Tuesday, May 02, 2006

When authors stray

As the current topic in the publishing world is the alleged plagiarism by Kaavya Viswanathan, the creator of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, and the fact her novel has now been officially withdrawn by her publisher from bookstores and will not be reissued, I thought I would add my view as a novelist and lawyer.

Viswanathan, born in India, wrote the novel in the US as a teenager and was paid around $500,000 in a two-book deal by Little Brown during her first year at Harvard. The accusation was that there were over 40--yes, 40--similarities between passages in her novel and passages of two novels written by author Megan McCafferty. The similarities relate to prose, style and even plot development issues.

She is now a sophomore at Harvard University and it was the university's newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, that first brought the issues of her alleged plagiarism to light. Predictably, the author apologized, stated she is a huge fan of Mc Cafferty, had read her novels several times as a teenager, and that any internalizing of her prose and subsequent regurgitation in her own novel was unintentional. Little Brown at first decided to repackage their author in an attempt to mitigate the fallout stating to the effect, 'She's a wonderful photogenic, little girl, we love her, and she's so industrious, and such a bright student.' Both the author and the publisher have promised to do a rewrite and remove the passages that bear any unfortunate but absolutely unintentional similarities.

I can understand that a writer might inadvertently allow one or possibly two similarities or pieces of another author's dialogue to creep into their own work during the writing. However, that should be detected and weeded out during the many drafts that a work goes through prior to acceptance for publication. But it is disingenuous to state that over 40 similarities are due to simple error and hero-worship of a favorite writer. Moreover, if plagiarism has indeed occurred--and it would seem that that is the case judging by the withdrawal of the book from sale--the editor at Little Brown also failed, I believe. A knowledgeable, well-read editor who buys frequently in a particular genre should be familiar with the existing work in the genre and 40 similarities would thus have caused his or her internal alarm bells to ring resoundingly. It is unfortunate but many editors at these houses do not have the experience or knowledge of their markets and, in my opinion, should be relieved of their duties in the same manner incompetent lawyers, doctors etc. are let go every day. Having worked as a lawyer I've seen and read about it happening at many lawfirms.

With regard to Ms. Viswanathan, it appears McCafferty (the author whose work had been plagiarized)has been very generous and stated she is seeking no restitution and wants only to get omn with her writing life, though I am not sure if she can also speak for her publisher. However, Random House seemed satisfied by the steps Little Brown has taken to resolve the matter.

Plagiarism amounts to literary identity theft. I can in no way accept--no matter how a psychologist might try to persuade me that it is feasible as I have read in an internet article--that an author would not be aware he or she is plagiarizing on 40 occasions. And writers who do plagiarize should pay a heavy price and not be allowed to hide behind weak defenses, such as the one utilised by Viswanathan which is as far as I can deduce amounts to 'innocent little girl in the big bad work defense.' She is clearly shrewd, intelligent enough to get into Harvard, and must take responsibility for the crime because it seems one has indeed been committed. Consequences for plagiarism should include all copies of the plagiarizing authors work being pulled from bookshelves, restitution to the author whose work was plagiarized (notwithstanding McCafferty's generosity) and the author's publisher as well as any members of the public who purchased the work and feel cheated, and cancellation of any existing publishing contracts.

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