Knowledge, Experience, and Viswanathan

As most everyone knows by now, Little, Brown has pulled Kaavya Viswanathan’s novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life from stores because of the substantial number of passages in it that are just too similar to passages in books by Megan McCafferty, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. The story is a sordid one—not so much because of what Viswanathan did (which is bad enough) but because of Little, Brown and the “book packager” Alloy Entertainment, Katherine Cohen of IvyWise, a private college counselor who pushed Viswanathan’s writing, and Viswanathan’s parents.

There have been many young geniuses in the arts, and Viswanathan may well be one, but she was used by all the people I mention for their own ends and backed into a situation that was beyond her ability to handle. The advance given to her by Little, Brown for two novels was in the realm of half a million dollars, putting pressure on a girl who was then only seventeen that very few could stand.

Though Viswanathan claims that she did not consciously plagiarize, she clearly turned to McCafferty’s work when she realized she could not produce what was expected of her—whether it was unconscious or not. She had to produce, and did so, finally, in the only way she could manage.

Of course, it doesn’t matter if she was conscious of what she was doing or not or who or what pushed her into the corner she couldn’t get out of otherwise. The fact remains: she plagiarized.

Looking at the situation that starkly and simply, however, doesn’t help us develop ways of avoiding similar situations in the future. Though the Viswanathan incident may be the plagiarism du jour, this sort of thing is happening all the time, though not generally on such an extravagant level.

College and high-school teachers have been pulling their hair out for a decade now, as plagiarism (always something of a problem) has grown into an epidemic. Most often, the response has been three pronged: First, explain exactly what plagiarism is, over and over again. Second, develop new methods for identifying plagiarism. And, third, set up draconian penalties for those who get caught.

None of these, unfortunately, addresses the reasons why students plagiarize. In Viswanathan’s case, the reasons are fairly clear. For many of the students who plagiarize on their papers they aren’t that far different: the students, for the most part, feel incapable of completing the assignment so turn to the easy way out. Most of them don’t feel they are deliberately cheating (I doubt Viswanathan feels she did, either), but are simply doing what is necessary to get out of a difficult situation.

Just as Viswanathan was thrown into the deep end before she had really learned to swim, so are many of our students. Just as all those people who were taking advantage of what they thought they saw in her were doing when they convinced themselves they were simply providing support, too many teachers don’t examine what they are doing when they present assignments to potential plagiarists.

There’s a great deal of learning that has to take place before anyone can start on any writing path, be it a college research paper of a novel for a major publisher. Too often, space for this is not provided: the student or author is simply told to write [I am preparing a longer piece on this for ePluribus Media that will appear in June].

Learning. Experience. Judgment. These cannot be gained through quick introductions to research methodology or even with the help of a “book packager.” It takes time and work to gain knowledge—and, for most of us, it requires guidance of a sort Viswanathan and too many of our students aren’t getting. Ability, even genius, isn’t enough.

In “A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall,” a song he wrote when he was quite young, a song that shows clear signs of influence (of the Childe-collected ballad “Lord Randal”) but that is still strikingly original, Bob Dylan wrote:

I’m going back out before the rain starts falling,
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinking,
But I’ll know my song well before I start singing.

’Know my song well.’ That’s what we are not allowing our youth to do, these days. We are expecting too much from them too quickly. Viswanathan may be, as I said, a genius writer (though she may not be), but she has not had the time to develop her talent and her knowledge of the world. The same can be said of many students: they have the potential, but have not yet developed the ability to do what is being asked of them.

Rather than focusing exclusively on punishing the wrong-doers, we teachers (and parents) should be finding ways of opening up the avenues of experience to students. The best teachers and parents do this already. The better we all do at it, the less plagiarism there will be.

And the happier and more creative the next generation will be.