Thursday, May 04, 2006

Calling All Plagiarists

I get a weekly e-newsletter from, which is usually pretty unremarkable. I only continue to get it because I am too damn lazy to figure out how to cancel it. Plus, I LOVE the section that lists the sort of sources or answers that other writers need for their research. Crazy, mad things like "need to know about highly serious but non-fatal arm-bleeding injuries" or "bee sting treatments in the 1950s" or "can you legally obtain possession of a body after death?"

Usually, I skim these items and then delete the newsletter. But the following item caught my eye: The TMN "Sloppy Seconds with Opal Mehta Contest". I was intrigued as I'd been following the Opal Mehta controversy with some interest.

For those of you joining the controversy already in progress, a 17-year old New Jersey high school student, Kaavya Viswanathan, signed a two-book deal with Little, Brown. (I would chew my own arm off to get a two-book deal with Little, Brown. OK, probably not my whole arm, since that would seriously impact my camogie playing. But I would maybe chew off my little finger.)

Viswanathan is now a 19-year old sophomore at Harvard. Her first book, How Opal Mehta Bot Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, was published in March of this year in the sort of blizzard of publicity that you would expect for a young wunderkid who had walked away with a 6-figure advance. It's the sort of story that makes good people happy and less-than-good people (like me) bitter and jealous.

But, instead of rave reviews, a funny thing happened. Accusations of plagiarism were leveled, as it seemed like Viswanathan's book contained some paragraphs that bore a striking resemblance to Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts. For the record, Sloppy Firsts is the book I desperately wish I had written. It is the finest example of the genre that you'll find, with compelling, three-dimensional characters and clear, engaging writing. I loved that book and it is the standard I try to live up to in my own writing.

Viswanathan apologized for the similarities and claimed it was a case of accidental borrowing. McCafferty's publisher wasn't buying the apology and Little, Brown ended up pulling the book. Just when you thought things couldn't get any worse for the young author, yet more possible incidents of plagiarism were unearthed, from both Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries and Sophie Kinsella's Can You Keep a Secret? Little, Brown has canceled her book deal and will apparently not release a revised version of her book.

I think I will give the contest a go this weekend. The premise is simple – create a work of fiction of up to 750 words, all of them stolen as either phrases, sentences, or passages from at least 5 different books. The execution is going to be a lot more difficult but it will be fun to see what I come up with. I encourage you to give it a go too. Just think – all of us can have the chance to be world-famous plagiarists.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't feeling at least a little bit of schadenfreude. Getting your first book published is a wickedly difficult task. Landing a two-book deal worth six-figures before you even have a high school diploma is the sort of event that strikes jealousy in the heart of every writer with an unpublished novel or two on the hard drive. To see that young over-achiever undone, revealed as a cheat, sort of restores equilibrium to the world of an unbalanced, unpublished writer.

Sure, I enjoy a good success story, but I prefer it to be along the lines of Ron McLarty, a guy who didn't publish his first book until he was 56 and had written 10 novels, all of which were rejected.

I think many writers struggle with the bitter little person who lives inside of us. It's a tough business – slaving over a manuscript and then sending it out into the big, mean world. Every time you send out a book, you're sending out a little piece of your soul. To get that piece of your soul returned to you in your SASE with a form letter with your name misspelled is unbelievably humbling and depressing. If you're lucky enough to land an agent or get a book published, you might find yourself a drift in a strange land of re-writes, publicity, and non-existent sales.

So we maybe sometimes revel in downfallen writers like Viswanathan or James Frey. Maybe we write whining op-ed pieces for Salon. (Or if we're really good, we write humorous, uplifting op-ed pieces for Salon.) But in the end, I suppose all any of us can do is keep writing and hope for the best.


At 5 May 2006 at 12:07, Blogger Radio Free Newport said...

The issue of artist schadenfreude is a tough one. It's one of the reasons I'm glad to have left music behind as a possible career: too many musicians are negative assholes (more about this in a forthcoming post at RFN).

On a related note, I recently caught a student in the best case of plagiarism I've seen yet. She copied an entire paper on race from Wikipedia. The edits were fairly creative and came from various sections of three different entries. The best part is that she left the links in bold, so it was easy for me to follow the trail of where she went next to rip off. Brilliant!

But back to the main's mind-boggling to me that a writer would do this and try to get away with it. And this case -- along with the whole JT Leroi bullshit -- is an indictment of an industry that prefers wunderkinds or alleged outsiders (like Leroi) to hard-working writers. Ditto with the music industry.


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