Kaavya Viswanathan, Christopher Paolini, and Remixing

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.

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11 Responses to Kaavya Viswanathan, Christopher Paolini, and Remixing

  1. skyfaller says:

    Did you ever read the New Yorker article, Something Borrowed? I think it covered the issue of plagiarism vs. free culture pretty well… I’m curious as to your thoughts on it.

  2. Doug says:

    As long as we’re recommending reading, over at Making Light there’s a good thread titled “Fanfic as a Force of Nature.” It touches on originality, remixes, fan fiction and much more. Later it veers into copyright, but that discussion — in terms of public domain, ownership and originality — is related to what you’re thinking about here. Maybe a second cousin or so.

  3. Joey Headset says:

    Lessig’s appropriation of the term “remix” drives me absolately crazy. I actually do remixes — remixes of music — and I despise the term being co-opted in this way. The term is now used as a sort of blanket justification for people putting their own name on other people’s work. And for what it’s worth, a solid majority of remixes are commissioned by the original artist and released as extras on original artist’s own recordings. This has little to do with the Lessigian version of remixing, where you take someone else’s work, fiddle with it a bit and then take most of the credit.

    I’d also point out that most of the people who cry out the loudest for “Free Culture” have a nice, steady source of income outside the realm of cultural production. Lessig teaches at Stanford, and gets a nice check every month for his efforts. I wonder how he would feel if I decided to remix one of his courses. I could walk into the classroom… start beat-boxing during some of the duller parts. If things got boring I could blast some of my favorite Mash-Ups on a boombox. And, of course, I could “improve” the course by loudly contradicting the professor and writing my thoughts over his on the white board during his lecture. I wonder how enthusiastic Lessig would be about this kind of remix? More importantly, I wonder how he would feel if my remix somehow resulted in his monthly paycheck being only half what it had been (because I decided to give my remix of Lessig’s course away for free, permitting students a rebate on their tuition).

    I suspect Lessig wouldn’t care for it. Fortunately, the wonderful age of Free Culture won’t affect his bottom line. As a would-be creator of culture, however, you better damn well believe it will affect mine.

  4. Laura says:

    Joey has some interesting points and I, just yesterday, gave a talk about remix culture and education. I suggested, in a pushing-the-envelope way, that we might remix education at the macro level by allowing things like what Joey’s suggesting at the end of his post. And the question really is about revenue stream, right? An original work, even if it’s a remix, deserves some kind of potential for revenue.

    I think what Lessig mainly argues against is the extension of copyright on certain works (think Disney) that then makes it impossible for the kind of derivative work that’s taken place for nearly all of our literary history to take place. While the realm of texts has been better at allowing derivative works–fan fiction is hugely popular. The music and movie and television industry have been less open to the use of their content in other ways. Text and music seem emminently more malleable than video and may be easier to remix. But I’m no artist, so maybe I’m wrong about that.

    I definitely take your point, Tim, that there is a danger in the remix culture leading to barely disguised forms of plagiarism. On the flip side of that, what do we do with the James Frey’s of the world: a remixed life?

  5. emschwar says:

    I’ll happily concede the inappropriateness of “remix” to describe what Lessig advocates. But I don’t think that what he’s advocating rises quite to the extreme of what Joey describes, either. Here’s what I imagine would fit more in the vein of what Lessig advocates:

    Lessig releases his notes for the class– heck, let’s say he goes all out and releases videotaped presentations for each class with it. Someone else watches the class, reads the notes, and decides to share it with his friends. They all form an informal study group where each takes one of Lessig’s lectures and notes, and presents it to the group. This may range from simply re-presenting Lessig’s lecture to wildly reinterpreting it as a collage of clips from George Romero movies.

    Assuming Lessig released his lecture under the appropriate Creative Commons licence (and believe me, there are a whole host of problems with CC, but let’s leave that aside for now), what’s the harm? Lessig is already getting paid for his lecture, and it doesn’t hurt him any if some more people take his work and do their own thing with it. In fact, I’d say the major thrust of the whole Creative Commons effort is to allow this very thing to happen, while still preserving the notion of fairly crediting sources.

  6. Alan Jacobs says:

    emschwar, there’s no harm at all in the scenario you describe, because Lessig himself has chosen the terms — in his case, Creative Commons — which govern the use of his work. Ditto with writers of code who use Stallman’s GPL. But also ditto with writers who sign with traditional publishers, and musicians who sign with traditional recording companies. The central principle of “intellectual property” and copyright law is the idea that the creators of intellectual content have, for a period of time, the primary say over how it gets distributed. The legal — and, I think, moral — problem with a vague notion of “remixing” is that it can say to creators of art and content that they have no say over how their work gets used and can expect no compensation for its use. But of course this is a strong disincentive to create, or at least to make one’s creations public. So those people who steal music and pirate software under the slogan “information wants to be free” are not only being parasitic but also shortsighted — they are helping to create a situation in which there will be less and less worthwhile stuff to steal.

    All this is, of course, on a different subject that Tim’s original post, which I think takes the topic of remixing in a fairly unusual direction. A lot of people talk (as I have just talked) about the legality and morality of, um, the appropriation of artistic and intellectual content, but Tim is encouraging us to think about the specifically artistic and intellectual possibilities of such appropriation.

  7. The spectrum between plagiarism and originality is certainly fraught with subjectivity. What makes this issue so dense is that the spectrum of derivation also has to be evaluated within the context of a legally protected market. The “proper” legal framework may differ depending on what aspect of the issue society wishes to optimize. Either we want copyright law that will maximize the amount of creative content or copyright law that will maximize the capital inflow created from content production. I don’t think we can have both and every compromise seems lacking in one or both dimensions.

    I predict that either way bookstores will still be stocked with plenty of unoriginal titles.

  8. abstractart says:

    I feel like Tim’s original point is more or less just a matter of good art vs. bad art. A poor, uncreative artist who sits down in a blank white room and tries to create something from a _tabula rasa_ will come up with crap. The same poor, uncreative artist who’s given a host of source works to draw from will likewise come up with crap, only this time it’ll be derivative crap.

    A great artist forced to do something _tabula rasa_ can come up with something great (though I’d argue that no work of art is *truly* generated from a _tabula rasa_; it will, at least, be borrowed from life). A great artist forced to do something strictly derivative can still turn it into a great work of art. (Look at the oft-cited example of Shakespeare blatantly stealing other writers’ plays and adapting them for the English stage.)

    For me the issue isn’t the degree of similarity to an existing work — some of my favorite works of art consist of nothing but extended quotation from carefully selected other works of art — but the artfulness and intentionality of the remixing.

    Joey Headset:

    Actually, the majority of *published* remixes are commissioned by the artist and released on the artist’s own recording. The majority of *existing* remixes are illegally created and distributed by people playing around at home in their garages — in the old days through the bootleg tape scene, nowadays as MP3s on the Internet. I’m only a recent initiate into the world of mashups and bootlegs, and, sure, 90% of what’s out there is dross — as with any amateur market — but the amount of artistically intricate and interesting stuff that’s being made right now that *could not* ever have been made if the remixers had been forced to obtain permissions from all relevant copyright holders is breathtaking. There’s a world of stuff out there beyond _The Grey Album_, which is honestly only the best-publicized exemplar of the huge and vibrant genre of bastard pop.

    This is the paradox, for me — there’s so much that’s good and interesting and exciting that’s coming out of the culture of “thieves and pirates” copyright holders decry, and I find it really, really hard to imagine that all of this cultural value would be exactly replicated if you gave copyright holders the added incentive of the lost profits or whatever from “thieves and pirates”.

    In any case, Lessig does CC all of his material — his course materials, recordings of his speeches and presentations, and so on — and he doesn’t seem to have any problem with the idea of people lifting quotes or clips of his and replaying them elsewhere, or in other contexts, or integrating them into their own presentations, as long as they give him the little credit at the end. In fact, he encourages it. Call him anything you want, but you can’t call him a hypocrite. If your problem is that paying someone to hold an in-person event in a particular space — teaching a class — versus creating a recorded work and distributing it are two fundamentally different things, and that people see them differently, well, they *are*. (Actually, if we treated teaching the way we treat content creation, we’d require all of Lessig’s students to pay him perpetual “royalties” on the benefit they’ve gained in their careers from his teaching. If your legal practice takes off thanks to the training you got from your prof, shouldn’t you pay him 5% of all your practice’s profits? Same idea, after all…)

    In fact, I think one of his proposed solutions for “How can we make it economically feasible?” does involve making content creators more similar to college professors — that is, hiring content creators on a salary basis to produce art rather than a per-project, per-sales royalty basis. Artificially tying compensation for artists to the per-unit sales of their products seems to me to have been uniformly horrible for art and artists anyway.

    In any case, aside from moral concerns, there’s a pragmatic concern for those of us in the category of “thieves and pirates” — we *know* that there’s a split between artists who will release their work for free and don’t insist on absolute control of it after they’re done with it. There *are* people who CC or GPL everything they make. (Just recently we had a show here of _Big Love_ by Charles Mee, a playwright whom I love largely because of his philosophy of releasing his scripts on the Web and letting any individual production screw with his scripts as much as they want.) On the other hand, there are artists who don’t, and who make it a pain in the ass to use or even refer to their work in any way, such that you shake in your boots when you quote from them, parody them, or even work in the same field as them lest you step on their toes and bring down the wrath of lawyers.

    Given that there *isn’t*, as far as I can tell, a correlation between talent and willingness to share — some of the greatest artists acknowledge their ties to “thieves and pirates”, and some of the crappiest artists are the ones most neurotic about protecting their one crappy important copyright to their one crappy one-hit wonder so they can retain their few crappy residuals — why *shouldn’t* those of us who are “thieves and pirates” try to make the market unsafe and threatening and untenable for the latter kind of artist? Why shouldn’t we send the message that people who insist on absolute control of their work, in today’s society thanks to the nature of today’s technology, should give up on that dream, and either change their standards or get out of the field?

    It’s true, after all. Yelling and complaining about pirates isn’t going to stop us. And, frankly, I wouldn’t mind. We’d be losing some great work, sure, but we’d be getting more great work to compensate for it, and my belief is we gain more than we lose. An unspoken assumption in the disincentivization arguments is that the art created by artists who insist on control of their work is somehow greater or more valid than the art created by artists who let their work go *and all the derivative art that comes about thereby*, and I couldn’t disagree more.

  9. Simon Shoedecker says:

    Part of the problem is that there really is no such thing as “tabula rasa” art. Every work of art is part of a conversation, and responds and alludes to previous works of art.

    We desperately need a distinction in literature between actual, y’know, plagiarism, where someone takes something someone else has written and passes it off as their own with only a few identifying details changed, and uncredited allusion, which are apparently only a problem if you make too many of them, as the poor 17-year-old chick-litter is discovering. None of the examples given in shocked articles about her are exact copyings, none of them are long enough to to be plagiarism in the sense that downloading a term paper from the web is plagiarism even if they were exact copyings, many of them as you note are improvements on the originals, many of them are cliches that two writers could easily invent independently especially when variation of wording is considered, none of the articles address whether the book is derivative in the way that Paolini is derivative.

    Meanwhile we have a cult of plagiarism in academia also, to the extent that Ambrose and Goodwin were accused of crimes for writing paraphrases of primary sources that were deemed too close to the phrasing used by their own acknowledged secondary sources. (Without any consideration of whether the earlier secondary source was similarly too close to the primary one.) These weren’t the only charges, but they were high on the list.

    You suggest it’s uncredited allusion that’s the problem. I think not. It’s certainly not the problem in academic plagiarism charges. Nor is it the problem in literary cases. Tolkien never bothered to make it widely known that he took all the dwarf names in The Hobbit straight from lists in the Eddas. Numerous readers excitedly discovered it for themselves for decades. It’s usually taken as evidence of his brilliance. These days he’d probably be accused of plagiarism. Or is it OK because the Eddas are out of copyright?

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    To complicate things still further, I’m sure that many of us who work with 19th Century sources have noticed that travel writers from the era seemed to have thought nothing of copying large passages by other travel writers. In fact, it was an expectation in many cases that you would do so, that this is how you built an authoritative account of a region or a natural history description of a people or an ecology.

    Arthur is correct that some of this is about the difference between good and bad work period. My main concern with Lessig’s position is that even as he casts about for a way to make the cause of free culture meaningful to more than the activists who care about it now, he’s not thinking about how people experience (and consume) creativity at a fairly deep level, that while all creativity has elements of remixture in it, not all creative work is best summarized as a remix.

  11. Joey Headset says:

    “Why shouldn’t we send the message that people who insist on absolute control of their work, in today’s society thanks to the nature of today’s technology, should give up on that dream, and either change their standards or get out of the field?”

    That’s the great thing about the Free Culture arguement. It’s so easy to turn the sentiment “I’m going to do whatever the hell I like, no matter who gets screwed in the process” into the argument “look at me boldy liberating culture!”. Back in high school, I had friends who did a pretty good job boldly liberating bottles of cooking sherry from the local grocery by shoving them down their pants. Boy they could have used Larry Lessig in their corner back then.

    “It’s true, after all. Yelling and complaining about pirates isn’t going to stop us. And, frankly, I wouldn’t mind. We’d be losing some great work, sure, but we’d be getting more great work to compensate for it, and my belief is we gain more than we lose.”

    If by “yelling and compaining” you mean artists desperately begging people to pay them for the work they do (just as I imagine you expect to get paid for whatever it is you intend to do for a living), you’re right. Emboldened by sophists and BS artists, pretty much all cultural and artistic endevour that can be digitized will soon be “liberated” in such a way that artists neither get compensation nor consultation for their signficant efforts.

    And you are right, you will lose a lot of great work… because a lot of the artistic work that people like best is extremely resource intensive. Since most people don’t work for free, you end up with a culture that only produces the following:

    super-cheap art. Great art that can be produced by people in their spare time with inexpensive equipment. And the good news is, many the people who used to produce art full time will turn into amateurs. They won’t be able to produce as MUCH or as GOOD art as when they were able to do it for a living, but something is better than nothing. Until a few generations go by, and the last generation of professional cinematographers and sound designers and editors dies off. Then it’s amateur night, forever and ever.

    trust-fund art. If you want something that resembles the resource intensive art of old, you will need Patrons with fat wallets. If Paris Hilton wants to direct a big summer-blockbuster type flick, she can afford to. Or maybe she can pay someone else to it. This could work all right… though it’s quite possible that leaving a big chunk of our society’s art production at the mercy of the super-wealthy might not be the best thing for our culture. Leaving our government in their hands didn’t turn out so well.

    retro-derivitive art. Even though the production of new, genuinely art may choke down to a virtual stand-still, there are still thousands upon thousands of old books and movies and albums that can be endlessly picked apart and reassembled into (sort of) new work. Some of it might be amusing, some of it might even be good… but it seems a little like to play the piano by hooking electrodes up to a deceased pianist’s dead fingers. The big reason people love mashups is because they were already familiar with the source material. But what happens when there is NO NEW SOURCE MATERIAL to speak of? Retro-derivitive art will emit countless regurgitations of pre-Free Culture art, spiraling on into infinity. Sounds like a party.

    As for me, I’ll keep on producing art in the glorious age of Free Culture. I just won’t make it available to anyone. Because I’d rather NO ONE see my work than allow some glue-sniffing “remixer” to change three words or four notes or one scene, then put his name on the work above mine. Because a culture that gives someone else 90% of the credit when I did 90% of the work is one that, frankly, doesn’t even deserve my 90%.

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