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Month: May 2006

Applied Skepticism

Applied Skepticism

I'm sorry, but this is really bothering me.

We're writers. We agree that plagiarism is a terrible thing. It's reprehensible. But given what I have read, I do not believe that this girl is plagiarising.

Why? The words are nearly identical, you may say. Yes, they are — but the skeptical mind must ask, are they all that *original*?

>>In The Princess Diaries, the following passage appears on page 12: “There isn't a single inch of me that hasn't been pinched, cut, filed, painted, sloughed, blown dry, or moisturised. . . . Because I don't look a thing like Mia Thermopolis. Mia Thermopolis never had fingernails. Mia Thermopolis never had blond highlights.”

In Viswanathan's book, page 59 reads: “Every inch of me had been cut, filed, steamed, exfoliated, polished, painted, or moisturised. I didn't look a thing like Opal Mehta. Opal Mehta didn't own five pairs of shoes so expensive they could have been traded in for a small sailboat.”
<< I've written passages very similar to this in years past, and I've never read Cabot, nor do I plan to. It is not an original rhythm or idea. It's a common experience, in fact -- ask any young woman going to a prom, coming-out party, wedding, theatrical performance... I'll bet any number of them would describe the experience similarly, and if they were feeling jaunty, they'd even state it the same way. The example of the use of "a full-scale argument about animal rights" isn't a sign of plagiarism -- it's a sign of cliché. The most damning examples that journalists can find are all absolutely pedestrian ideas presented in a standard, competently formed paragraph. All of the other examples were a sentence or two, which can be easily attributed to unconsciously imitating style. (I still, in my weaker moments, find myself imitating Neil Gaiman's and Douglas Adams's styles. Does that make me a plagiarist?) Another example was a rhyme that Salman Rushdie used in a book, where he placed it on a wall as graffiti, and Ms. Viswanathan places one very similar on a poster. BFD, Mr. Rushdie. It's scenery. I think it's unfortunate that such a young woman should have her reputation smeared this way. Who, at nineteen, has an original thought? Of *course* she's regurgitating style -- but I do not believe she is consciously stealing. Do I think she deserved to be making truckloads of money? I know too many good writers who haven't been published at all yet to think so. But I don't think she needs to be dragged through the mud and utterly ruined this way. And this I find just plain stupid: >>Both Jack, the love interest in Kinsella's novel, and Sean, the romantic hero in Opal Mehta, have a scar on one hand and “eyes so dark they're almost black”. << Again, the supposedly damning quoted fragment is a cliché. Read Neil Gaiman's thoughts on the identical accusation that J.K. Rowling 'stole' Harry Potter from Gaiman's Timothy Hunter. And here's an interesting coincidence: the paper that broke *both* stories was The Scotsman, a publication I shall now avoid like the plague. (Wait, you've written “avoid like the plague” before, haven't you? I must have stolen it from you.)

This is probably more upsetting to me today than it normally would be because it smacks of scapegoatism, which this week I have a particular distaste for. But that's another post.

As writers we need to be careful about how we treat each other. I think there are two lessons in this: 1) Avoid cliché and 2) there is nothing new under the sun (which I should have avoided writing — like the plague — on the grounds that it's a cliché.)