April 30, 2006

Literary shoplifting

I spoke on a radio program this week — Robin Young's show Here and Now on WBUR in Boston (you can hear it here) — about poor Kaavya Viswanathan's sudden catastrophic emergence into notoriety. Listening to the broadcast interview, I realized I sounded very sad and thoughtful. This is not a happy story. I didn't feel like joking around. I feel sorry for this beautiful, articulate, and doubtless intelligent young woman who almost had it all — money, fame, status, and Harvard — and then managed to make herself world famous as a thief. But the fact is that although she has been manipulated and packaged, what has happened to her has very largely been her own fault. She could have prevented this. She shouldn't expect to be able to just smile her way out of it with a few deft locutions crafted by handlers ("wasn't aware"; "may have internalized"; "phrasing similarities"; "completely ... unconscious"; "unintentional errors"). And although she does not deserve to be destroyed for what she did — it's petty pilfering, not an armed robbery at Bank of America — I still think it is reprehensible — and I think that having someone as eloquent as Bill Poser at Language Log trying to construct a defense for her is more than she deserves.

To begin with, look at 22 words of Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts, and the passage in Kaavya's novel that was very clearly stolen from it. It appears as part of a whole scene, where McCafferty's idea was to have a rumination on how far the intelligence of some female character had gotten her. McCafferty chose Sabrina, from Charlie's Angels; Viswanathan simply switched to Miss Moneypenny, James Bond's secretary. But the words expressing the thought were lifted verbatim. Here are the two word sequences, side by side. Pink indicates identity of wording; green indicates changed wording; yellow indicates the place where the exact words were kept but the order of two disjuncts in a coordination of adjectives was switched.

1Sabrina Moneypenny 
2was was 
3the the 
4brainy brainy 
5Angel. female character. 
6Yet Yet 
7another another 
8example example 
9of of 
10how how 
11every every 
12girl girl 
13had had 
14to to 
15be be 
16one one
17or or 
18the the
19other: other: 
20Pretty Smart [switched with line 22]
21or or 
22smart. pretty. [switched with line 20]

Notice in particular that the word brainy was italicized in both the original McCafferty passage and Viswanathan's copying of it! Unconscious recollection right down to font face selection? No. I think she had the McCafferty book right there, and copied the stuff out of it.

This is not just reliance on a snowclone. With a snowclone like "If the Eskimos have X words for snow, then Y must have Q words for Z", you fill in your choices of X and Y and Q and Z, but you intend your audience to recognize that they have heard "the Eskimos have X words for snow" before, possibly with your choice of X (though people do make up their own values for X); indeed, the potency of this old piece of nonsense stems precisely from the fact that "the Eskimos have X words for snow" (for many different values of X) has occurred thousands of times before, and almost anyone who reads magazines or newspapers or takes social science classes has run into it somewhere. (I did a five-day summer course on management and administration in the University of California once, and I heard the old story about the Eskimos twice from different lecturers during that one week!)

It's quite different with Kaavya Viswanathan's sordid little piece of literary shoplifting. Nobody had ever previously used the sentences and phrases that Viswanathan stole from Megan McCafferty, as far as I know (after some Googling around). And Viswanathan wasn't expecting people to recollect the phrasing and recognize the allusion. She thought, doubtless, that because she had read it years ago when she was a mere girl of thirteen, nobody would recollect it, so she could just purloin bits from it and represent them as her own. And she did it for profit, and she purloined a dozen other passages from the same author as well — an author who is still writing and trying to earn her living from her work.

Bill Poser is right that copyright is being misused today by big corporations determined to protect the profits they make from the intellectual property in which they invest. I don't agree with the extensions of copyright limits way past anything reasonable, so that rights of long-dead authors and film-makers and songwriters can continue to be asserted by greedy publishers or heirs decades after they should have become public-domain material for us all to quote and reproduce. But that greedy, profitmaking business world was the one that Viswanathan was eager to enter, and get her $500,000 contract from. If copyright is being enforced with ever more fierceness, that just makes it all the more important to take it seriously (even if you think the law should be changed). And even if the law should be relaxed, it surely shouldn't be relaxed so much as to permit an author to directly lift another active author's scene ideas and carefully chosen phrasings from works only four or five years old. I think this is a case where a civil judgment might well have been rendered in favor of Little, Brown & Co.

It is quite true that the enthusiasm of greedy publishers and film owners for overly restrictive intellectual property laws often looks unsavory; but you can't logically use that in defending someone who's been doing something equally unsavory — stealing work product from a competitor who's trying to earn a living in the same market.

Similar remarks hold for the observations Bill Poser makes in about the motives of Viswanathan's detractors ("they don't like chicklit; they think that the book isn't very original; they think that she is a spoiled rich girl; they resent the disproportionate academic and business success of Indians and are eager to take one down"). If some people hate prosperous young women or literature written for them, that's their problem. But it's irrelevant to Viswanathan's problem, which is that she got caught being unoriginal and dishonest for profit.

A person who criticizes Viswanathan's conduct because of a dislike or resentment toward a highly successful ethnic group is being contemptible and silly (the Indians who have come to America generally earn their success honestly, and I admire them). But it's not contemptible or silly to hold the view that nobody should steal someone else's phrases, sentences, or paragraphs and pretend they are her own (no, not even just a few).

Especially not when they're competing in a big-money market against the very novelist they're stealing from, or (I give fair warning) when they're writing a paper for a class in which the professor is me.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 30, 2006 02:23 PM