I have been watching, reading, and thinking about Kaavya Viswanathan, the young Harvard student who wrote a book that had countless lines taken from other books. I first heard about Viswanathan's book, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life," on the Today show. Her book bore a striking similarity to two books by Megan McCafferty: "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Thoughts." I can't remember the exact numbers, but Katie Couric said that Harvard editors noted 19 similar passages, while McCafferty's publishers counted 61 similar or identical passages. Now it looks like her book has been permanently pulled by the book publisher.
I know what you are thinking – I was only watching the Today show because I wanted to watch Shakira sing and dance. Well, it was the show before the Shakira show, so there. Since then, though, I have heard others say that passages were lifted from other books as well (The Princess Diaries, by Meg Cabot, and Can You Keep a Secret?, by Sophie Kinsella, to name two books). And Forbes reports that she had a secret stash of material for other books that show similar patterns of unabashed borrowing.
Arun Krishnanactually defends Kaavva, saying that borrowing is okay. From his article (note that I am attributing words to the author, something Ms. Viswanathan failed to do),
Kaavya's crime was not that she copied; but that she didn't do it well.
She was young and enthusiastic. In the rush of youth, she didn't take that extra second, to rearrange this thought, move that comma, or insert that metaphor. Her only fault was that she was being overtly honest and -- possibly under the influence of her publishers -- unnecessarily rushed.
I wonder if Arun Krishnan would say that Bonnie and Clyde's only crime was that they were surrounded on Highway 154, between Gibsland and Sailes, Louisiana, and got riddled with bullets. Makes about as much sense.
Now, many of us in blogland are either published or want-to-be-published authors. And I read a lot in my spare time – because I enjoy it and because it makes me a better writer. But I don't read Dickens and think, hey, I like that line, let me steal it. Or think lines like, "The name is Bond, James Bond", while cool, would ever find its way into one of my stories unless I was mocking Ian Fleming. Little known fact: President Kennedy popularized Ian Fleming by listing his books on a list of his favorite books in a 1961 list.
I know an author who does not read anything because he is afraid he will unintentionally lift phrases and place them in his works. Going overboard? Yeah, I think it is. But if he had a book deal with Little, Brown, he would not have to give back the $500 K advance.
I don't know if the lifting was intentional or unintentional, but it appears that the phrases and lines are so similar that it looks bad. But she has a published book and I don't. Does it count if a published book gets recalled?