Home / Fictionalizing and Plagiarizing: Not the Same Thing

Fictionalizing and Plagiarizing: Not the Same Thing

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A Google search on the two names Kaavya Viswanathan and James Frey this morning produced 362 results. Almost all of them comparisons between the two. One half-assed attempt at snark on a blog wrote “How Kaavya Viswanathan got rich, got caught, and got ruined… and became best friends with James Frey.” Another calls Viswanathan “the new James Frey.”

Even worse, however, is the spate of commentators who talk about Viswanathan as though she were the less guilty of the two. “It’s not like she just made up facts, a la Frey,” I read. Or, “Not quite James Frey, but…”

Kaavya Viswanathan, for those who haven’t been paying attention, is a 19-year-old Harvard Sophomore who signed a $500,000 book deal with Little, Brown & Co. when she was just 17 – the youngest author in the publisher’s history. But her debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, bodily lifted sections of two books by Megan McCafferty, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. To be specific, it contained 29 distinct instances of plagiarism. Yesterday the publisher announced that the book would be pulled from the shelves.

Let’s be clear here. James Frey lied, exaggerated, and fictionalized what was supposed to be his memoir. And his worst offense, frankly, was to make a fool of America’s uncrowned Queen, Oprah. (Do you really think this would have raised such headlines if he hadn’t been on her show?) But certainly we can agree that the disputed parts of A Million Little Pieces were from his own imagination. (That was the whole problem, wasn’t it?) Some still feel that Frey had every right to take artistic license with his memoir. It was, after all, his memoir. The only issue was whether he should have said so.

What Frey did not do was steal someone else’s material. Viswanathan’s book was not a memoir, so she should have had every reason to make up something in the book. Instead she plagiarized, ripped off another author’s hard work and passed it off as her own. While Frey’s transgression is a matter of conscience and an issue between nobody but himself and his readers, at least it’s his own intellectual property; Viswanathan’s transgression can and should put her in court.

What Viswanathan did is far, far worse. Her statement that she “unknowingly and unintentionally” plagiarized is bullshit (she unknowingly and unintentionally took someone else’s material TWENTY-NINE TIMES?), and in a perfect world we would forget Frey’s name immediately in her wake. We won’t, of course: she didn’t mess with the most powerful media personality in America. But the big difference is that we can still debate whether A Million Little Pieces has merit and value as a literary work. There is no debate as to How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life‘s value. A substantial amount of it, after all, is stolen property.

I’ve not read either book. But my Amazon link on this entry is to Frey’s… it’s much more worthy of your money and respect. Fiction or not, it’s original work.

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About Michael J. West

  • I respectfully disagree. Perhaps in the literature world (with no attached emotions being mentioned) what Viswanathan did was much worse than Frey. But Frey had a very profound effect on a lot of people’s lives. People who were recovering addicts turned to his book for support and a “You can do it!” type of deal. Viswanathan’s book was plain fiction. She didn’t fake suicides in her book, or create a world of hope for millions of people. Viswanathan certainly fucked up, but I don’t think what she did was anything in need of the international outrage we’re seeing now.

  • sal m

    i agree with the mr. west that what viswanathan did was way worse. she basically stole.

    what frey did just made fools out of people who were too gullible or addled to know the difference. the little that i read of frey’s book came across as so over-the-top phony that it’s hard to believe people believed it. it’s a sad commentary that so many people fell for his garbage.

    if anything frey’s publisher should have had an inkling that the book was fiction and is more to blame than frey himself.

  • I see your point but do not share it.

    If the revelations of Frey’s lies undid their profound effect on people’s lives, those people could fill the void with one of the approximately 4,982,564,124,647,567,123,452,343,564,578,960 other I’m-a-survivor memoirs in which all the suffering and redemption was really true. I have no love for Frey but nor do I hold him responsible for shattering millions of peoples’ worlds of hope.

  • My previous comment was a response to #1, by the way, not #2. Just to be clear.

  • shoyt

    I would like you to know that there are quite a few people who believe that Frey did take his work from another man’s book: Eddie Little’s “Another Day in Paradise”. You can check Jonathan Dolan’s eXile article for particulars.

  • Casey, one little point: Frey didn’t “fake” a suicide, either. He admitted that he changed how the suicide was achieved, but she still did commit suicide.

  • Hm. Are you sure? I’ve been looking, and everything regarding “Lily”‘s suicide seems to be false. Not a single person can find a record of suicide in Chicago consistent with Frey’s description of her in the book.

  • We have a liar and a thief and now we want to decide which one is worse?

    They are both basically dishonest people who got caught and haven’t been showing a lot of grace under pressure and they both came from well-to-do families which probably influenced them getting book deals.

    Now we know how one gets a good book deal: be rich and be willing to tweak the truth.

  • Heloise

    Hmmm, let’s see Viswan is Indian and a woman and Frey is white and man, is that her real crime?

    I agree that she is a criminal because you have to credit or at least say you need to be giving someone credit the way I do…hehehe…but seriously even the title sounds vaguely familiar “How Stella Got her Groove Back” I would check that book for sources too.

    The truth is that the sight of both of them turned my stomach. I don’t want to see or hear from either one of them again. Someone was suspicious that she got the book deal in the first place. I wondered about that when thousands of books get published or want to be published each year.

    There are no dearth of Americans, legal ones, who want to write and publish. We don’t need to get writers from other countries, legal or otherwise, to fill the book shelves here.


  • Che

    Thats right Heloise, we only want good solid, red white and blue (but mostly white) writers filling our bookshelves. Those damn foreigners better keep their high-falutin ideas to therselves or we might accidentally learn sumpin.

    Now, lemme press my palms to my eyes and forget there are people like Heloise in the world, then I’ll go back to reading my book by Knut Hamsun. Damn foreigner.

  • From the NY Times:

    “Little, Brown and Ms. Viswanathan had said that she would revise the book to remove the copied passages and that they would reissue it.”

    Anyone find this the least bit disgusting (though not surprising)?

  • Casey, I had heard that, too. But since he changed the details of her and how she killed herself, how would they know what to information to use?

    It very well may be that he did fake all of it, but I never heard any conclusive evidence, just possibilities and suggestions.

  • “There are no dearth of Americans, legal ones, who want to write and publish. We don’t need to get writers from other countries, legal or otherwise, to fill the book shelves here.”

    And if we kept the minorities and women from publishing, it would open up the market for all us American males.

    Are you kidding me, Heloise?! Why should Americans get a leg up over a talented writer from elsewhere? I want to read the best stories, not just the best ones Americans wrote. Of course, you sound like many people who have to blame someone else for your lack of talent and status.

    In regards to the post, I just read an interesting item. It appears Viswanathan shares the copyright to her “book” with 17th Street Productions a book-packaging company, who has been caught plagerizing before.

    I still don’t understand the Frey incident. All I read was the scene on the airplane as he was covered in a myriad of body fluids and it was obvious it wasn’t a true account.

    All the people crying and complaining are mad at themselves because they didn’t know any better and are going to blame someone else for feeling like a fool. They cite that the book was classified as a memoir so it has to be true and they can only be affected by facts not art. They are probably the same ones outraged by Milli Vanilli.

    Gore Vidal explained it well in his memoir “Palimpsest” when he wrote “a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.”

    How can we know that McCourt got all the facts right in “Angela’s Ashes” when some events happened when he was four?

    Do you remember everything from adolescence with 100% accuracy? Would you have any way to know? Wolff wrote about his in “This Boy’s Life” and no one tried to verify those events.

  • Scott Butki

    No, Elvira, that news is outdated.
    They were going to revise and reissue it but then as it became clear the number of copied passage were more than 100 they decided to just kill.
    NPR interviewed an editor at Publishers Weekly and they said the book is now dead with no future shelf life as opposed to Frey’s book which still has new readers.

    Michael, good piece but the last account I read said it was way more than the 29 times.

    As for who is more guilty… I don’t know. It’s hard to compare them.
    One person is passing off as truth what they know to be fiction and one is passing off fiction as if it’s her own.
    I see both as pretty serious.
    I was personally more offended by Frey because he’s talking about real lives. I mean he liked about having a relationship with a woman who was killed and the victim’s family said he was a liar but nobody believed him. That seems much more destructive to me than lying about a novel’s originality.

    But she sure should not have been paid so much for a novel, especially if she didn’t write it all.
    The impression I’m getting is she had editors suggesting and adjusting parts of the book so they may be somewhat culpable too.

  • Scott Butki

    Oh I just read a few stories and the latest count of plagarized passagse is not 100, but closer to 50.

    I stand, er, corrected… by myself.

  • Scott Butki

    I still don’t understand the Frey incident. All I read was the scene on the airplane as he was covered in a myriad of body fluids and it was obvious it wasn’t a true account.

    El Bicho, I took a satirical take at Ashes and other books here

    It’s one thing to misrember some details. It’s quite another to say you spent time in jail when you didn’t. Or to knowingly change facts to tell a better story.
    Here’s a good summary of it all at Slate

  • Scott, for me the issue is why would anyone believe what someone else says is the truth considering no one can ever agree on anything. 9/11, The recent Superbowl, the Moon Landing, Kennedy’s assassination, evolution, the 2000 election, global warming, the dangers/benefits of marijuana, the list goes on.

    There is no truth; only what we choose to believe and that continually changes, some times on a daily basis. We are lied to by politicians, religious leaders, family members. Hell, we even lie to ourselves, yet people wanted to form a torch-weilding lynch mob and chase after Frey like he was Frankenstein’s monster because of their own self-righteousness.

    If Frey’s story affected people in a positive way, why should the facts change anything? I believe it was on BC, one woman told me that she got a better understanding of her drug-addicted brother after reading the book and their bond grew closer. She was disappointed after finding out the book’s deatils weren’t all true. Should she now go back to the strained relationship she had before? Fact or fiction, the book did reveal a truth to her that was beneficial.

  • Bliffle

    Everybody lies, everybody cheats. It’s the New Morality. Apparently, one can redeem oneself with pious pronouncements about Terry Schiavo.

  • Heloise

    El Bicho, is that spanish for the bitch?

    I am a writer and a woman and a minority. Therefore I am a rare commodity in this country. I belong to an even rarer set: black women science teachers. We are like less than 1% of the teaching population.

    Yes, men need to move over for women. But then women bosses suck. Can’t have everything.

    Have you noticed though that two of the best selling authors of all time happen to be British? JK Rowlings and now Dan Brown. That tiny island is not buying up all those damn books, we are, and the rest of Europe.

    I write about Europe much in my book. And like Gore Vidal, believe in memoirs. BTW you have good taste because I rank his Palipsest as one of THE best books I’ve ever read.


  • Scott Butki

    El Bicho, so you don’t believe anything ever?

    What’s the point in reading newspapers or this site for you if you think it all might be lies?

    Biffle, I have no idea why you’re bringing that issue into this matter.

    Admittedly I get defensive on this issue since I was a journalist for more than 10 years and like to think I wrote as accurately and objectively as humanly possible.

  • Heloise, is that English for the jerk?

    Men don’t need to move over for women just like foreign writers don’t need to move over for Americans. If you have the talent and determination you will get through. There’s no reason to move over just to arbitrarily move over.

    Scott, I didn’t say I don’t believe anything nor that everything is a lie, but I know not everything I believe or am told is not some immutable, unwavering truth. Haven’t things you’ve been told or believed in turned out to be false or inaccurate? Who is to blame?

    The outrage at Frey was pointless and wasted. Other than ruining his career, what did it accomplish? Imagine if that same, focused energy was directed in making the world a better place.

  • Heloise, I don’t know if you’re serious or not. But if men, women, Americans, or international writers want to be successful, the key to that is not to eliminate the competition. JK Rowling and Dan Brown are big sellers in America because they produce good writing. If you want to be more successful than they are, write something better than they have. Don’t insist that Americans blacklist writers from other countries, or men, or women, or what-have-you.

    I’m a white male American writer, for better or for worse, and I’m not going to “move over for” anybody. I want to get my writing out there and if someone else is going to beat me at that game, it better be because their writing is superior to mine, and not because they’re of this or that country/sex/ethnic group.

  • Is it hard work being a poser? One commentator has pointed out that this is the taunting question that one high-society classmate asks Opal Mehta near the conclusion of Kaavya’s first novel, a book for teenagers. And this is the very question that has come back to contemptuously haunt Viswanathan herself.

    Michael West’s very interesting and well-written article compares the seriousness of her offense with the exaggerated fabrications contained in James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Unfortunately, the comparison seems to be based upon demonstrating that plagiarism and imaginative fictionalizing are not the same thing. Most readers might respond that this difference needs little explanation, it is self-evident.

    Another issue that West brings up in his comparison of the two works is the question of literary worth. Again, the issue begs the point: it is generally acknowledged that romanticized novels for teenagers are by their nature characterized by a lack of literary merit or value.

    For me, the simpler, but far more important point is that long-term memory is highly inaccurate. Might it be cryptomnesia, the unknowing appropriation of what one has read as part of one’s own thinking? Experimental psychology has provided some evidence for instances of this. But to claim that such out-of awareness influences could account for the now more than forty instances of similar or exact replications is simply not believable.

    It is the very accuracy of Ms. Viswanathan’s copying that gave lie to her initial attempts to explain away what she had done.

  • Um…thank you for your comment, disembedded curiosities. I kinda suspect you could have made the point much more effectively by using much simpler language, but what the Hell. To each his own.

  • MHatter

    Are you kiddin me? All this sanctimonious chest-thumping about who is the lesser evil? No doubt, plagarism is worse than simple lying. That doesn’t make Frey a saint, though, or warrant having a link to his book in your article. How about a link to an actual writer’s work? I’ve heard that there are a number of them – Nabakov, Melville, Gore Vidal, take your pick… Hell, Heloise sounds like she deserves a link a lot more than either of those two smucks.

  • Frey’s offense was in passing off a work of fiction as non-fiction. The story is that he tried to shop it as fiction first and got no takers, and hit the big time with Oprah by pretending it was all true. Frey’s mistakes were *outside* of the book. Stock it on the fiction shelves and nobody cares.

    Viswanathan’s offense, on the other hand, is unfixable. No matter where you stock it, the book is heavily plagiarized. It’s the work of other people with her name on it. Her mistakes were *inside* the book and irredeemable.

    Which is worse? Now you’re talking about a value judgment, and everybody’s got a different answer. By asking how to solve each, it’s easy to see that Viswanathan’s offense is worse: it can’t be fixed, while Frey’s can. But if you ask which has caused more damage to credibility, Frey’s offense is worse: Oprah made a fool of herself on Larry King Live, then made a fool of Frey to try and recover. Which has earned the author more money? Some people might see that as a big factor. Viswanathan earned $500,000, while Frey presumably earned millions, so Frey’s offense is worse by that standard. Which author was more stupid? Viswanathan should have known that plagiarism is easily caught in this modern age, while Frey didn’t get stupid until his book was picked by Oprah, at which point it was too late to turn back, so Viswanathan was easily the more stupid of the two.

    And on it goes. Pick a standard, and assign values based on that. In any case, Viswanathan’s book is unfixable, while Frey’s is still selling.

  • ScScott Butki

    Very well said, Phillip – it’s all in how you compare things.

    II still think a memoir full of lies about real living people can be more damaging – especially when dealing with issues like prison, drugs and suicides – can be much more damaging than someone stealing fiction.

    Incidentally the latest is she also stole from
    Salmon Rushdie.

    I’m tempted to think we should start a new list of authors she did NOT steal from.

  • Alexandra

    Incidentally, she stole from Meg Cabot as well: Maybe the title of the list should be “Writers who will not be suing Viswanathan for copyright infringement”

    What I want to know was how an intelligent girl like herself thought she would get away with something like this. Was the book deal too much pressure and she felt like she had to produce something soon to satisfy the publisher? What I really don’t want to see is her profiting in any way from this event. No memoirs 10 years from now about it, no movies, nothing. What she did was illegal, she knew that and she did it anyway.

    As for Frey, I really didn’t care what was embellished or not, and I don’t think a lot of other readers did either. In fact if Oprah hadn’t chosen it for her book club (and to be honest when she did I thought there were a lot better memoirs out there she could have chosen from) no one would even care about this event. I don’t think the lies here and there took away from the real point of the story which was his road to becoming sober. His story has helped other alcoholics understand their addiction and work toward becoming sober, which is more than any of us can probably say.

  • Scot Butki

    The interesting thing that has to be fully explained with the “novelist” is that she used a book packaging firm and it’s unclear how much of the book they prepared and wrote. That’s not to say she is not ultimately to blame but the impression I’ve read is they also share some culpability.

  • Scott Butki

    A good piece in Slate

    Has any plagiarist ever owned up to stealing—deliberately—another writer’s words? None that I can recall. Mostly they peddle apologies and excuses like the ones offered by Harvard student and novelist Kaavya Viswanathan, whom the Harvard Crimson busted this week for word thievery. Viswanathan tells the New York Times that the 29 cited instances in which she lifted from another novelist’s language for her novel were “unintentional and unconscious.”

  • Jewels

    She should have blamed it on Ambien it seems the popular thing to do these days.

    Regarding Frey, unfortunate he stooped to such low levels to market his book, but at least for a while, the book was doing some good for folks with addictions. Like Winn said, Frey’s error is somewhat repairable whereas Viswanathan’s ridiculous pretense at writing a book is not.

  • Sam

    Its only plagiarism
    So what? Did she kill someone?

    Get a life you all!!

    Its only plagiarism…only plagiarism…only plagiarism

    do u realise now?

    Whether kaavya admits it or denies it…its just plagiarism for crying out loud.