Writers Behaving Badly

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Since I come from a journalism background, I spent a lot of years getting pounded with warnings about plagiarism. It was, at least at the time, considered the cardinal sin of writing, one which would brand a scarlet “P” on your shirt and get your fanny tossed out of college without so much as a backward glance.

Flash forward a few years, and my how things have changed. The latest rage comes over the story of Kaavya Viswanathan, that 19-year-old Harvard phenom who scored a huge contract for her first novel. Turns out that she “borrowed” not a small number of passages from another young adult novel with similar themes–at least 40 of them, from the newspaper accounts I’ve read.

Now I’m a published novelist myself–which means I turn various shades of green with envy every time I hear about some first-timer who scores a six-figure contract and a movie deal (as Viswanathan did) right off the bat. Add to that the plagiarism angle, and what you could get is one righteous steam of indignation. “How could she make that much money boosting somebody else’s words?” you might ask. “Is there no justice?

Straight answer: No, there isn’t.

Truth is, people get rich all the time off of other people’s ideas. Sometimes it’s a story pitch that gets shot down, only to “coincidentally” appear on that very same TV show a year later. Other times the theft is more subtle. But it happens, kids–and more often than you might want to think. Good ideas are stock and trade for the entertainment biz, and you have to guard them fiercely like any other commodity.

To her publisher’s credit, Viswanathan’s book is getting pulled from shelves until the offending passages can be removed–an expensive proposition, given how many copies were on the first run. Still, the author herself is refusing to admit any conscious wrongdoing, swearing up and down that the similarities somehow worked their way in there by themselves. I don’t buy it. I was a 19-year-old author once (of a laughably terrible vampire novel), and although I never cribbed passages I can freely admit borrowing from the styles of authors I admired at the time. It’s what 19-year-old authors do while they learn their craft. It’s just that most of them never have the added pressure of a lucrative contract.

Is there a lesson here? Probably not, but take from it what you will. For in my book, there’s one writing sin even greater than plagiarism–and that’s pretending to be something that you’re not.

Update:  Mike Straka also has some choice comments on his website.

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