Being a writer is a messy business

Some days back, Kaavya Vishwanathan made the rounds of fame hall with her chick-lit book “How Opal Mehta got kissed, got wild, and a life” chronicling the life of a fictional Opal Mehta’s attempts to become a wholesome person by getting out of her all-too-rigid life geared towards getting into Harvard.

Two days later she gets into controversy, about plagiarizing paragraphs, which she then claims to have been “inspired” to borrow a term from Bollywood and apologized for the same. Her reason? She had internalized many of the sentences that another writer had written in an almost similar plot from another writer’s work.

The legal eagles are working the nitty gritty out. I am torn between taking sides. Some of the passages are indeed very alike and it will be silly to say that she had just “internalized” them. After apologizing, she has as good as admitted that she has mugged them up, which is what incidentally will get her loads of marks has she been in an Indian University. But that’s not issue. The issue at hand is plagiarism.

I don’t mean to defend her but I have experienced many instances where various writers have influenced me. (For eg: After reading Vikram Seth’s poetry I had been influenced so much that I internalized his verse structure but wrote about a different subject.) That’s the point of good reading, right? You read the masters so that you learn the best from the best. But where does one draw the line? Should what you have learnt be just a framework and you are supposed to put in the bricks? Or can you copy the structure of the bricks a wee bit? I’m trying to figure out where she has gone wrong.

She is young and probably will survive all this. But plagiarism in fiction is a huge black mark. In academia, plagiarism comes with severe penalties. Fortunately, fiction has to go to the courts for justice.

Recently, I was trying to write something but was not happy with the result at all! That’s because, not only could I recognise which author I had been influenced by, I could tell you which story and where in the story as well. Writing something original is an enormously exhausting and scary experience. It was the most frustrating time. So, I asked a friend of mine and her answer was that there are only seven original plots in the world and that the story differs not in the tale but the way it is told. Agreed.

I guess writing is a bit like cooking. You have the same ingredients but how to put them together depends on you. A bit here and a bit there will make a world of difference. I just hope I know when to stop adding the salt.

Kaavya Update: Her books have been withdrawn from the market in the U.S. So far, no one is pressing charges.


4 thoughts on “Being a writer is a messy business

  1. Yes, the Kaavya Vishwanathan episode was indeed, shocking. I do not know what so say when I see ‘internalization’ manifesting itself in the form of plagiarism.

  2. afj,

    there is a huge difference being influenced by some style (most writers/painters/musicians/… are influenced by one or more styles… very few create styles…) but some of the excerpts that I saw were plain template based writing. word by word. that cannot be just internalization unless she has a photographic memory. so while some writings might fall on borderline and are debatable at least, this is just blanket plagiarism.

    even at such a young age when most people are still idialistic idiots, she has shown a great maturity in picking up stuff and calling it internalization.


  3. first, nobody can claim to be the original creator,
    second, all we creative people do is to take a thought and portray it as best as we can…
    and third, there’s always a difference between copying and creating

  4. There were several lines that were strikingly similar in the two books. Internalization is just too off. If you’re influenced by a writer, it’s usually reflected in your writing style and not in the actual sequence of the other author’s words/ideas.

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