Marginal Footnotes

Viswanathan and Sympathy
May 2, 2006, 2:38 pm
Filed under: Literary, Media, Uncategorized

No one should have any sympathy for Kaavya Viswanathan.  Television commentators, media people, and other folks that flash on your TV screens and write prose in your daily newspaper have all roundly rejected Viswanathan's 'plagiarism' while giving her some ethical leeway by explaining away her actions or expressing some kind of sympathy because she’s ‘so young’.  Please. 

Playing off the title of E.M. Forster’s famous novel for her own, Ruth Marcus (or the headline writers at the Post) subtitles her op/ed in the Post today with: ‘How Kaavya Viswanathan Got Micromanaged, Got Marketed and Turned College Into a Novel Obsession’.  This is all very clever but the verb is wrong.  It is not as though the shameless company which ‘packages’ books for (bad, unimaginative) writers called her. This woman paid $20,000 for these people to re-write her novel for cash.  It appears she was never interested in art, but in success.  And this is her fundamental crime, this lack of imagination.  This lack of faith in the self. 

Who in the world can have sympathy for a person who weeps for 13 hours at the possibility of having been rejected from Harvard?  And who can have sympathy for someone who can’t even make a case that there is no plagiarism in fiction, that all fiction is a borrowing, that all writers rewrite the writers that came before them, in their genre or by the authors who influenced them most.  The most famous literary critic in America has written god knows how many books about this.  He’s even gone so far as to name the phenomenon.  And while one should be reluctant to apply the vagaries of high art and literary aesthetics to a novel about teen angst written by a teenager, one should not be reluctant to ask where the line is drawn, and how we are to deal with other, finer works which borrow heavily from other texts.  There is a name for this as well, and it is accepted as common practice, artistic, even. 

Do not sympathise with Viswanathan because she got caught; blame her for having no imagination. 


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3 Comments so far
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When I think of the Kaavya story, I get a vision of a long line of dominoes waiting to be knocked over. The question isn’t “What send the dominoes tumbling down?” that honor belongs to The Crimson, but “Who put them in place?”

While certainly some of the dominoes weren’t put into place by Kaavya, it’s important to note that she “touched” all of them. She didn’t offer an untested 17-year-old writer a six figure book deal, but she could have said no. She wasn’t the one who packaged the book, but she and her parents were the one that sought out the packager.

If anyone should have seen where this was going, it should have been Kaavya herself. At nineteen she’s a legal adult and is capable of making her own decisions. She either ignored or looked past the trouble signs and is paying for that.

So yes, I agree, Kaavya wasn’t the only hand in the pot but she is the only one that should have been able to see the whole picture. Her name on the book, her responsibility and any attempt to let her out of it based upon her age, ethnicity or background is just an insult to all three.

Once again, just my opinion.

Comment by Jonathan Bailey

I have read stacks of books. I have watched hundreds of movies. I seldom read or see fictional works that don’t borrow ideas and phrases from others. Some of this is intentional and some is very probably unintentional. When a fictional writer creates a work that is 99 percent original and 1 percent borrowed in some way, why should anyone be surprised. What fictional writer has the time or resources to vet their book against all things that they have read or that may be similar to what they have written? Few fictional works would make it to the book stores, if fictional writers had to comply with such a requirement. When I read or see a fictional work, I judge it by the totality of its ability to hold my interest and entertain my imagination. A page of borrowed phrases or ideas regardless of how they got there has little or nothing to do with my impression of the final product. I think that Ms. Viswanathan is being held to an impossible standard that has little to do with the entertainment value of her book. I haven’t read it and probably won’t read it. But, people need to get a grip and judge her book by the 99 percent that came from her imagination or experience and not the 1 percent that looks like what others might have written.

Comment by Darrell

A few more thoughts: Fictional works that have no imaginative value, seldom if ever have the movie rights purchased. Even if ghost writers and book packagers helped Ms. Viswanathan tweak her book, that fact does not reduce the market value or worth of the final product. Many readers would probably be shocked if they knew the extent of help that many young writers get in producing their early works. That doesn’t make them bad people or bad writers. It is just how the book business works. Perhaps much of the criticism of Ms. Viswanathan is due to the envy factor that many feel when others find success in ways that seem unfair to them. So, what else is new? The real world has always been like that. Eviscerating Ms. Viswanathan for her seemingly unfair success isn’t going to change this fact.

Comment by Darrell

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