Topic: Society

Kaavya Viswanathan
(May 2006)

Hmmm. It appears that the earnest mea culpas of Harvard's various plagiarizing professors, like historian Doris Kearns and Constitutional Law expert Lawrence Tribe, have not convinced Harvard students that plagiarism doesn't pay. Actually, it pays quite well, or almost did in the case of Harvard College sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan, who had a best-selling first novel ("How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life") and a lucrative movie deal from DreamWorks until some sharp-eyed bloggers ("Damn you meddling bloggers! Damn you, I say!!!") found dozens of passages that were juuuust a little too similar to those in other best-sellers by established authors. The Harvard Crimson, which is getting good at exposing the plagiarism of their fellow scholars in Cambridge, printed some of the novel's striking similarities to Megan McCafferty's "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings," such as these….

From page 209 of McCafferty's first novel, "Sloppy Firsts" :

"'Uhhhh...I live less than half a mile from here. Twelve Forest Drive.'
"Pause.
"'So I don't need a ride...'
"Another pause.
"'But do you want one?' he asked.
"God, did I want one.
"He knew it, too. He leaned over the front seat and popped open the passenger-side door. 'Come on, I want to talk to you,' he said."

From page 172 of Viswanathan's novel:

"'Sit down.'
"'Uh, actually...I was just dropping off some books. I'm supposed to be home by nine. And it's already eight-forty.'
"Pause.
"'So I can't really stay...'
"Another pause.
"'But you want to?' he asked.
"Did I? Yes...
"He knew it, too. He patted the chair again. 'Come on, I want to talk to you,' he said."

From page 69 of McCafferty's second novel, "Second Helpings":

"Throughout this conversation, Manda acted like she couldn't have been more bored. She lazily skimmed her new paperback copy of Reviving Ophelia--she must have read the old one down to shreds. She just stood there, popping another piece of Doublemint, or reapplying her lip gloss, or slapping her ever-present pack of Virginia Slims against her palm. (Insert oral fixation jokes, here, here and here.) Her hair--usually dishwater brown and wavy--had been straightened and bleached the color of sweet corn since the last time I saw her...Just when I thought she had maxed out on hooter hugeness, it seemed that whatever poundage Sara had lost over the summer had turned up in Manda's bra."

From page 48 of Viswanathan's novel:

"The other HBz acted like they couldn't be more bored. They sat down at a table, lazily skimmed heavy copies of Italian Vogue, popped pieces of Orbit, and reapplied layers of lip gloss. Jennifer, who used to be a bit on the heavy side, had dramatically slimmed down, no doubt through some combination of starvation and cosmetic surgery. Her lost pounds hadn't completely disappeared, though; whatever extra pounds she'd shed from her hips had ended up in her bra. Jennifer's hair, which I remembered as dishwater brown and riotously curl, had been bleached Clairol 252: Never Seen in Nature Blonde. It was also so straight it looked washed, pressed and starched."

As you can see, this is classic desperate student term paper fudging, changing a passage just enough that it would sneak through most plagiarism-checking software, but retaining the structure, ideas, key phrases and tone of the original passages. Viswanathan had a different, and unbelievable, explanation for it. She apologized, but claimed she had inadvertently mimicked McCafferty because she knew her books so well and had read them so many times. Often enough, apparently, that she had various passages virtually memorized, yet they were so familiar to her that she had begun to think of them as her own.

Keep reading that sentence…it doesn't become any more convincing. Would a big fan of "Moby Dick" start a whaling novel with the words, "Call me Ishkabibble!" and not realize that this was not exactly original? Would we find Viswanathan's excuse credible from a Margaret Mitchell fan whose Civil War romance had the hero kiss off his lover with the words, "Frankly, honey, it makes no damn difference to me!" ?

I think not.

After the 19 year-old was busted on her McCafferty sections, Viswanathan's publisher said it would pull all the unsold copies and work with the author to purge the novel of the "inadvertent" similarities. Then…surprise!!!...more passages were discovered that paralleled passages in works by other writers, like young-adult novelists Sophie Kinsella and Meg Cabot. (Gosh, it's just amazing how these passages get into your head, isn't it, Kaavya?) That did it: Little, Brown cancelled her book contract, and DreamWorks decided its money would be better spent on "Shrek 4."

The lingering question is what Harvard proposes to do with its latest fallen star. Since the University didn't really discipline its faculty author plagiarizers, it will have a hard time justifying adverse action against a student who has simply taken her cues from them. But if plagiarizing in a term paper for a better grade will get a student bounced out of the Ivy Enclave (and it does), surely using the creative work of other writers to deceive publishers, the media, and the public and rake in money from royalties, book contracts and movie deals warrants an equally stern response.

Besides, having produced such a well-publicized plagiarist must embarrass the Harvardians…unless they've gotten used to it.

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