Young writer learns hard lesson

By Richard Cohen Published:

By Richard Cohen

I confess to a near bout of plagiarism. It happened years ago while I was hard at work on a column, typing away with my usual bonhomie and fluidity, when I sensed a certain familiarity, an echo -- the faint sense that I had seen this stuff before. I kept going, though, and then I stopped. It was not merely that I had covered the topic before, but I had done so in the exact words. I had nearly plagiarized myself.

I thought of what would happen if I had published the material again. I could catch myself, then have my lawyer write me a letter, which I would, naturally, reject with absolute sincerity. The words were my own, I would insist (with some truth) and I would threaten a countersuit. Soon enough, I would be on the Today show or, better yet, The Oprah Winfrey Show, where either Katie Couric or Oprah would read a passage from my first column and then from the second and ask me to account for myself. All I can say, I would say, is that I must have somehow internalized the first column without knowing it. I can only apologize to myself and hope that I, in the goodness of my heart, can accept the apology.

This, with a different sort of apology, is approximately the explanation offered by Kaavya Viswanathan, a 19-year-old Harvard student whose first novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, allegedly contains around 40 passages lifted from two other novels written by Megan McCafferty. McCafferty and the publisher of her two novels, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, have rejected this explanation. Steve Ross, McCaffertys publisher, called it nothing less than an act of literary identity theft. He found it inconceivable that Viswanathan had lifted the passages without meaning to. He has a point.

For Viswanathan, the stakes are pretty high. Her book had risen to No. 32 on The New York Times best-seller list, a fact I plagiarize from many sources without, I confess, having any idea what it means. (Is 32 high or low?) Whatever the case, Viswanathan received a reported $500,000 book advance. Her novel tells the tale of an Indian girl who has to learn how to lighten up in order to get into Harvard. Viswanathan has -- or had -- a very promising career ahead of her.

It was probably with that in mind that she headed for the Today show and the purgative rite we expect from anyone accused of anything. Looking soulful and doleful (have these words been used before?) she said she had read McCaffertys books over and over as a teenager, which is, of course, the way some teenagers read books. But she had not read any of the books since her senior year in high school, which she made sound like a very long time ago. In other words, she had internalized the novels.

Couric has been invested with the absolute power to pardon. She might have recalled a similar incident from her own life -- something like that -- and said this sort of thing could happen to anyone. Instead, she turned inquisitor, even asking Viswanathan why she had agreed to come on the show in the first place. Viswanathan said she wanted to explain, to plead guilty, if she had to, but only by reason of what amounted to insanity. Couric wasnt buying it. You failed, she pretty much told her.

But this is America and there is no prison for plagiarists. Viswanathan still has her movie deal and book advance and has been on network television. (The cover of her next book will probably say: As seen on the Today show.) Her name will be dimly recollected by bookstore browsers -- hmmm, looks interesting -- and it will not really matter to them that some of her stuff is not really her stuff but someone elses stuff. Its not James Frey, they will say, who said his book, A Million Little Pieces, was entirely true when some of it wasnt. Viswanathans book is fiction.

But Ill tell you something. The reason I did not self-plagiarize is that it would have amounted to a lie. It would have broken a covenant between me and the reader, the understanding that each column is new. It is the same with Viswanathan. On Today, she kept apologizing to McCafferty, which was appropriate, but never to us -- you and me, the readers. She is young and maybe naive, but it is never too soon to learn that plagiarism is theft -- of someone elses creation and of the readers trust. Its not, as her book title suggests, a life that Viswanathan needs. Its a lesson.

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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