The first few examples that I read of Kaavya Viswanathan’s alleged plagiarism, I thought, “Well, that’s not so bad, or that a bit ambiguous.” Then I saw more and more examples and the ambiguity went away. Nor, like just about everyone else, do I find the claim of unconscious borrowing plausible given the extent of the similarities.
However, Amardeep Singh points towards some useful essays at Slate on the issue. The point about the packaging of Viswanathan seems especially important. This is a young woman who was recognized by adults around her as a precociously capable writer, and as a consequence pulled into a venture that I suspect just put too much pressure on her to produce what she wasn’t able to produce. (Like some other commentators, I can’t help but notice that her paraphrases of Megan McCafferty are in quite a few cases real improvements of the passages in question.)
The marketing and packaging of Viswanathan reminds me a little of the hype around Christopher Paolini, the author of Eragon and Eldest, where a good portion of the marketing hook for his first book was that it had been written by a home-schooled teenager and originally self-published before making it to the big time.
The reason I’m especially reminded of Paolini is that no passages or specific content in Paolini are plagiarized, and yet his book is in every respect unoriginal.
Lawrence Lessig spoke here last weekend. I love Lessig’s work, and I love Lessig’s tireless devotion to the cause of copyright reform and free culture. A number of things in his presentation vaguely frustrated me, however. One of them was his promotion of “remix culture” and an associated argument that there is no distinction between what we consider to be original work and what many of us would regard as a “remix”.
On one level, that’s absolutely right. He showed a lot of examples of visual media where the remixes were inspired, entertaining, and emotionally engaging. Some of the examples were especially powerful political commentaries or deviously subversive satires. (Though I have to say, if I never see or hear “The Grey Album” again in this context, I’ll be a happy man.) Lessig noted that print media is also full of remixes, except that we don’t tend to think of them as such. Sure. A footnote is a remix, an allusion is a remix. All representations in fiction are reconfigurations of what we already know, one more strand in a dense intertextual web.
On another level, I think he’s wrong, and I think many people feel intuitively that such a view is wrong.
It’s easy to break out plagiarism from a conception of remixing. The sin of plagiarism is not that it remixes but that it fails to give credit for doing so, fails to acknowledge highly specific reuses of words and phrases and images from another work. If Viswanathan had her protagonist reading Megan McCafferty’s books within the fiction, and then saying, “Opal Mehta thought, ‘Ohmigod, my life is just like that'”, we’ll all be talking about how clever her metafictional command of chick-lit was.
However, I don’t think Lessig leaves me any grounds for seeing a relation between the active plagiarism of Viswanathan and the derivative character of Paolini’s writing, as one example. If all creativity is essentially remixing, then what do we mean by originality?
George Martin’s fantasy novels feel original to me. That’s partly just because he got his template from the Wars of the Roses rather than Norse mythology a la Tolkien. Martin’s is an original borrowing. This is really a kind of consumerist assessment, e.g., I’m bored with the old stuff, give me some new stuff. In that sense, to say an author is original is to say that they have looked over an entire genre or system of expressive culture and seen an opportunity for novelty, found some old stuff in the cultural attic for playing dress-up.
Sometimes saying something is original is just a comment on a clever juxtaposition or twist in the remix. Inverting the protagonists and antagonists in a familiar story. Changing the gender or identity of the archetypical figures. Setting a well-known narrative in a completely new context.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of voice and craft. Paolini’s work comes off as derivative partly because his writing is so terrible just in terms of its craftwork. The cleverest Photoshop remixes stand out sometimes just because the person is so amazingly good with Photoshop that they create what feels like a wholly original image, something we’ve never seen before.
I don’t want to let go of originality as something more than just a well-done remix, however. To some extent, I feel like Lessig is breezing past a difference that matters at a deep emotional level that is difficult to articulate. If I sit down to write a fantasy novel, and I have some characters named hobbits, and I write, “Their faces were as a rule good-natured rather than beautiful, broad, bright-eyed, red-cheeked, with mouths apt to laughter, and to eating and drinking.”, then I’ve plagiarized (and infringed on trademark).
If my fantasy novel has characters called Small Folk who live in well-furnished holes in the ground, smoke pipes, like to eat and are leery of adventures but who have reddish skin and speak in a pseudo-US Southern accent, I’m just derivative. That particular remix is just as dissatisfying as the unambiguous case of plagiarism: it doesn’t matter if it’s not technically a crime. What Visawathan did is worse than what Paolini did, but there’s a kind of distant family resemblance. Not all remixes are created equal. Perhaps if this remix is done exceptionally, exceedingly well in craft terms, it could actually be richly satisfying in its own right, but the odds are against it.
If I have characters called tokoloshe who live in well-furnished holes in the ground, smoke pipes and are hedonists, but have an intricate system of matrilineal kinship, warily watch from the boundaries a mythical struggle between pastoralists, cultivators and hunter-gatherer Big Men, but then join with the Big Men to fight the distant menace of the Burgher King, my remix would be more an allusion. It might be horrible or it might be clever: it depends on my craftwork. But there wouldn’t be anything derivative about it.
On the other hand, if I write a fantasy novel about a race of Memories hunted by the Eternal Tyrant, captured and reforged into his Throne of Sorrowful Anamnesis, giving the Tyrant control over truth and falsehood, and about how one Memory sets out across a dangerous landscape in a lonely quest to find the lost Mind from which it was originally born, then I’m doing something that seems to me closer to what we mean by original. Again, what I’m doing may well suck: originality doesn’t mean a guarantee of quality. Nor is what I’m doing without a lot of referentiality: memory, tyranny, the misuse of truth by power, the quest of the hero with a thousand faces, these only have meaning to us because we’ve encountered them in other contexts. It doesn’t mean my story won’t remind the reader of other stories.
Neither is this last narrative a remix in the way other remixes are. There’s a difference between visualizing a character like Sebulba in The Phantom Menace (he’s Anakin’s rival in the podrace) and sitting down with some software later on to stick a cat-like head on Sebulba’s body. There is primary and secondary originality. There are “remixes” of general ideas, archetypes, visions, referents, the things that we know at a very broad and human level, and then there are remixes which are specifically derived out of a specific work of antecedent culture. The second kind are not necessarily inferior, but they may have a lower ceiling of potential creative accomplishment.