The Mystery of Plagiarism

By Midge Raymond,

  Filed under: On Writing

It is probably impossible that you haven’t read about the alleged plagiarism by teenage author Kaavya Viswanathan (How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life), who has been accused of copying sizeable portions of two novels by Megan McCafferty (Sloppy Firsts, Second Helpings).

The topic of plagiarism actually came up recently in our memoir class — how easy it is to unintentionally echo the style of a writer you read and admire, simply because his or her language has stuck with you. But that is clearly not the case here. To compare just one or two of the passages in question is to realize that Viswanathan copied extensively from McCafferty’s books. If you’d like to see for yourself, The Boston Globe and the Harvard Crimson have laid out some of these passages side by side, and Publishers Marketplace has listed the 45 similar passages that Crown, McCafferty’s publisher, has found so far.

There are a couple of rather innocuous similiarities such as “Nike-clad” (let’s face it; no author can claim exclusive rights to that) — yet even these don’t seem entirely innocent when you look at the other, very obvious similarities. Here’s one example, from the list posted on Publishers Marketplace:

From McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts, page 183:

“Omigod! Let’s make sure junior year rocks,” she says. “Let’s make more time for each other. Friends are forever!”

I don’t want anything to do with Bridget, Manda, Sara, and the S.O.S. So I say even less at lunch than usual, totally aware of how alone I am.

From Viswanathan’s book, page 183:

“Omigod!” Stacie had finished reapplying her face. “We have to make more time for each other. Friends are forever!”

I said even less than usual, aware of how totally alone I am.

Most of the passages listed are as alike as this one, and evidently the plots and characters of Viswanathan’s book are also too similar for comfort. The New York Times reported yesterday that Viswanathan has apologized while maintaining that any similarities were “unintentional and unconscious,” a stance that is disputed by Crown, whose publisher said in a statement that it is “inconceivable that this was a display of youthful innocence or an unconscious or unintentional act.” The Times reported today that Viswanathan claims the similarities are due to her photographic memory.

But if you study these passages, it’s hard to believe any of these nearly identical passages ended up in her book by mistake. This brings me to the central question about plagiarism: Why?

I would guess that for most writers, the joys and challenges in writing come from discovering new ways of expressing what we want to say. I can’t imagine an author stealing another’s work on purpose because it defies the whole point of writing: letting your own voice evolve, saying something that has never been said before in quite the same way.

But during my years of teaching in a university writing program, I did learn a lot more about plagiarism, particularly the myriad reasons behind it. We devoted countless faculty meetings to discussions of plagiarism: how to avoid it, how to hold students accountable for it, what to do when you knew something was plagiarized but couldn’t prove it. In my six years of teaching there, I came across probably dozens of plagiarized papers — evident from a student’s voice suddenly becoming unrecognizable, from a student’s writing C papers all semester and suddenly turning in a nearly perfect assignment, from a student’s lack of knowledge about his or her own paper when questioned. But how many cases could I actually prove? Just one. This was the difficulty: we could probe and question as much as we liked, but unless we had solid proof to take to the academic affairs committee, or unless the student confessed, there was nothing we could do.

It was troubling, of course, to see students plagiarize — and worse, to see them learn how easily they could get away with it — but even more troubling to me were their reasons for doing so. In some cases, it was laziness; in others, anger — but most often I sensed that it was desperation: students stole the work of others because they were afraid they couldn’t deliver on their own. This, I think, is the most regrettable cause of cheating: the pressure to earn good grades, to please one’s parents, to stay on the lacrosse team, to keep a scholarship.

Imagine being a high-school student whose parents have hired a private counselor (to the tune of $10,000 to $20,000) to help you get into an Ivy League school. Imagine this counselor seeing great promise in your writing and putting you in touch with an agent, who then puts you in touch with a book packager. Imagine being offered half a million dollars to write two novels, before your freshman year in college is over. This is, according to articles in the New York Times, what happened to Viswanathan. Some would think of this young woman as extremely lucky (she is certainly extremely talented), yet I can’t help but think about the tremendous pressure she must’ve been under. Imagine trying to finish your first novel while carrying a full course load during your freshman year at Harvard. In theory, it sounds like a dream come true; in reality, it may have been anything but.

There is no excuse for plagiarism, of course. But perhaps we need to make it easier and more acceptable for young people to fail. Then, at least, they can handle failure on their own terms and honestly, without the more serious ramifications of plagiarism haunting them for years to come.

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