Monday, May 01, 2006

A modest defense of plagiarism

A response to “A Star is Shorn”, the Boston Globe’s editorial on Kaavya Viswanathan, 4/30/06)

Shakespeare did it. Dante did it. Chaucer did it too – in spades. I know, I wrote my Harvard doctoral dissertation on him. Finding your own artistic voice by pilfering from beloved predecessors has been the bread and butter of writers since before there were writers. It's only in the last 200 years or so that "originality" and "authenticity" have become the most prized words on jacket copy. Now that Kaavya Viswanathan's novel has been removed from bookstore shelves, it's a hard to do a critical "source study" of how she may have creatively rewritten and recontextualized the words of writer Megan McCafferty. But the examples quoted in newspapers don't look that much different from what the author of The Canterbury Tales did when he turned Canto 33 of Dante's Inferno into part of "The Monk's Tale".

Of course, Chaucer didn't have a profit-hungry publisher and book packager crafting his stories into commercially viable chick lit, while at the same time touting the "freshness of the voice" (to quote a publicity letter cited by Ann Hulbert in Slate). As the Globe and commentators like Hulbert have pointed out, both publisher and packager share some blame for the pressures that led Viswanathan to echo thirty or more passages from one of her favorite novelists. Yet we as readers are at fault as well, demanding books that are "fresh" and "innovative" but also sound just like the other books we like – as long as it's not in a way that's legally actionable. While contestants on American Idol can aspire to be "original" artists by copying famous songs and singers, fiction writers and more importantly fiction publishers must keep the reality of literary imitation a guilty secret.

It's been suggested that Viswanathan's handlers subtly changed her original ideas to make her story more saleable. But we should not take the alleged plagiarism itself as a betrayal of artistic integrity. Ironically, it may be that in echoing and transforming words that inspired to become a creative writer, Viswanathan has most authentically proved herself to be one. She and her handlers just forgot the rest of the modern equation – being creative in covering your tracks.

No comments: