Tuesday, May 02, 2006

 

Harvard got played.

Ruth Marcus takes note of a Harvard sophomore who has since been exposed as a serial plagiarist (A Passage to Harvard) and opines:

“The most interesting -- and in a way most egregious -- thing about Harvard University sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan isn't the plagiarism. It's the packaging.”

Huh? In what way was her packaging for acceptance into Harvard more “egregious” than her potentially lucrative ($500,000 plus a movie deal) plagiarism. Ms. Marcus never comes out says how but does regale us with instances that highlight the idiocy of Ivy League obsession. (Full Disclosure: I didn’t attend an Ivy League school; I didn’t apply to an Ivy League school; I have no regrets about either.) Even if I grant that the family’s obsession with Harvard was misplaced and unwise, I can’t forgive such treacle as this:

“It's no excuse, but with all this third-party positioning, is it any wonder that a person -- especially a teenage person -- could forget (or ignore) the fact that some of the writing in her book is not actually hers?”

Yeah, too bad that Ms. Viswanathan went to good schools and had parents willing and able to spend whatever it took to help her get into Harvard. Had the mission failed, she probably still would have gone to a recognized name-brand school – likely just a different Ivy brand. If the pressure on her was substantial, so too were her resources and alternatives.

The only person aware of the many lifted passages was Ms. Viswanathan. Offering excuses – even while saying “it’s no excuse” – for such a callous respect for moral norms is inappropriate situational relativism.

Comments:
I have read stacks of books. I have watched hundreds of movies. I seldom read or see fictional works that don't borrow ideas and phrases from others. Some of this is intentional and some is very probably unintentional. When a fictional writer creates a work that is 99 percent original and 1 percent borrowed in some way, why should anyone be surprised. What fictional writer has the time or resources to vet their book against all things that they have read or that may be similar to what they have written? Few fictional works would make it to the book stores, if fictional writers had to comply with such a requirement. When I read or see a fictional work, I judge it by the totality of its ability to hold my interest and entertain my imagination. A page of borrowed phrases or ideas regardless of how they got there has little or nothing to do with my impression of the final product. I think that Ms. Viswanathan is being held to an impossible standard that has little to do with the entertainment value of her book. I haven't read it and probably won't read it. But, people need to get a grip and judge her book by the 99 percent that came from her imagination or experience and not the 1 percent that looks like what others might have written.
 
A few more thoughts: Fictional works that have no imaginative value, seldom if ever have the movie rights purchased. Even if ghost writers and book packagers helped Ms. Viswanathan tweak her book, that fact does not reduce the market value or worth of the final product. Many readers would probably be shocked if they knew the extent of help that many young writers get in producing their early works. That doesn't make them bad people or bad writers. It is just how the book business works. Perhaps much of the criticism of Ms. Viswanathan is due to the envy factor that many feel when others find success in ways that seem unfair to them. So, what else is new? The real world has always been like that. Eviscerating Ms. Viswanathan for her seemingly unfair success isn't going to change this fact.
 
impossible standard? she copied some of these phrases down to the italics. This isn't a case of "ghost writers and book packagers" tweaking her book - in that case all would be onboard. In this instance though, she admits to lifting passages from another author's books withoout permission or attribution....that 99% of the book (or whatever the math turns out to be) is hers is irrelevant as to culpability and just more damning as to why she felt the need to do it.
Without steroids, Barry Bonds was arguably still the best player of his generation - but he wasn't satisfied with that and now he reaps the unfortunate fallout from his decisions. Ms. Viswanathan may be a very talented writer but she is also a plagiarist.
 
Yes, cobbling together--or even REwriting, for heaven's sakes, another author's passages into one's OWN words is hardly an "impossible standard" to be held to. The copying by Ms. Viswanathan is so frequent and so close--in many cases nothing at allhas been changed--that it's obvious that she had the original books laid open and, yes, simply re-typed excerpts into her computer. from likely not one, but FOUR different titles. That's not unconscious, and it's not a question of "there's nothing original under the sun" either--to say so is to make any concept of original thought a joke.
What's fascinating and sad to me is how far backwards so many people are willing to bend to "give her a break", when what she's plainly done is THE worst sin any writer can commit--both a 3rd grader or--and especially--a supposed "professional" who's been paid six figures as an advance on a original book. She has zero excuses for her plagiarism, none. Being "young", pretty and a Harvard student or under typical college student pressures have nothing to do with a lack of ethics or common sense, not to mention any self-respect.
 
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