Second helpings of some sloppy firsts

Up until this point, I read two articles concerning a 19 year old Harvard kid’s highly publicized first novel. I didn’t think much of it (on balance), until an article changed my mind.

The two articles

The first from the San Francisco Chronicle was about the an admission of accidental guilt:

“When I was in high school, I read and loved two wonderful novels by Megan McCafferty, ‘Sloppy Firsts’ and “Second Helpings,’ which spoke to me in a way few other books did. Recently, I was very surprised and upset to learn that there are similarities between some passages in my novel…and passages in these books,” Viswanathan, 19, said in a statement issued by her publisher.

“While the central stories of my book and hers are completely different, I wasn’t aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty’s words. I am a huge fan of her work and can honestly say that any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious. My publisher and I plan to revise my novel for future printings to eliminate any inappropriate similarities.

“I sincerely apologize to Megan McCafferty and to any who feel they have been misled by these unintentional errors on my part.”

The second from the New York Times was about how Megan McCafferty’s publisher rejected the apology:

But in a statement issued today, Steve Ross, Crown’s publisher, said that, “based on the scope and character of the similarities, it is inconceivable that this was a display of youthful innocence or an unconscious or unintentional act.”

He said that there were more than 40 passages in Ms. Viswanathan’s book “that contain identical language and/or common scene or dialogue structure from Megan McCafferty’s first two books.”

Mr. Ross called it “nothing less than an act of literary identity theft.”

I only skimmed the articles, but it sounded like a “He-Said-She-Said” sort of thing. Hard to know (or care) who is right.

Score one for the Crimson

When you read the blog entry above, he directs you to an article in the Harvard Crimson (which first broke the story) about actual passages under dispute.

Wow! You have to read it for yourself to understand.

Caitlin, as a writer, is much more passionate than me about these things than me. When I pointed the Crimson article out to her she IM’d back: “That girl should be punished. This is why you hate Harvard people—they’ll do anything scummy to get to the top. Disgusting.”

(Heh, she’s right. I do hate Harvard people.)

Some people should be so lucky to get published at all. To see this clear misuse of a privilege. Wow!

The collegiate culture of plagarism

Like forging data in science, “this is a high crime for a writer to steal another’s work.” Caitlin then pointed out it that this probably came about because “kids plagiarize all the time in college. The environment breeds that. I’m saying she’s approaching writing a novel like she does college.”

I never really thought about that. In my science and math classes, I was fortunate enough to do my homework early enough that I didn’t care if someone copied my work. There was a line between collaboration and copying that a number of others might have crossed, but I never really got the opportunity to. Then again I’m different. Sometimes I just stopped turning in homework that I finished. Grades never really did matter much in college.

When you have so few humanities, it becomes a lot of fun and the fun part is the ability to make shit up and not be provably wrong. To plagiarize in that would take out what little fun there is in a required course.

This incident as social commentary

Caitlin mentioned that “Disney has set a bad example for us all, ripping off Japanese movies.” Her point is well taken. As a society we have called copying DVDs “stealing” and called such obvious thefts as this as “accidental borrowing.”

What is most surprising to me was the sudden change I had when faced with the clear evidence. All of the articles are written like: such and such says this about it, but so and so objects to that characterization—finding a middle ground where none is. It is a pity that these nation’s newspapers weren’t able to convey what the Crimson so clearly showed: simply show us the stuff and let us judge for ourselves, and stop quoting people who have a couple of dogs in the race.

A side benefit from reading the article was how interesting Megan McCafferty’s books, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings sound. Even Caitlin noticed it: “The funny thing is the original passages are like 100x better.”

4 thoughts on “Second helpings of some sloppy firsts

  1. That girl should be punished. This is why I hate Harvard people worse than I hate the sandalwood key chains sold in India. Clearly, they’ll do anything scummy and cheap and spicy to get to the top. Disgusting.

    Hi Terry, long time no see!


  2. An interesting comment sent to me:

    “It’s clear that the girl is intentionally malfeasant (but may not even know that what she did was completely unethical). I found it too rich to be ironic that her
    plans are to become an investment banker after graduating Harvard—she
    literally has not real interest in writing except to turn a quick buck.”

  3. Thus endeth the saga.

    I was discussing this with Caitlin yesterday and had guessed it had come about because she had plagiarized for some essay for a college course, and a professor (or someone with publisher connections) considered that it be written up as a treatment or something for a book deal.

    It turned out the connection occurred in high school via her private college counselor who read a different essay (one no-doubt cribbed from another book) which caused the counselor to refer her work to the publisher.

    I love the new excuse of “photographic memory,” a claim that is most certainly complete bullshit. Let’s see: the ability to recall something you read four times over only four years ago and not remember that you read it? I could quote long passages of my summer reading books in junior high school and high school because I read them three times each before school started, but I’d be damned if I couldn’t tell you where the passage came from, even a decade later.

    Such memory, unless conscious memorization techniques are applied, are limited to a specific area that the brain can unconsciously reduce and summarize into meaningful whole (long strings of numbers, chess positions, facts, or music).

    My near-photographic (visual) memory disappeared as soon as I learned to read at age six—that is true with many people.

    The only thing funnier is the statement, “I never take notes.” I think that speaks more about how pathetic the undergraduate humanities and economics courses are at Harvard than anything else.

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