Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Plagiarism: Unconscious and unintentional?

Writing is one of the most conscious and intentional acts a human can undertake. Constructing a phrase or sentence is a high-level mental activity (akin, I tell my students, to doing a complex math problem).

That's why Kaavya Viswanathan's excuse – or, at least, explanation – for the plagiarism in her novel How Opal Mehta Go Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life sounds so odd.

She admitted the plagiarism but said, in typical 21st century fashion, it was "unconscious and unintentional," according to a New York Times report. It's as if she wants us to believe that she was writing in her sleep.

This piece is not meant to beat up on Ms. Viswanathan. She is only 19 years old and what she has been through during the past two weeks has undoubtedly destroyed a major part of her life's plan. She had gotten a novel published early in life and had a contract for another. Now, all that is gone.

While the plagiarism is maddening, one can feel sorry for her personally. Plagiarism is theft, and she did it and got caught – in a very public way. Her career as a writer is likely over. Little, Brown, her publisher, has announced that it will not be publishing the second novel.

It will take time and effort for her to move away from all of this.

She could start by giving up the "unconscious and unintentional" excuse. She may not have understood the seriousness of what she was doing when she did it, but the fact remains that she did it. Her acts were both conscious and intentional.

Writing is like that.

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