“Open Source” Vetting

In a way, the hoopla over Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan, 19, is testimony to the power of "open source" philosophy. We’re not talking about software — Viswanathan’s product was a novel — and the community is loosely defined as "readers connected with Internet technology." But the result is not unlike what happens when a jointly developed program has a bug: the community points out the error. Usually without such glea and malevolence, however.

In this case, the "error" is alleged similiarities between Viswanathan’s novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, and four others of like genre: Can You Keep a Secret?,   The Princess DiariesSecond Helpings and Sloppy Firsts. Let’s be clear: the plots are reportedly  different; the similarities arise in a few scenes, character descriptions.

Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia) must be feeling vindicated. But perhaps he shouldn’t be. You see, that wasn’t the only high profile case of plagiarism to hit the streets two weeks ago. But there’s next to nothing written about the other one. You know. The $7 million contract to a CEO for yet another pithy business book? From the Boston Globe: (tip)

There’s something to be said for the title of  Raytheon chief executive William Swanson’s widely distributed, much-lauded, and
newly controversial booklet, ”Swanson’s Unwritten Rules of Business."

In a mere five words, he fit in two big lies. I’m not sure we should be buying many more missiles from this guy.

one: They aren’t Swanson’s rules of business, at least not half of
them, which he cribbed from a late California engineering professor, W.
J. King. It’s anyone’s guess where the others originated.

two: They weren’t unwritten. The aforementioned King published his
thoughts in a 1944 book called ”The Unwritten Laws of Engineering."
Even the two titles are nearly the same.

The Boston Herald credits a blogger for figuring out where Swanson found his other rules: Donald Rumsfeld and (gack, again) Dave Barry.

A Herald review of
Swanson’s booklet shows that his first four rules were identical or
very similar to those in the so-called “Rumsfeld’s Rules” that the
defense secretary publicized when he became Pentagon chief five years

Wanna guess the ratio of Blogpulse mentions for the two authors? Yep. 4-1. Viswanathan "wins." It’s even worse at Google News: 1930 – 129.

Has the "community" gotten itself into a lather over the wrong issue/person/injustice? The press certainly has, in my opinion.

It’s so much more fun to pummel a 19 year old female immigrant than it is to take a middle-aged white man to task for a far greater set of transgressions. (But it’s not his fault. He’s not really a writer.) Again, from the Globe:

These days, it’s not enough to be a rank-and-file CEO anymore, not
enough to collect the skyrocketing salaries and the multimillion-dollar
bonuses and unimaginably enormous stock grants. Egos need to be fed.
You have to be a sage. You have to be celebrated. And for that, you
have to put your thoughts into print.

In an interview with the
Globe last week, Swanson explained away his plagiarism by saying: ”You
should understand I’m not a writer. It’s not my profession, and I don’t
know how to do it."

No original ideas (but presented as original); original idea (plot) but scenes modeled after prior lit. $7 million contract; $500,000 contract.  I know which one I think is the more egregious. And it ain’t the one that has the "smart mob" in a lather. (Apologies, Howard, but they more closely resemble Gillmor’s shallow and dangerous mob than your informed one.)

Back to Viswanathan… I keep asking myself: where were the adults? You know, the editors? And how in the world does a freshman at Harvard have time for class, social life and a debut novel?

In what seems other-world-y to me, the Washington Post reports that Viswanathan employed "Alloy Entertainment, a firm that reportedly helped Viswanathan write and market the book." Huh? On what basis did Little, Brown write a half-million-dollar contract? Did they simply pick a freshman and say, "Hey, would you like to write a book? Oh, and you can hire some professional writers to help you?" Gack. Or did the half-million (mostly) go to Alloy and the agent?

At this point, I turned to Blogpulse.

le petit hiboux offers a guess as to motivation (panic, pressure):

Admit that you remembered the successful use of those passages,
characters, plot concepts from McCafferty’s book and under the pressure
of being 17 years old with a book-packaging company and an agent, you
took them because you panicked. Because this is what bothers me the
most about this story – how it happened.

Ms. Viswanathan was pushing to get into Harvard, and her family
hired a consultant at IvyWise to help achieve that. The consultant saw
her writing and put her in touch with an agent. The agent saw her
writing and dropped her off with Alloy Entertainment, a book-packaging
company that helped "shape" her "novel". And then, instead of the
darker, more complex book she’d originally imagined, she created a
somewhat fluffy-but-relevant coming-of-age book about – you guessed it
– an overachieving Indian-American girl trying to get into Harvard. And
then, surprise, Little, Brown bought it.

And we’re surprised that she lifted from another novel? We’re
surprised that the pressure and convenience of all aspects of Ms.
Viswanathan’s chosen path led her to accomplish her goal at whatever

This is what bothers me the most – well, almost as much as her
compromise-lie. She was given an enormous amount of pressure and
responsibility with very little of the attendant maturity and
experience, so she did something profoundly stupid. She’s to blame –
but who else is?

Author Janni Lee Simner also points out the culpability of the "book packager" — something most news stories have conveniently ignored:

Notice that no one has been pressing the packager for comment,
complaining that they were paid too much money, or asking where their
editorial oversight is. Even though the money didn’t all flow to the
author, everyone’s happy to let the blame do so…

The work clearly was plagiarized; it could have been plagiarized on purpose; but none of us public lookers-on has enough information to know this.

Finally, Malcom Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink) chides everyone for focusing on the trees, not the forest. It’s OK to write genre fiction — to copy, whole cloth, an idea, he says. (He uses the Silence of the Lambs and its clones as an example. Genre Hollywood would work here, too. Ditto TV.) But it’s not OK to borrow phrases in genre fiction. (He makes it clear that academic writing is another matter.)

But once we have conceded that in genre fiction its okay to borrow
themes, why do we get so upset when genre novelists borrow something a
good deal less substantial — namely phrases and sentences? Surely an idea
is more consequential than a sentence.

And while it may be true that ideas are more substantial, it’s far easier for a sentence to act like a "gotcha." He then references earlier writing (his) for the New Yorker (emphasis added):

When I worked at a newspaper, we were routinely dispatched to "match" a story from the Times: to do a new version of someone else’s idea. But had we "matched" any of the Times
words—even the most banal of phrases—it could have been a firing
offense. The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of
small differences:
because journalism cannot own up to its heavily
derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the

He finishes:

My question is whether it is possible to write a teen-lit novel without these sentences:

From page 7 of McCafferty’s first novel: “Bridget is my age and
lives across the street. For the first twelve years of my life, these
qualifications were all I needed in a best friend. But that was before
Bridget’s braces came off and her boyfriend Burke got on, before Hope
and I met in our seventh-grade honors classes.

From page 14 of Viswanathan’s novel: “Priscilla was my age and lived
two blocks away. For the first fifteen years of my life, those were the
only qualifications I needed in a best friend. We had first bonded over
our mutual fascination with the abacus in a playgroup for gifted kids.
But that was before freshman year, when Priscilla’s glasses came off,
and the first in a long string of boyfriends got on.”

Calling this plagiarism is the equivalent of crying "copy" in a crowded Kinkos.

A little different from the mainstream perspective.

Comparison between Opal and Princess Diaries.

Edited to add: Also, see Ann Coulter Accused of Plagiarism.

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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