readingconsistently, the class will make sense and hopefully be interesting andproductive for you. If you don't keep up with the reading, this class may notmake that much sense to you. That doesn't mean you have to force it;participation is about quality, not just quantity. I like for everyone in theclass to feel comfortable contributing to the conversation. Even if, forwhatever reason, you don't have much to say on a given day, I expect you to beattentive to the discussion.

Papers: There are four papers inthis course, mostly relatively short. Please submit them to me via Blackboard’s“Dropbox” function, as MS Word Documents in PC format(.doc). I cannot read StarOffice.  

There may be additional short assignments (1-2 pages) in response to givenreadings. These will be graded on a check/check+/check- basis.

Please turn off your cell phones when you enter the classroom.


Tips for Writing and Online Research

I am ‘into’ the internet. I encourage you to be careful in how you citematerial you find online. If anything in your work derives from an outsidesource and is not common knowledge, it needs a footnote. More footnotes arebetter than fewer footnotes.

Websites that end in .edu tend to be more reliablethan .com sites (like “about.com”). Also, websites without ads tend to be morereliable than ad-driven sites.

Sites that have a named author and a date are more reliable than anonymoussites.

Sites that have a neutral point of view are much more reliable than siteswhere someone has an axe to grind. Evaluate the point of view of the personwriting the content you are looking at – how reliable is it? Also, read thewhole article before pulling quotes for inclusion in your papers. Don’t justcut and paste what look like the relevant parts. (Note: only the longer paperat the end of the term will be research-oriented. For the most part I will beinterested in your thoughts and ideas.)

Wikipedia is good – I use it all the time – butnot perfect. When you want to use material you found on Wikipedia,try confirming it with a second source just to be sure.

Learn to use internet search engines well. If you’re looking for a wholephrase, put the phrase in quotation marks. Learn to use search filters (forinstance, you can tell Google to just search “.edu”sites).

Lehigh subscribes to an impressive array of ‘closed’ databases that youcan’t access from the open internet. Lexis-Nexis is a database that keeps fulltext articles from thousands of newspapers and magazines. JSTOR is a databaseof academic journals, as is Project Muse. These databases can be accessed ifyou go to Lehigh’s library web page, and go to “Databases.”

Only use outside sources that are directly relevant toyour argument. If something is only ‘kind of’ relevant, don’t use itjust to sound smart. Don’t use filler just to make your paper the correctlength.

Papers should be double-spaced and have normal margins and 12 point fonts.Papers that are a little too long are ok. If your paper is too short, youprobably haven’t done enough work.

Avoid beginning papers with “Throughout human history...” Or “In humansociety,…” In general, avoid blanket specificationsand go for specific details. Read lots of book reviews in the New York Times ifyou want further tips on how to open an essay in an interesting way.

All papers should have a clear thesis that is contestable. By contestable, I mean a rational person couldconceivably disagree with it. What follows the thesis paragraph should alsoclearly be in support of the given thesis.

Tentative Syllabus

8/29     Introduction     

8/31     Opal Mehta excerpts (photocopy); Newspaper and internet coverageof

Plagiarism;Barthes, “What is an Author?” (photocopy); Denis Dutton, “Forgery





9/5       BeginOscar Wilde, Picture of Dorian Gray

9/7       ContinueWilde


9/12     Continue Wilde

9/14     Continue Wilde


9/19     Watch Wilde film;short papers on Wilde due (3-4 pages)

9/21     Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway


9/26     Continue Woolf; excerpts from her diaries**

9/28     Continue Woolf; excerpts from Hermione Lee’s biography ofWoolf**


10/3     Begin Michael Cunningham, The Hours

10/5     Continue Cunningham



10/12   Continue Cunningham


10/17   Papers due on Woolf/Cunningham (5 pages)

10/19   Begin Colm Toibin,The Master


10/24   Continue Toibin

10/26   Continue Toibin


10/31   Continue Toibin

11/2     Read Henry James, “The Aspern Papers”(photocopy, or as ordered)


11/7     Continue discussing “The AspernPapers”; Excerpts from Leon Edel’s biography

11/9     Thomas Mann, “Felix Krull”(photocopy); Papers on Toibin/James (5 pages)


11/14   Nella Larsen, “Passing”

11/16   Vladimir Nabokov, Despair


11/21   Continue Nabokov



11/28   Continue Nabokov

11/30   Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory


12/5     Continue Nabokov; Short papers on Nabokov due (3-4 pages)

12/7     Last day of class


12/15   Finalresearch papers due (10 pages). The research paper will ask you to look up aplagiarism (or secrecy scandal) from reading outside of the course. (Moredetails to come.)

Introduction toEnglish 191

This is a course about literary authors who are not who theyclaim to be. Perhaps they have a public image that is projected to the world,that doesn't correspond to who they 'really' are.
Perhaps they have a personal secret about their life or lifestyle they wish toconceal -- perhaps something about their sexuality or sexual preferences. (For some reason the public has always been fascinated by the sexlives of literary authors. It’s also interesting that a disproportionatenumber of the most famous authors in the English canon – the books consideredas “classics,” and widely taught in English classes – were gay. Some gayauthors were relatively open about personal lives, while others were quitesecretive.)

Or, perhaps the writers whose names appear on our books aren't the 'real'authors of their public works at all -- in the past couple of years, theAmerican publishing world has been rocked by some very high profile plagiarismscandals. The biggest is probably Kaavya Viswanathan, a Indian-American teenager from New Jersey whowrote a novel about a girl like herself who embarked on a crash makeover tomake herself appealing to Harvard after an admissions official told her shemight be too nerdy to get in. It turned out that Kaavya'smuch-hyped book, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got aLife," was largely plagiarized, from not just one but four or five otherteen 'chicklit' novels. The publisher had to withdrawthe book in the end, red-faced with embarrassment over the scandal and themassive advance it had given Kaavya Viswanathan. Did she really think she would get away withit? Why did she feel she needed to do it? To what extent might the publisherbear some responsibility for what happened? What is behind the scandal?

The other big scandal is slightly different, as it involves a nonfiction book.James Frey's memoir "A Million Little Pieces" wasn't plagiarized, butit turned out to largely not be true. It's a memoir of drug addiction and thepath to recovery. But Frey has admitted that the worst, most extreme incidentsdescribed in the book never happened. In the book he says he was in jail for ayear or two after a drug bust; but in actuality the only jailed time he everdid was six hours in a holding cell after a DUI incident. Frey was neverarrested for dealing drugs, and indeed, the whole question of his being a'real' drug addict is one that is very much up in the air.

Why did James Frey lie? Isn't it interesting that two of the most hyped booksin recent years turned out to be fakes? Is there a connection between thedesire for literary fame and the tendency to fake?

And there have been others. For instance, there is awell-known gay author named J.T. Leroy who turned out not to exist. All of hisbooks were, it turns out, written by a heterosexual woman, who dressed up as aman (with thick sunglasses, a big hat, and concealing clothes) whenever it wasnecessary for Leroy to actually appear in person. 

These scandals aren't new. Plagiarism charges in particular have been floatingaround as long as the modern publishing industry has existed. Before the modernera various forms of borrowing were even heavier. Even the medieval writerGeoffrey Chaucer might be accused of a kind of plagiarism. Some of his"Canterbury Tales" borrow heavily from other writers' plots; oneparticularly direct source is the Italian writer Boccaccio,whose Decameron has someepisodes that bear a striking similarity to Chaucer’s “Troilus and Criseyde.”

Chaucer wasn't subject to a scandal, largely because he wrote before moderncopyright law -- it was even an era when most works weren't being translatedinto other languages, so few readers would have known about the Boccaccio.

The biggest scandal just before the advent of the 'modern' era is more relevantto our class, and we'll be looking a bit more closely at it. The scandalinvolves Thomas Chatterton, who at the age of sixteeninvented a medieval monk who had discovered a medieval epic poem based in thetown where he (Chatterton) lived, Bristol.Though he was only sixteen, he had many people fooled. (It’s interesting that,like Kaavya Viswanathan,the most famous plagiarist of the 18th century was just a teenagerwhen he got started.)  Whether or notit’s real, his poem is actually pretty good – scholars today still read it.

The goal isn't to simply look at authors and their secrets (and lies), butrather to think about the forces that contribute to the pattern of secrecy. I’malso interested in what that says about “us,” that is to say, ordinary peoplewho have a certain idea of what a literary author is. Where did our idea ofwriting as a “noble profession” come from? Why do we place such a high value onoriginality?

What is an 'author'?
What is a literary text and how does it work?
What is the source of creativity?
Is there such a thing as genius?
Why is the image of the author so powerful in our culture?



The basic structureof this course is books in pairs. There are three sets of pairs – VirginiaWoolf/Michael Cunningham, Henry James/Colm Toibin, and the two books by Vladimir Nabokov,one a work of fiction and the other a kind of autobiography. In the first twocases a controversial novel (a novel with a secret, we might say) is pairedwith a work of contemporary fiction that remarks on the author and his or hersecrets. All three of the more recent books seem to emulate in some way thepattern of writing of the writers’ works they are commenting on.


Other materials also come in—NellaLarsen’s story about racial passing, or Thomas Mann’s story about a boy growingup with a kind of obsessive need to lie. These are fascinating cases, butthey’ll probably come into the course as one-day discussions toward the end ofthe term.

Starting this Thursday, we’ll be looking at some literarytheory that explores the fundamental question of what an author is. Is itpossible we don’t need authors or the idea of authorship anymore? This theorywill be difficult reading, and I want you to pay close attention to it. If youput serious effort into comprehending it, it’s possible that the way you lookat books and literature will change at a fundamental level.


Literary criticism and theory can get us to see the patternsthat exist between books, as well as to understand how the literature from oneera might be different from the literature of another. It can also help usthink about what it is we do when we read. Where does the power of a story comefrom? Is it essential that we read literature in a certain way to enjoy it?What is the difference between an “anonymous” experience of reading, andreading when we know an author’s name?


Afinal note.


We live in a digital culture, which also happens to be anera obsessed with celebrity scandals and secrets. It’s an era when it’s easierthan ever to copy other people’s works. But it’s also easier than ever to spotand track copies – sometimes as easy as a Google search or Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book” function.


More and more people read things like magazines andnewspapers online. Weblogs have taken off in a bigway – I myself keep one, and add new posts pretty frequently.


Some people even read whole books online. (Despite this,traditional booksellers are still in business, though the publishing industryis in a slump.) It’s possible that we are on the threshold of a new era ofwriting and reading, which may also mean a new era of literary authorship. Whatdoes it mean to call yourself a writer these days –when it seems like everybody writes?


Will there be web-only novelists? Will there be aShakespeare of the blogging world – a blogger so good we’ll read her words 500 years fromnow?  What do we make of the fact that somany people on the internet write anonymously? What secrets do today’s webauthors have to keep? Why are there so many people outthere who thin other people will be interested in their day-to-day personallives?


These are questions that are definitely on my mind thesedays, and perhaps we’ll try and find a way to bring them into the discussionalong the way as well.




How Kaavya Got Packaged and Got Into Trouble

Plagiarism and the teen-marketingculture.

"Is it hard work being a poser?" One of the Haute Bitchez at Woodcliff High School puts that tauntingquestion to Opal Mehta, the protagonist of the teen novel by Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan, whoseconfession this week that she unconsciously plagiarized the work of thebest-selling young-adult author Megan McCafferty hasstirred controversy. The dig comes near the end of HowOpal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life when Opal's parent-drivenself-packaging mission has been revealed to the entire high school. As herpeers now know (from a tell-all Treo that shedropped), the senior has been devoting her fall semester to a marketing planthat the Mehtas fondly refer to by the acronymHOWGAL, How Opal Will Get A Life—a plan geared toward turning a science grindinto a glamour girl. Heretofore she had been doggedly pursuing a moreconventional marketing plan, HOWGIH, How Opal Will Get IntoHarvard. The inspiration for the strategic swerve is Harvard's dean ofadmissions himself, who, at Opal's August interview, suggests that a girl whohas been engineered since birth to be a super high-achiever needs to "Havefun. … Find out what you're really passionate about." Harvard doesn't want"automatons." By the January application deadline, he says, come backand "show us what a well-rounded candidate you've become. Soundgood?"

The ensuing formulaic story is far more poignant in light of the accusationsthat Viswanathan—a super-achieving, ScholasticArt & Writing Award-winning, Johns Hopkins program-attending high-schooler who went on to become a Harvard student with ahalf-million-dollar book advance—is a poser herself. In Viswanathan'snovel, Opal's parents get right to work on R&D, scrutinizing trashy TVshows and teen magazines; they marshal their whiteboard, spreadsheets, to-dolists, and Photoshop technology to the end of packaging a new hip, popular,less uptight product. They even vacate their house so Opal can throw a bigparty when their dutiful daughter points out a paradox in the enterprise:"How can I get wild with my parents in the picture?" The upshot,predictably, is that Opal discovers the emptiness of the purely instrumental,image-obsessed approach to life. Exposed as a manipulative phony, a"master liar" who has betrayed her old wonky friends and exploitedher new bitchy friends, she pays the price by becoming a pariah at school. Theexperience allows her at last to get in touch with the real Opal, who proclaimsherself "sick of doing stuff just because it'll get me somewhere"—andwho, of course, gets into Harvard. (It's worth noting that Opal's parents, onlybriefly upset by the ordeals that their best-laid plans have visited on theirdaughter, end up totally pleased.)

Viswanathan herself has not been so lucky. Thedarker moral of her story seems to be that if you succeed by packaging, you canexpect to fail by packaging, too—and you alone, not your packagers, will paythe price. McCafferty's publisher, Steve Ross ofCrown, has rejected as "disingenuous and troubling" Viswanathan's apology for her "unintentional andunconscious" borrowings from two McCaffertybooks, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, that she says she read and lovedin high school. He's right, it doesn't sound like the whole story. I don't meansimply to let Viswanathan off the hook, but her ownbook—indeed, its very copyright line, Alloy Entertainment and Kaavya Viswanathan—suggests abroader culture of adult-mediated promotion and strategizing at work. It's aculture, as her novel itself shows, that might well leave a teenager veryconfused about what counts as originality—even a teenager who can writeknowingly about just that confusion. In fact, perhaps being able to write soknowingly about derivative self-invention is a recipe for being ripe to succumbto it. Viswanathan may not be a victim, exactly—she'stoo willing for that—but she is only one of many players here.

Before the scandal hit, Viswanathan emphasizedthat her own route to Harvard was not as obsessively scripted as Opal's. Still,no one would mistake the fruition of her novel for a case of independentcreative genius unfolding. The project got its impetus from none other than Viswanathan's professional college packager KatherineCohen, a founder of IvyWise, a premier outfit thatchoreographs the college application process from ninth grade onward, and,crucially, helps produce essays that convey students' "passions."Working with Viswanathan, Cohen sensed "a starin the making" merely from surveying the teen's writing samples. Just howthe publishing deal evolved from there gets a little fuzzy—just as it can be alittle hard, often, to say just how a carefully coached college essay evolves,or how, exactly, a particular résumé-enhancing after-school club membershipcame to be. Whose idea it initially was, how much massaging was involved, whatrelation the final result bears to the first impulse: Students and consultantsalike can find it hard, or uncomfortable, to clarifysuch matters.

A story a year ago in the New York Sun said Viswanathan's"plot was hatched well before she signed up with Ms. Cohen," andreported that a manuscript went from Cohen's own literary agent at the WilliamMorris Agency to the fiction specialist there, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, and fromher straight to Little, Brown. According to a Boston Globe article oftwo months ago—which, strangely, comes in the novel's media packet—there wasconsiderably more intervention than that. Several recent articles in the NewYork Times add more confusing details about a less-than-streamlinedprocess. What the Morris agent saw wasn't "commercially viable" work,the Globe reported. The fiction Cohen saw involved Irish history, a NewYork Times article noted last month; this week, the sample her agent saw is described as"dark," in "the vein of The Lovely Bones." In anyevent, Viswanathan was referred to 17thStreet Productions, now owned by Alloy Entertainment, which describes itself as"a creative think tank that develops and produces original books,television series and feature films" with a focus on the teen market.Their properties are carefully targeted—and they're not known asshowcases of authenticity in the sense that most writers usually mean it. Thewhole idea is to produce variations on a tried-and-true formula, so perhaps itwas no surprise that, according to the Globe, the producers of the"Make Out" and "Gossip Girl" series suggested Viswanathan try something, well,lighter. McCafferty, it's worth noting, is the kindof popular teen author whose cynical-but-smart first-person school dazenarratives almost surely get marketers thinking along similar lines.

To be sure, there were "lots of discussions about 'finding my voice,'" as Viswanathan told the Globe, nodoubt reminiscent of those conversations with Cohen about her various collegeessays—but probably even more reminiscent, to judge by the 17thStreet Productions think-tank style,of the meetings convened by Opal's parents to map out what could be learned andapplied from the latest episodes and outfits on, say, The O.C. Oncethe book's concept had been "fleshed out," the project went back toWalsh, who worked with Viswanathan further, accordingto the Globe. It doesn't sound as though the Morris Agency's goal was to tap into herunique imagination. "We had all recognized that Kaavyahad the craftsmanship, she's beautiful and charming, she just needed to findthe right novel that would speak to her generation and to people beyond heryears as well," Walsh told the Globe. "We worked on it somemore and sold it for oodles and boodles of money." Having bought it forthose oodles, Little, Brown then did its share of meddling. "There wasmore shaping to this book than we generally do," AsyaMuchnick, a senior editor, said in the same piece;she declined to comment in the Times this week. Who knows when andwhere, exactly, McCafferty's voice crept in. An overloaded Harvard freshman with plenty of otherwriting to get done, Viswanathan might almost beforgiven for having forgotten that originality was even the goal she wasstriving for. Not that she would think twice, either, when Little, Brown'spublisher touted the "freshness of the voice" in a special publicity letter about her book. A veteran of acollege packaging process that puts a premium on audience-targeted expressionsof "passion," she's surely used to that hype.

The historian Steven Ambrose,a one-man book production company, ducked plagiarism charges in a late book, TheWild Blue, by attributing them to his overhasty entourage of assistants,his five kids. It's tempting to wonder whether Viswanathan,if she could find her own voice, might foist some of the blame for herborrowings onto her endlessly enabling elders. But that is, of course, the lastthing a much-mentored superkid, intent on success,has been reared to do. Opal dares only once to tell her parents to back off,and then she bolts to her bedroom.



Link by Link

In Internet Age, Writers Face Frontier Justice


Published: May 1, 2006


Correction Appended

WRITING last Monday at SepiaMutiny.com,a Web log dedicated to the Southeast Asian diaspora,a user called RC declared that "there is no scientific way to compareworks of literature."

This observation was prompted by news, published a day earlier in TheHarvard Crimson, suggesting that the budding novelist KaavyaViswanathan, a Harvard sophomore, wasactually a plagiarist who had served up large, sometimes verbatim helpings oftwo young-adult novels by Megan McCafferty —"Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings" — in her lucrativefirst yarn, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life."

Just where science fits into the weeklong fracas that followed is an openquestion. The news broke the old-fashioned way: in a newspaper. And theexpanding scope of the scandal — first 12 passages were questioned, then 29,then 40 — was driven by findings from Ms. McCafferty'spublishers as much as anything else.

But certainly technology — and the relentless, sometimes merciless socialinteraction it has enabled in the digital age — played a part in forcing Ms. Viswanathan's publisher, Little, Brown, to recall thespoiled product by week's end. For days, the author's name was one of the mostsearched terms at the blog search engine Technorati, while commentators at forums from Metafilter to Amazon.com hashed over details revealed in the mainstreammedia, or offered up new discoveries and insights of their own:

"Viswanathan might have plagiarism issueswith more than McCafferty's books," wrote Janak Ramakrishnan, another blogger at Sepia Mutiny. Mr. Ramakrishnanhad noticed a similarity between pious aphorisms scribbled onto posters by acharacter in Ms. Viswanathan's book ("If fromdrink you get your thrill, take precaution, write your will" and "Allthe dangerous drug abusers end up safe as total losers") and passages fromthe 1990 book "Haroun and the Sea ofStories" by Salman Rushdie. A chapter titled "The Mail Coach" inMr. Rushdie's book depicts a series of rhyming road signs, including two thatread, "If from speed you get your thrill, take precaution, make your will"and "All the dangerous overtakers end up safe atthe undertaker's."

To be fair, of course, rhyming road-safety signs are common along India'sexpressways, so Mr. Rushdie was himself borrowing on a theme. But likeeverything else, even this minute similarity — homage? remix?rip-off? — became part of the ceaselesscompare-and-contrast debate.

Indeed, whatever Ms. Viswanathan's culpability(she maintained, by week's end, that all similarities to Ms. McCafferty's books were unintentional), one might hope theepisode would be the final object lesson for would-be plagiarists who stillthink that their indiscretions can escape scrutiny.

In the age of the Internet, literary exegesis (whether driven by scandal ornot) is no longer undertaken solely by pale critics or plodding lawyersspeaking only to each other, but by a global hive, humming everywhere at once,and linked to the wiki. And if you are big enough tomatter (as any writer would hope to be), one misstep, one mistake, can incite ahorde of analysts, each with a global publishing medium in the living room and,it sometimes seems, limitless amounts of time.

Frontier justice? Mob rule?Perhaps.

But last week, not just petty gadflies fueled by schadenfreudeand bloodlust (though there was that), but also armchair defense attorneys andthe merely curious were discussing the books — as well as whether Ms. Viswanathan's status as a) immigrant, b) minority, c) childof privilege or d) hottie — played a role in hertreatment.

Many online commentators detected an underlying racism, for instance, ineven good-natured rants — perhaps typified by Gawker'scheeky (and occasionally misinterpreted) comment on Tuesday: "Isn't itkind of awesome to see an overachieving Indian kid finally do somethingwrong?"

But others pointed to the fact that Ms. Viswanathanhad only one week earlier told The Newark Star-Ledger that "nothing I readgave me the inspiration" for the novel, but now, under scrutiny, suddenlyrecalled adoring Ms. McCafferty's books and claimedto have unconsciously channeled them. Given that, her critics charged, she wasbeing treated better than other fabulists of late.

"If Viswanathan weren't young, attractive anda student at the best brand name in higher education, wouldn't she be JamesFrey II?" Jane Genova, a marketing consultant inConnecticut, wrote on her blog (janegenova.com)on Thursday. "You bet," she continued. "The pile-on would havebeen fast and massive."

But what if she had been deaf and blind?

That was a question raised in a discussion at Metafilter,where Andrew Shalit, in a defense of Ms. Viswanathan's claim of unconscious copying, pointed to theHelen Keller archives at the Web site for the American Foundation for theBlind.

There, in her autobiography "The Story of My Life," Ms. Kellerdescribes how, at age 12, she wrote a story — "The Frost King" — thatcreated her own publishing scandal.

"Mr. Anagnos was delighted with 'The FrostKing,' and published it in one of the Perkins Institution reports," Ms.Keller wrote (Chapter 14 at afb.org/mylife). "This was the pinnacle of myhappiness, from which I was in a little while dashed to earth. I had been inBoston only a short time when it was discovered that a story similar to 'TheFrost King,' called 'The Frost Fairies' by Miss Margaret T. Canby, had appearedbefore I was born in a book called 'Birdie and His Friends.' The two storieswere so much alike in thought and language that it was evident Miss Canby'sstory had been read to me, and that mine was — a plagiarism."

It was surmised that Ms. Keller must have heard Ms. Canby's story read toher as a child and unconsciously retold the story years later as her own, anevent that left her in dread of trying to write anything original again.

Back at Metafilter, Keith M. Ellis wondered if Ms.Keller would have received a fair shake in the rush to judgment that is now derigueur in the Internet age.

"It seems to me we give zero consideration to the possibility that itmight be plagiarism, but unintentional," Mr. Ellis wrote, adding: "Ifwe changed the name and obscured the disability-indicating details, would westill be willing to consider innocence?"

A piercing question, that — though so, too, iswhether Ms. Viswanathan's case warrants a comparisonto Ms. Keller's. And as mercenaries stampeded to eBay to peddle copies of Ms. Viswanathan'ssuddenly scarce book (a first edition was selling for $80 on Friday), the hopefor any larger lessons in the "Opal" episode began to dim. Yet here,too, the Internet presented something of a solution.

Purveyors of "The MehtaMorphasis Award"(snipurl.com/Mehtaward)were offering $75 for the most eloquently crafted moral to a week of chargeddebate surrounding the frothy, ephemeral novel.

Among the submissions:

"The controversy may deservedly be far more interesting than the storyitself."

Correction: May 5, 2006

The Link by Link column in Business Day on Monday, aboutthe plagiarism allegations involving the novel "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed,Got Wild and Got a Life," by Kaavya Viswanathan, misstated the geographic focus of the Web logSepiaMutiny.com, which discussed the case. It is South Asia,not Southeast Asia


Kaavya Syndrome The accusedHarvard plagiarist doesn't have a photographic memory. No one does.

Kaavya Viswanathan hasan excuse. In this morning's New York Times, the author of HowOpal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life explained how she"unintentionally and unconsciously" plagiarized upward of 29 passagesfrom the books of another young-adult novelist, Megan McCafferty.Viswanathan said she has a photographic memory."I never take notes."

This seems like as good an opportunity as any to clear up the greatestenduring myth about human memory. Lots of people claim to have a photographicmemory, but nobody actually does. Nobody.

Well, maybe one person.

In 1970, a Harvard vision scientist named Charles StromeyerIII published a landmark paper in Nature about a Harvard student namedElizabeth, who could perform anastonishing feat. Stromeyer showed Elizabeth'sright eye a pattern of 10,000 random dots, and a day later, he showed her lefteye another dot pattern. She mentally fused the two images to form a random-dotstereogram and then saw a three-dimensional image floating above thesurface. Elizabeth seemed to offerthe first conclusive proof that photographic memory is possible. But then in asoap-opera twist, Stromeyer married her, and she wasnever tested again.

In 1979, a researcher named John Merritt published theresults of a photographic memory test he had placed in magazines and newspapersaround the country. Merritt hoped someone might come forward with abilitiessimilar to Elizabeth's, and hefigures that roughly 1 million people tried their hand at the test. Of thatnumber, 30 wrote in with the right answer, and he visited 15 of them at theirhomes. However, with the scientist looking over their shoulders, not one ofthem could pull off Elizabeth'strick.*

There are so many unlikely circumstances surrounding the Elizabethcase—the marriage between subject and scientist, the lack of further testing,the inability to find anyone else with her abilities—that some psychologistshave concluded that there's something fishy about Stromeyer'sfindings. He denies it. "We don't have any doubt about our data," hetold me recently. Still, his one-woman study, he says, "is not strongevidence for other people having photographic memory."

That's not to say there aren't people withextraordinarily good memories—there are. They just can't take mental snapshotsand recall them with perfect fidelity. KimPeek*, the53-year-old savant who was the basis for Dustin Hoffman's character in RainMan, is said to have memorized every page of the 9,000-plus books he hasread at 8 to 12 seconds per page (each eye reads its own page independently),though that claim has never been rigorously tested. Another savant, Stephen Wiltshire, has been called the "humancamera" for his ability to create sketches of a scene after looking at itfor just a few seconds. But even he doesn't have a truly photographic memory.His mind doesn't work like a Xerox. He takes liberties.

Photographic memory is often confused with another bizarre—butreal—perceptual phenomenon called eidetic memory, which occurs in between 2 and15 percent of children and very rarely in adults. An eidetic image isessentially a vivid afterimage that lingers in the mind's eye for up to a fewminutes before fading away. Children with eidetic memory never have anythingclose to perfect recall, and they typically aren't able to visualize anythingas detailed as a body of text.

In every case except Elizabeth'swhere someone has claimed to possess a photographic memory, there has alwaysbeen another explanation. A group of Talmudic scholars known as the Shass Pollaks supposedlystored mental snapshots of all 5,422 pages of the Babylonian Talmud. Accordingto a paper published in 1917 in the journal Psychological Review, psychologistGeorge Stratton tested the Shass Pollaksby sticking a pin through various tractates of the Talmud. They responded bytelling him exactly which words the pin passed through on every page. In fact,the Shass Pollaks probablydidn't possess photographic memory so much as heroic perseverance. If theaverage person decided he was going to dedicate his entire life to memorizing5,422 pages of text, he'd probably also be pretty good at it. It's animpressive feat of single-mindedness, not of memory.

Truman Capote famously claimed to have nearly absolute recall of dialogueand used his prodigious memory as an excuse never to take notes or use a taperecorder, but I suspect his memory claims were just a useful cover to inventdialogue whole cloth. Not even S, the Russian journalist and professional mnemonist who was studied for three decades by psychologistA.R. Luria, had a photographic memory. Rather, heseemed to have implicitly mastered a set of mnemonic techniques that allowedhim to memorize certain kinds of information.

Viswanathan is hardly the first plagiarist toclaim unconscious influence from memory's depths. George Harrison said he neverintended to rip off the melody of the Chiffons' "He's So Fine" whenhe 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 FrostFairies" in her story "The Frost King," Canby herself said,"Under the circumstances, I do not see how any one can be so unkind as tocall it a plagiarism; it is a wonderful feat of memory." Keller claimedshe was forever after terrified. "I have ever since been tortured by thefear 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 thesentences 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 thoughtsfrom those I read, because what I read become the very substance and texture ofmy mind."

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

Then again, who knows, maybe Viswanathan reallydoes have a photographic memory. She could be the first (or second). Earlierthis year, a group of memory researchers at the University of California-Irvine published anastonishing article about a woman called AJ who can apparently remember every day of her life sincechildhood. Such people weren't supposed to exist. Her case totally upendseverything we thought we knew about the limits of human memory. The scientistseven had to coin a new name for her disorder, hyperthymesticsyndrome. If Viswanathan really wants to stick to herstory, I know a few scientists who'd probably like to meet her. She might evenbe able to get a syndrome named after her.