There is a book I first read in high school; I have since read it around 30 times, cover to cover, as it provides some sort of inner self-knowledge to me (most of it alarming; in high school my reaction was, “I want all my relationships to be like this!”, whereas now the reaction is a thudding, “Oh my god, why are my relationships like this?!”). I put two quotes from it in my blog recently, and later found I just barely got them right.
Kaavya Viswanathan would say I internalized these passages. Unlike her, though, I didn’t try to capitalize on my inner knowledge of favorite books from high school. And to think, I could have had a $500,000 publishing contract and a DreamWorks film deal, too!
There’s always something that ruins my chances of success ? in this case my nearly perfect sense of never being in the right place at the right time and, you know, an unwillingness to steal from others.
Viswanathan’s unoriginal tactics were revealed by her school’s paper, the Harvard Crimson, in late April. A review of her novel, “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life” that appeared in the Crimson before the paper gleefully broke the rest of Viswanathan’s sordid tale led me to wonder just who the “author” had pissed off at the publication, and why its editors decided to forgo human sacrifice as punishment for her misdeed and just went straight for the gut.
The problem is that from every angle, the public did not seem unconcerned that someone had stolen someone else’s (in this case, several someone else’s) work. This misbehavior is unfortunately common by now, to the point where readers don’t renounce dishonest or plagiarized books – Viswanathan’s made its way up the Amazon.com bestseller list after the scandal broke, and James Frey’s books continue to sell – but rather clamor to see the public fallout. In a nation fed with reality television and an apparent need to witness public humiliation, this still seems to mark a turning point in our culture, one that’s deeply worrying but not at all surprising.
What was once considered wrong – still is, really, but to a lesser extent – is now a chance for media scandal, asides that are inspired not by a fury at what people like Viswanathan do, but rather a chance for amusement, a national joke rather than a serious problem.
The culture that we currently have is one that definitely is a terminal case of both attention deficit disorder and a mentality of “You know, the stupidity that others exhibit makes me feel better about myself.” As a journalism major, I’ve grown used to the idea that plagiarism is common, an assumption that is a byproduct of both recent events in the field as well as high-strung, ill-advised judgment of a public that succumbs to media stereotypes in both their criticism and consumption. Upon hearing which sources Viswanathan plagiarized from, I got the “media whore gleam” in my eye that I advise against in this column: “You idiot, you stole from chick lit? The bar is so low there that a six-year-old could write a masterpiece for the genre!”
We need to get back to thinking that stealing others’ work is wrong, stupid, cowardly and profoundly uncreative. That the correct response when someone lamely says that they “internalized” passages from a book read years ago isn’t merely laughing and mocking them (though this certainly is fun), rather there should be disappointment. It’s entertaining, to be sure, but indifference to it reflects a national disease, one that doesn’t just apply to the media and plagiarism.
In a review of “Opal Mehta” published less than a week before the Crimson broke the news about Viswanathan, the paper’s reviewer pointed out the problem with Harvard students.
“A little-known fact about Harvard students is that we hate each other almost as much as the rest of the world hates us – maybe more,” wrote Elizabeth W. Green. “When one of us succeeds, the rest of us go berserk. Public congratulations barely conceal private disgust, which turns out to be an even poorer mask for deep, soul-burning jealousy and crippling self-doubt.”
The reasons behind the Crimson’s (well-deserved and much-needed) outing of Viswanathan’s stupid misdeeds have suddenly become clear with a couple of sentences. What the editors at the Crimson surely never expected was that their revelations about one of their own would just serve to perpetuate a national affliction – one marked by ever-present lies, clamor for public humiliation and, worst of all, loss of creativity astounding in its profundity, but of no matter to the general public.
Lauren Robeson can be reached at email@example.com.