Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Latest Literary "Scandal"

Although her writerly transgressions--apparently, instances of plagiarism--are by no means the same as those James Frey committed, Kaavya Viswanathan seems to be earning a similar amount of press attention regarding her highly-touted (and highly-paid) debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. Instead of sending you to many different sources to read about it, I'm just going to recommend that you keep up with the daily coverage over at GalleyCat.

Don't get me started on the faults in education today (yes, even at my beloved Harvard, where Viswanathan is a sophomore). Crediting others for their ideas and/or words isn't something that seems to matter very much anymore. And as students launch into the writing profession there's little reason to expect more specialized attention to such matters. Even in my MFA program (at another institution) I was treated as a totally unreasonable soul for suggesting that the curriculum should cover source documentation (MLA, CMS...something!) for the single "critical" project we had to do.

If writing educators don't attend to ethical issues where "critical" writing is concerned, I don't know how we might begin to hope the situation can improve with "creative" efforts. But it's obviously high time to think about some real ethics education for creative writers.


Elizabeth de Veer said...

Fact-checking for non-fiction seems somewhat straight forward - but how do you monitor works of fiction? I suppose someone could create a database of all printed works and editors could feed an MS into it and it could identify phrases that seemed similar (as I have heard that teachers sometimes do these days for homework assignments). But this case is interesting, according to the Harvard Crimson http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=513000 Viswanathan either copied a few phrases or else she basically modeled her whole book (language, structure and characters) on the earlier book. If an editor or agent is not familiar with those works, how might the author be held accountable before the book is published?

Erika Dreifus said...

Yes, these are good points. Sad as it is, I think writers need to actually be taught not to do these things (copying phrases, etc.) and be held accountable for their own integrity.

In some ways this recalls some discussions over the ethics of writing contests. If judges are not supposed to select the work of (for example) former students, then former students should know enough not to enter the contests. (Of course, that only holds if the judges' identities are announced in the first place; that's not the case for every contest.)

Sometimes there's a level of individual--not industry--responsibility we're talking about here.