Literary Larceny

Literary theft or plagiarism and lying has always been part of literature and the publishing world. What was once hard to notice is nowadays easily detected. Technology and digital printing have a lot to do with it. In fact the internet has generated a literary community of journalists, writers and bloggers who do not hesitate to blow the whistle on any author who is guilty of lying or stealing. And yet I think that plagiarism has never been as dominant before as it is today.

One such story is James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces published by Doubleday in 2003, and which sold millions of copies after Oprah Winfrey selected the title for her book club. However, it was later revealed that the book relied more on imagination than memory as there were discrepancies between the reality and Frey’s version of some past events. The hoax caused an uproar as it angered many people. The books were withdrawn from bookstores and as a consequence he was verbally berated by Oprah on national television. (Although Oprah later apologized to him which I thought at the time was absolutely unnecessary.)

Another such story is that of Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan, whose first novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life (2006), secured her a $500,000 advance from Little, Brown. Kaavya’s book borrowed more than 40 passages from books by Megan McCafferty. As a consequence Little, Brown pulled copies of her book from bookstore shelves and withdrew Viswanathan’s publishing deal.

On 30th of July 2012, the Media Decoder had posted online an article under the heading “Jonah Lehrer Resigns From The New Yorker After Making Up Dylan Quotes for His Book”.

Jonah Lehrer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, was accused of journalistic fraud. According to an article in Tablet magazine, Mr. Lehrer had fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan in his best-selling book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works”.
To top it all off Mr. Lehrer had publicly apologized earlier for taking some of his articles from The Wall Street Journal, Wired, and other publications and recycling them in blog posts for The New Yorker. And of course his publisher pulled Imagine from the bookshelves.

Todd Gitlin (professor at Columbia) said:
“Not only had Mr. Lehrer carved out a career in the popular niche of brain science, but he had created a persona that is perfectly suited to a 21st-century media environment.”

Has stardom or celebrity status become so important to writers nowadays that they lie and plagiarize in order to achieve it?

And as Charlie Conrad (publisher of Broadway Books) wrote:
“It didn’t matter that she (Kaavya Viswanathan) couldn’t write- it was all about her as the front person of the novel dealing with her real story. Reality TV’s had a big influence on publishing.”

What do you think? What’s your take on the matter? Why do you think writers lie and steal knowing that it is wrong to do so?


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3 Responses to Literary Larceny

  1. Maybe they think they won’t get caught! It’s so easy with internet access to find all sorts of interesting things on-line that a writer might idolize and add into their own work without the proper documentation, hoping no one will notice. The problem is, because it’s all ‘out there’, a lot of people may have seen it before and recognize it in someone else’s work. Most writers want to be recognized for their writing, but an ethical writer will not stoop to plagiarism or steal someone else’s work to further their own, even if it means their work remains obscure.

    • chichikir says:

      Throughout the years the image of the writer has changed drastically. Once a book is published, the writer is on every talk show on TV. It’s more about the writer nowadays than the writing. And that’s wrong in my opinion anyway.

  2. Pingback: Doesn’t That Make Life A Story? | Ramblings

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