May 01, 2006

This time, he should have blinked twice

You'd think Malcolm Gladwell would know better. After all, this is the age of WCFCYA, even if he hasn't yet written a book about it -- but he's out there suggesting that every teen-lit novel uses the same specific sentences that Kaavya Viswanathan borrowed from Megan McCafferty. "My question", he asks, "is whether it is possible to write a teen-lit novel without these sentences." As we'll see -- and as Gladwell might have guessed if he'd thought about it -- the answer is provably "yes".

Specifically, Gladwell argues that charges of plagiarism don't apply to Kaavya Viswanathan because "[t]his is teen-literature. It's genre fiction. These are novels based on novels based on novels, in which every convention of character and plot has been trotted out a thousand times before. ... Calling this plagiarism is the equivalent of crying 'copy' in a crowded Kinkos".

The thing is, it's not conventions of character and plot that Viswanathan is accused of copying, it's whole sentences of text. But Gladwell feels the same way about those -- he writes

It is worth reading, I think, the actual passages that Viswanathan is supposed to have taken from McCafferty. Let's just say this isn't the first twenty lines of Paradise Lost. My question is whether it is possible to write a teen-lit novel without these sentences: ...

Gladwell then goes on to quote one of the less exact borrowings that have been documented (see here for a more exact instance, and here for a longer list of examples):

From page 7 of McCafferty’s first novel: “Bridget is my age and lives across the street. For the first twelve years of my life, these qualifications were all I needed in a best friend. But that was before Bridget’s braces came off and her boyfriend Burke got on, before Hope and I met in our seventh-grade honors classes.

From page 14 of Viswanathan’s novel: “Priscilla was my age and lived two blocks away. For the first fifteen years of my life, those were the only qualifications I needed in a best friend. We had first bonded over our mutual fascination with the abacus in a playgroup for gifted kids. But that was before freshman year, when Priscilla’s glasses came off, and the first in a long string of boyfriends got on.”

The answer to Gladwell's question, of course, is that it's easy to write a teen-lit novel without those particular sentences, or any sentences very much like them. In fact, this is so easy to do that everyone who has ever published a teen-lit novel has suceeded in doing it. (Except, of course, Megan McCafferty and Kaavya Viswanathan.) And thanks to Amazon's "Search Inside" feature, we can check. For example, even Megan McCafferty can produce a novel without these sentences: Second Helpings, her sequel to Sloppy Firsts, contains neither of the four-word strings "is my age and lives" or "was my age and lived".

If I go to a9 and check the category of books for "is my age and lives" or "was my age and lived", I can only find three real instances, none of which are remotely similar in other ways to the McCafferty/Viswanathan passages:

(Timothy Tyson, Blood Done Sign my Name) The teenaged boys filled the truck bed with Coca-Cola bottles and rocks, then roared through the African-American neighborhoods hurling them at pedestrians, windshields and windows. I heard secondhand tales of these vicious adventures many times from Jeff Daniels, who was my age and lived across the street from me. Neighborhood boys older than us were a regular part of these attacks.

(Dirk Wittenborn, Fierce People) I wasn't crazy about hearing some English guy asking my mother in the first light of day, 'Hey, luv, got any Vaseline about for Mr. Johnson?' But everybody who was my age and lived in a loft in the late seventies knew their mom did it.

(Joe Evans, Daydreams) The hangout actually was the big garage in Bud's back yard. Bud was my age and lived three houses up Franklin Street. The garage had a loft and plenty of windows for light. A small table and some folding chairs were inside. There was a cabinet on the back wall with some comic books, cards, checkers and a couple of table games and some junk inside. Everything needed for a good time.

Google Book Search turns up four more, none from chicklet-lit and none with any other similarities:

(Janet Evanovich, Hot Six) I stopped off at Dillan's basement apartment and explained my needs. Dillan grabbed his toolbox and we trooped upstairs. He was my age and lived in the bowels of the building, like a mole. He was a really cool guy, but he didn't do much, and as far as I know he didn't have a girlfriend . . . so, as you might expect, he drank a lot of beer.

(Barbara Probst Solomon, Reading Room/4) There was also Rodolfo Canales who was my age and lived two houses away on La Calle Diez Palmas, but my mother would not let me play alone with a boy, and my father refused to let me associate the son of the man who killed his mother.

(Anatole Kurdsjuk, The Long Walk home with Miracles Along the Way) My best friend was Anatoly Kaluzin. He was my age and lived two houses away; we shared our most intimate five year old secrets and were always together. On the other side of our house lived Pavlik, he was older than I but was very small for his age, and as usual, children coined nicknames for their friends who were "different". Pavlik's street name was Blokcha, the flea.

(Jean C. Carlson, The Widow and the Wizard) Anyway, when I was 11 years old, my grandmother died at age 66 from diabetic complications. Her life had had its share of hardships but she was a dear sweet Christian woman. Her only son was Oscar. And he was the father of three girls also. His middle daughter, Betty, was my age and lived near us. We went to grade school, high school and nurse's training together.

Although I don't have time to do it, I'd be prepared to make a substantial wager that we'd get similar negative results from searching for other strings in the quotes that Gladwell cites, as well as in the rest of the purloined passages.

In fairness to Mr. Gladwell, he doesn't actually assert that all teen-lit novels necessarily contain the sentences copied by Ms. Viswanathan, he merely uses a rhetorical question to imply it. However, the implication is essential to his overall argument, and it's spectacularly and obviously false. I'm sure that he's not as dense as this argument makes him seem, so the real puzzle is why he went down this rhetorical road.

If I were given to speculating about other people's motivations, I'd guess that Gladwell has such disdain for the genre of chicklet-lit that he's unwilling to grant enough creativity to McCafferty for her words to be worth the attribution of authorship in the first place. This is in sharp contrast to his instincts about the value and ownership of his own words, in a famous case where he was the author of a non-fiction piece from which material was borrowed without attribution for use in a Broadway play. In his 2004 New Yorker article about this experince, Gladwell made a striking point about the difference between IPR law and the moral taint of plagiarism:

The arguments that [Larry] Lessig has with the hard-core proponents of intellectual property are almost all arguments about where and when the line should be drawn between the right to copy and the right to protection from copying, not whether a line should be drawn.

But plagiarism is different, and that's what's so strange about it. The ethical rules that govern when it's acceptable for one writer to copy another are even more extreme than the most extreme position of the intellectual-property crowd: when it comes to literature, we have somehow decided that copying is never acceptable.

This is a distinction that deserves more discussion than it's getting. However, the notion that sentence-copying is somehow an inevitable feature of genre writing is preposterous and bizarre.

[OK, amazon doesn't index every teen-lit novel ever written, so I'm not justified in assserting that Gladwell's implication is universally false. But I can assert that it's false in every one of the large number of cases where it's possible to check.]

[Update: Malcom Gladwell took it back. For some reason, however, he decided to compound his corpus-linguistic error by asserting that

In the spy thriller I just read, the bad guy is torturing the hero and getting no where. He tells this to the head bad-guy who says—and I'm guessing that everyone who has ever read a thriller will know what's coming next: "Don't worry. He'll talk. They always do."

Does the fact that I've read that exact line in at least five other thrillers spoil the fun? Not really. Did the writer "steal" that line from someone else? Sure. That's what a cliche is: it's what we call plagiarism the sixth or seventh time around.

There is no citation for the "five other thrillers", and neither A9 nor Google Books can find them. Do they exist? My guess is that they don't, and Gladwell has just retrospectively made them up, based on his (probably correct) impression that the general situation is a thriller-plot commonplace. But quite apart from the frequency illusion, there's a difference between concepts and words. Language is much richer than Gladwell seems to understand, and as a result, exact duplication of word sequences of seven words or so (the length of his example) is vanishingly rare, other than by specific quotation, plagiarism, or use of a genuine fixed expression.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 1, 2006 11:15 AM