Sloppy Firsts, Second Helpings, Charmed Thirds, Filched Fourths


Beats there a heart so cold as not to rejoice at the downfall of Kaavya Viswanathan? The Harvard sophomore, literary prodigy, receiver (at age 17) of a $500,000 book advance, comely literary lioness, and author of the well reviewed How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life has added a new title to her portfolio: plagiarist of the young-adult novels of Megan McCafferty. The always-scowling Crimson digs into Viswanathan's expropriations, and others have continued the search.

Viswanathan has already bungled the controversy, calling the repetitions of phrases from McCafferty's books Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings "unintentional and unconscious," and claiming "the central stories of my book and hers are completely different." (Quite true: McCafferty writes about a New Jersey high school girl striving to get into Columbia, Viswanathan about a New Jersey high school girl striving to get into Harvard.) Why didn't she just acknowledge the thing and call it an open tribute? When will one of these plagiarism cases end with the suspect standing up loud and proud for the right to steal words? As Greg Beato wrote many years ago, when Kaavya Viswanathan was just a nine-year-old Jane Austen Jr. in the Garden State:

[O]ur desire to claim the words of others as our own seems at least as instinctive as our desire to get high. And with the advent of the web, which is to plagiarism what crack is to violent, glassy-eyed babbling, this desire shows little sign of abating. Indeed, at this very moment, you're just a click and a credit card away from enough term papers to earn you a thousand college degrees without ever having to visit a library or put pen to paper…

But, really, what great crime is it in the grander scheme of things if a budding infopreneur hires the local coffeehouse Heidegger to pen a few ponderous pages for him? The fact that there are so many desperate pencil-nibblers willing to take the lower-than-burger-flipping wages that term paper mills shell out for such work shows you how much that particular skill is worth. The real money goes to the people who broker content, not the sad dupes who create it. The students who recognize this fact early on gravitate quickly toward plagiarism; it's the best way to bone up on one's content-acquisition skills. At the same time, it frees up valuable hours for more career-enhancing pursuits like golf and schmoozing.

Not convinced? Dreamworks is developing a movie of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, while the Chicago Tribune savages McCafferty's Charmed Thirds with the review: "This third time's hardly a charm."

NEXT: Jane Jacobs, RIP

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  1. Let it be known that Herrick and His Balls turned down their acceptance at Harvard to accept a full ride at a school of similar credentials although a teensy bit less up its own ass

  2. No wonder I a) didn’t get into Harvard and b) didn’t get a $500,000 advance! I stole from Ayn Rand!*

    * My title: How Howard Nailed This Gorgeous Society Chick, Crushed A Dozen Parasites, And Built This Totally Bitchin’ Building!

  3. lol, “Mehta” commentary

  4. That’s felched, not filched.

  5. I actually agree with Beato. Pursing a career in journalism/writing or any sort of content creation is financial suicide. The burger flipping job would be more rewarding and renumerative.

  6. That’s it, it’s time for me to cash in. I will simply take some old creationist talking points, dress them up in new language, and slap my credentials on top of it. I’ll sell a book called “God Needs No Dice” (where I’ll take Einstein way out of context to “prove” that randomness can’t explain biology), and collect my speaker fees on the lecture circuit.

    Then I’ll write a book called “Creationists are Dumb–But They Pay Well!” where I reveal that I did it all for the Benjamins, baby. (If I weren’t married I’d try to score some with some fundie groupies and say that I did it all for the nookie, but that would upset my wife.) Then I’ll hit a different lecture circuit.

  7. BTW, I used to teach at an institution that used an anti-plagiarism service. Students would submit their papers to a website, and the papers were then checked against numerous sources. Uncited duplications were highlighted for the instructor.

    This worked pretty well, except for one problem: The guys who ran the website were collecting a huge inventory of term papers. And, well, it seemed like a shame to just let those papers sit there on the hard drive, remaining inert little collections of magnetic domains. So they found a profitable use for those term papers.

    Needless to say, the school switched to a new service.

  8. thoreau:

    That is actually a brilliant idea. You’ll need a belligerent shaven-headed goon for security though. My resume is inbound.

  9. how is dreamworks and the chicogo tribune related again?

  10. As a person who grew up in New Jersey and barely got into Rutgers University and then, ugh, CUNY Grad School (working for minimum wage in an independent bookstore for three years in between) I am wondering how tiny the elite is that can read these books and identify with the heroine. Or do people read these books and hope the protagonist and her dreams are crushed under the pitiless wheels of fate?

  11. Neither, they read them when they’re young enough to fantasize that they are the herione, before their own ivy league dreams are crushed.

  12. Hmm, if I want to get a tenure track position I might want to hold off on this stunt for a little while. Fortunately, the Creationists will always be with us, so I can cash in at some later date.

  13. “Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It closely grasps an author’s sentence, uses his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one.” – Lautreamont (Poesies)

  14. thoreau, I have a cunning plan. Write a book promoting something that sounds like creationism but which is, in fact, evolution theory with new terminology. Creationists will adopt the new theory (“Intelligent Randomness” or “God’s Dice”) and will attempt to insert it into our schools.

    And we let them. [Insert maniacal laughter.]

  15. thoreau: Holding off is a good idea. Being an apostate from the mainstream science establishment will definitely enhance your market value with the creationists.

  16. Saturday night in the Temple of the Vestals:
    We say steroids are a-okay.
    We say plagiarism is a-okay.
    What next?
    I’m startin’ to get a little sweaty.

  17. I’ve looked at these writing samples from her book. They read like the narration from an old Doris Day or Ann-Margeret movie, for god’s sake. I didn’t know it was possible to get a buzz from smoking bubblegum but apparently this chick has figured out how to do it.

    I am completely mystified about this $500,000 advance, this seems even dumber than the advances they give retiring politicians to write books only libraries are going to buy.

    If this can happen, who knows, maybe peak oil panic is a real…

  18. I doubt the movie will ever be made. The rights were bought before the scandal, by the way.

  19. Why didn’t she just acknowledge the thing and call it an open tribute?

    That was tried recently by a Mississippi State English prof. Brad Vice had won the Flannery O’Conner Award for a collection of short stories. The award was revoked, the books pulped and ultimately has cost him his job. He used “confusion over fair use” as his excuse but the book which the borrowed material appears isn’t very well known and was not referenced in the publication. His excuse (which can be read here: was that it was paying homage. Reading the blog postings of his defenders made plagiarism seem like not such a big deal.

    BTW, I used to teach at an institution that used an anti-plagiarism service. Students would submit their papers to a website, and the papers were then checked against numerous sources. Uncited duplications were highlighted for the instructor.

    While I have problems with the Google Library project and copyright issues, when I heard about it my first thought was about the anti-plagiarism software. It will be interesting to see how much of the more recent publications “borrow” from old books no one has ever heard of. I have a feeling that Ambrose and Kearns Goodwin will have plenty of company.

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