Where Have I Read That Before?

Photo: Corbis

Is everything we read now swiped from somewhere else?

Consider Kaavya Viswanathan. One moment, Viswanathan was a literary marvel, a Harvard sophomore with a $500,000 two-book deal and a highly touted chick-lit novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. The next, Little Brown and Company, her publisher, was in the expensive process of withdrawing the 55,000 copies of the novel—like so many tins of bad salmon—that had been shipped to booksellers after it emerged that phrases, dialogue, and incidents had numerous similarities to the works of Megan McCafferty and other writers. First-time authors dream of their work flying off the shelves—but not like this.

In recent years, a number of authors themselves famous enough to be plagiarized from have been caught plagiarizing. Renowned historians Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Joseph Ellis were all accused of fraud. Ben Domenech, a 24-year-old conservative blogger, lost a job at the Washington Post after he was found to have relied heavily on other people’s work in earlier articles. Separately, a blogger challenged the originality of a popular selection of management aphorisms ostensibly authored by William Swanson, the chief executive of Raytheon. Swanson cribbed at least half of them from a late California engineering professor, W. J. King. I’m not sure we should be buying any more missiles from this guy.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what is plagiarism? The least sincere form? A genuine crime?

Stealing is a crime. No, it isn’t murder. But like murder it intrigues us at a comfortable remove, when we’re out of the line of fire and have been excused from the jury. Think how often, after all, a writer’s books are called his or her children. To see the writer’s words kidnapped, to find them imprisoned, like changelings, is to become vicariously absorbed by violation. Schadenfreudians are usually much pleased by the exposure of plagiarism in relatively high places; to discover that the mighty have not fallen so much as cheated on their way up excites many who have never attempted the climb.

The standard rundown of plagiarism excuses includes accidental copying, occupational or personal stress, and even mental illness, as in the case of former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair. After the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that nineteen passages from a book by Meredith Clausen appeared without attribution in Roger Shepherd’s Structures of Our Time: 31 Buildings That Changed Modern Life, Mr. Shepherd cited “pressure after September 11” and “one of the research assistants I had hired.” Mr. Domenech explained a passage copied from a P. J. O’Rourke book by saying that Mr. O’Rourke gave him permission. Contacted at his home in New Hampshire, Mr. O’Rourke said that he had never heard of Mr. Domenech. Swanson now admits that he did “not properly credit” his source. “You should understand I’m not a writer,” he added. “It’s not my profession, and I don’t know how to do it.”

Has any plagiarist ever owned up to stealing deliberately another writer’s words? Viswanathan said she had read McCafferty but called herself the victim of a photographic memory. “Somewhere in her mind, she crossed an invisible line with this material and didn’t realize that the words so easy and available to her were not her own,” says her agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. Implausible as this explanation seems, Viswanathan delivers it on the Today show with an air of such apologetic earnestness that you want to write her a letter of recommendation, maybe offer her a summer internship.

Now, pinching one or two phrases from another book in the course of writing a 320-page novel might be accidental. But by the time a novelist does it 29 times, the effort is transparently intentional and conscious. If you believe her, you could also believe that monkeys sitting at typewriters wrote Shakespeare.

I have no compassion for plagiarists. They don’t go into trances. I think they sweat and lay a book next to the typewriter, and copy. I take the disclosure of their crimes as personally as possible. Words belong to the person who wrote them. There are few simpler ethical notions than this one, particularly as society directs more and more energy and resources toward the creation of intellectual property.Plagiarists have desecrated my profession and given every reader cause to doubt all I write. They have torn down the scaffolding of trust—from writer to editor, from publication to reader—that is the essence of journalism.

In this world of Google and Nexis, in which you can pick and choose among so many words written on a given subject, you can’t be sure that anything you read is original. Even this.

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Where Have I Read That Before?