The Price of Plagiarism
The price writers pay for deceiving and plagiarizing, and they pay sooner or later, is heavy. Kaavya Viswanathan knows. A teenage author, she made the best-selling list with her book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, published by Little, Brown and Co, which signed her to a hefty two-book deal. Viswanathan’s book tells the story of Opal, a hard-driving teen who earns all A’s in high school but gets rejected from Harvard because she lacked social life, an INY League college prerequisite. The book was on the stands when Harvard Crimson reported Viswanathan’s book had similarities, citing seven passages, with Sloppy Firsts, a novel that Random House had published, written by Megan McCafferty, a former editor at Cosmopolitan and the author of two other novels.
When confronted with her misdeed, the seventeen year-old author created a plagiarizing storm when she admitted she had borrowed ‘language’ for her best-selling book, but that it was “unintentional and unconscious,” according to the New York Times. She said she had read books by Megan McCafferty who writes youth-oriented literature and is quite popular in high schools.
Vanessa Juarez of Entertainment Weekly posed the question: don’t publishers check facts? She called her article “Joining the Liar’s Club,” and she was writing about Margaret B Jones, the latest memoirist to be ousted as a fraud. In Love and Consequences Jones claimed to be a half-white, half-Native American girl who grew up in South Central LA running drugs for the Bloods. Her real name is Margaret Seltzer, and she went to an elite private school in North Hollywood. When Vanessa began querying publishers, Riverhead Books, the publisher of In Love and Consequences, declined to comment, but noted in a press release that it “relies on authors to tell us the truth.”
As a rule in the publishing business, all nonfiction authors sign contracts vouching their books are accurate, and books flagged as potentially libelous get legal vetting. But there’s more to it than said. Little, Brown and Company Editor-in-chief Geoff Shandler claims, “No publisher has the financial resources to mount a massive investigation of every single book before publication.” But another top industry executive says of Seltzer,: “Publishers, regardless still, have the responsibility for what they print.”
I am beginning to wonder about the public fascination for memoirs. Is it not the same for the popular TV reality shows. Both, it seems, allow us to peek into other people’s lives for the sole purpose of being entertained.
So why do writers steal? Other than being just plain lazy, we may have a deadline to keep and the pressure is on. We become desperate. Our editor is waiting. It happens. We snitch a story, or parts of one, which someone else had written and pass it on as yours. There is no excuse, but it happens. Let me confess what happened to me. As I said, it can happen to any of us.
I had just begun writing for Thai Airways as their travel correspondent, It was my first assignment and an important one. The airline was opening an international route to Bali. The management sent me ahead to write a series of six promotional stories on the island. I had to travel overland across Java and then take a ferry across a narrow and turbulent strait to reach Bali. It was a tough trip, but I was there when the first Thai Airways jet liner landed. It was an exciting moment. The airstrip then was quite short, and to insure a jet would stop in time, the pilot popped a parachute out the stern to bring the plane to a halt. I couldn’t write about that of course, but I did write about the culture, the arts, the music, the dance and anything else that would tell the public about this hardly known island. After a month, I returned to Bangkok, quite pleased with my results. “But you didn’t write anything about stone carving. Stone carving is very important ” the assistant to the assistant director in advertising said’. No one had told me I should write about stone carving, but I learned way back then you don’t argue with the one giving the assignments.
“Never mind,” I said. “I have the material, and I’ll write about it.”
But I didn’t have the material. I had to do something.
I began my research and uncovered a travel article about Bali with a few paragraphs the author wrote on the art of stone carving. Not much, just a couple of paragraphs. Who would ever know? So I borrowed. I wrote how the stones of Bali are soft and easily malleable, and I told how these pieces of art were made. It was a good piece.
Bali became a big commercial hit for Thai Airways, and the management ran my six stories on the arts of Bali in media around the world. I never expected them to have the worldwide exposure they did. Everyone was reading about Bali, and I was the expert. More assignments came, including stories on stone carving. I cringed at the thought of what might happen had I been caught. But a year passed, quietly, and then the next, and it was forgotten, or so I thought.
Three years after the articles appeared, Thai Airways opened the first flight to Kathmandu, and travel writers from around the world were invited. A big reception was held at the Dusit Thani Hotel on the comer of Silom Road in Bangkok. Everyone of importance was there-Thai Airways management from the home office, magazine editors, the press, radio and TV. And there was someone else. I had never met him, but when his name was mentioned, I immediately remembered-the writer from whom I had “borrowed” my stone cutting story.
I tried to avoid him, moving around from one group to another, trying to avoid even his stare. But my meeting with him was inevitable. It happened when the Public Relations Director at Thai Airways, Mrs. Chittdee, saw me standing in the background and called me over. With her were a few writers, including Mr. X from Los Angeles Times. Mrs. Chittdee introduced me to everyone. I knew I was as good as dead when my name was mentioned. I saw the look on Mr. X’s face suddenly change. I was in for trouble. My writing career was over, finished, ended because of one miserable story on stone carving on Bali. And sure enough, Mr. X said, “I want to talk to you.” Perhaps I was saved. He was sparing me from public disgrace. We excused ourselves from Mrs. Chittdee and the others and headed to a far, secluded comer of the conference hall. I was preparing in my mind what I would tell him. I would make a clean confession and appeal to his sympathy. He spoke first, before I could begin.
“Look,” he began, “I wanted to talk to you. I have felt baldly about this for a long time.”
He felt badly. What was he talking about, that he felt badly? I was the one who felt terrible. I was about to interrupt him, but it was most fortunate that I didn’t.
“I am sorry, for you see, I was rather in a hurry, and I had to borrow some of your writing.” I wanted to say ‘my writing’ but I held out. He continued. “I had to get the copy in, and I used your work on stone carving on Bali and I have never done that before, I feel terrible.”
I couldn’t believe it. He had stolen the text from some place he couldn’t remember and, when he saw my story in print, he thought it was mine. He asked if I would forgive him.
“Don’t worry, I said. “I won’t tell a soul.” And I never did, until now that is.
Plagiarism can be a little more complicated than meet the eye. What happens when you steal from yourself? It happened to me. An in-flight magazine in Hong Kong wanted a story on the Hill Stations in Malaysia. The editor was rushed and asked how soon could I get a story in. A week later, he had my story, and a few days after that came a letter accusing me of plagiarism. The editor was really nasty. He didn’t want me to ever write for him again. What had gone wrong?
When publisher Hans Hoefer began his new series of Insight Guides, his first guide on Bali was highly successful. He asked me to write the second guide on Malaysia. I never realized how difficult and time-consuming writing guides to a country could be. Hans and I covered every mile of road in Malaysia, every beach and resort, and we even traveled deep into the Jungle on expeditions with the game department. One section I covered was on the Hill Stations. I did a great deal of research, even into source material written by the Englishmen-Fraser and Maxwell-who founded two of the stations. I spent long hours crafting the script, and I was rather proud of the writing when it was completed.
Now back to the in-flight magazine in Hong Kong. When I sat down to write the article for the editor on the Hill Stations of Malaysia, the words flowed from my typewriter. They came naturally and easily. When we write history and anecdotes from the past, they do not change. History is constant. In doing the piece for the Hong Kong editor, I checked with some of the new hotels and accommodations and restaurants from the Tourist office in Bangkok, entered them into the text and sent the story off with all my historical background included. The editor sent the script back to me, and accused me of palatalizing. Am I guilty or not? Can a writer steal from himself? That was years ago, and I have never been invited to write for the magazine again.
But what happens when others steal from you?
When I wrote Malaysia, the second guidebook in the series, I spent hours on the text about the Malay jungle. I made up catch phrases like “the jungles of Africa and South America are adolescent in comparison to the Malay jungle.” Since then, I have seen that phrase in print, taken by other writers, a dozen or more times. What is disheartening is when someone reads the section on the jungle in the guidebook I had written, and they say “Oh, I read that somewhere before.” Do I tell them it is mine? Hardly. They wouldn’t believe it anyway-just our grapes they’d say.
Something else that is disheartening is when someone calls your writing a work of fiction when it is not. Editor Tony Waltham at the Bangkok Post began a section called “Sunday Magazine” and commissioned me to write a weekly piece for the magazine on any subject I wanted. Those are fun stories to do, and I put a lot of effort and time into them. Much of what I wrote was far out. I wrote about living in a haunted house in Delaware on the American East Coast, about how not to fire a cannon (I actually fired a real antique cannon for the story), and about an interview I did with a genuine pirate chieftain. There were stories about my meeting with a witch doctor in the Philippines, and other pieces about movie actors and actresses I had met and wrote about over the years-Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, James Mason, Mary Martin, and Bea Arthur, to mention a few. One day when I took my story in to Bangkok Post, Tony was off for the day, so I gave it to one of the sub editors to give to Tony. I made a casual remark when I handed it to him: “This sounds more like fiction than anything.” He looked up at me, and in a sober voice said, “Isn’t all the stuff you write fiction?” That came as a mighty hard blow, especially after I labored so hard to present stories as they really happened. I discovered, after that, many readers thought I was turning out fiction. I cringe at the thought of what readers might think after they read my collection of short stories in Tales From the Pacific Rim. I found I could tell the truth better when I wrote it as fiction.