Borrowed Words


There is no doubt that Harvard graduate Kaavya Viswanathan, the latest author to be accused of plagiarism, is a lazy and unethical writer. But the attacks on her are turning into some kind of witch-hunt. This quote, from the gossip blog, Gawker, sums up the general pounding Viswanathan has been receiving: ‘Whatever happened here, let’s just sum it all up with the obvious: Isn’t it kind of awesome to see an overachieving Indian kid finally do something wrong?’

Kaavya Viswanathan

The UK publisher Little, Brown paid US$500,000 for Kaavya Viswanathan’s novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, although their contract is with a packager: Alloy.

Alloy Entertainment is a behind-the-scenes ‘creator’ of young-adult books. (I hate to bring up an old postmodernist chestnut, but when you have corporations ‘helping’ writers write books, you would have to conclude that the author is unwell, if not actually dead.)

Alloy owns or shares the copyright with the authors and then divides the advances and any royalties with them. ‘In a way it’s kind of like working on a television show,’ said Cindy Eagan, editorial director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. ‘We all work together in shaping each novel.’

Despite the contract, both Little, Brown and Viswanathan have very clearly stated that Alloy is in no way responsible for the ‘problems’ with How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. The problems being that Viswanathan seems to have taken around 40 plot points of her novel from two novels by the young-adult writer Megan McCafferty.

According to the New York Times, ‘The relationships between Alloy and the publishers are so intertwined that the same editor, Claudia Gabel, is thanked on the acknowledgments pages of both McCafferty’s books and Viswanathan’s.’

Gabel had been an editorial assistant at Crown Publishing Group, then moved to Alloy, where she helped develop the idea for Viswanathan’s book.

But it seems that no-one; not the publisher or the editor at Little, Brown; not the editor at Alloy; spotted that Viswanathan was a bit wobbly on the concept of original work. The moment something goes wrong, it’s suddenly all the author’s fault. Little, Brown have withdrawn the 100,000 print run of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life and cancelled Viswanathan’s two-book contract.

What strikes me as hypocritical in the case of Viswanathan is this: nearly all writing that is rewarded by publishers these days is safe. By which I mean it is written in a way that is reminiscent of another book that has sold well. Original or unusual fiction is often treated with disdain. What publishers want are books that can be described in publishing meetings thus: it’s Bridget Jones meets Anne Rice! Michael Connolly meets Stephen King!

I understand how a young and lazy writer might get mixed messages from the culture in general, and her publishers in particular, about how it’s good to be original, but not too original. And it’s good to be similar to another book that was commercially successful (but not too similar).

Here are some examples of Viswanathan’s ‘plagiarism’, via New Yorker contributor Malcolm Gladwell.

From page 7 of McCafferty’s first novel:

Bridget is my age and lives across the street. For the first twelve years of my life, these qualifications were all I needed in a best friend. But that was before Bridget’s braces came off and her boyfriend Burke got on, before Hope and I met in our seventh-grade honors classes.

From page 14 of Viswanathan’s novel:

Priscilla was my age and lived two blocks away. For the first fifteen years of my life, those were the only qualifications I needed in a best friend. We had first bonded over our mutual fascination with the abacus in a playgroup for gifted kids. But that was before freshman year, when Priscilla’s glasses came off, and the first in a long string of boyfriends got on.

Gladwell argues that this kind of borrowing is common in genre fiction an assertion that led to an extremely long and interesting argument in the comments after his post. Many of the commenters accused Gladwell of being patronising about Teen Fiction, and he then retracted his original post. I think he was onto something before he backed down.

Here’s another example, via the New York Times :

Mr Ramakrishnan [a blogger]had noticed a similarity between pious aphorisms scribbled onto posters by a character in Ms Viswanathan’s book (‘If from drink you get your thrill, take precaution, write your will’ and ‘All the dangerous drug abusers end up safe as total losers’) and passages from the 1990 book Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. A chapter titled ‘The Mail Coach’ in Mr Rushdie’s book depicts a series of rhyming road signs, including two that read, ‘If from speed you get your thrill, take precaution, make your will’ and ‘All the dangerous overtakers end up safe at the undertaker’s’. To be fair, of course, rhyming road-safety signs are common along India’s expressways, so Mr Rushdie was himself borrowing on a theme. But like everything else, even this minute similarity homage? remix? rip-off? became part of the ceaseless compare-and-contrast debate.

Frankly, there would be half a dozen travel writers just back from India who would have used the road signs in their articles as well. In fact, I think I might have.

It seems the more confused we become in this digital and postmodern age about issues of copyright, the more of a feeding frenzy (now there’s a stolen phrase; or is it a cliché?) there is around those who step over the mark. What would happen to most popular song writers if these kind of standards were applied? And the fashion industry? Shopping in China? Heck, Melbourne restaurateur Robin Vickers recently had to apologise after including photos of meals identical to those served in two American restaurants (New York’s WD-50 and Chicago’s Alinea) on his restaurant’s website

In the case of Kaavya Viswanathan, more stolen phrases come to mind. Ones about glass houses (or do I mean publishing houses?) and the casting of first stones. It seems to me that if the publishing industry were prepared to take a few more risks on talented writers they would not find themselves in the position of propping up ones without talent and getting themselves into the fix Little, Brown has found itself in.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.