Before Romanticism, originality was not a virtue. When he sat down to write Paradise Lost, Milton lifted not just his plot but all his characters from the Bible, and Alexander Pope is known for his imitations of Horace. Ah, you might say, but they were overt in their imitation, manifesting their own artistic prowess in their masterly reworkings of predecessor texts [footnote: Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence]. Quite different from today's paste-up artists.
Yes, perhaps, but in the realm of low art, back in the day, as soon as a novel came out, dozens of practically verbatim imitations flooded the marketplace. We think of Robinson Crusoe as the proto-novel, but it was based on the life of Alexander Selkirk, itself written up in The Englishman by Richard Steele, so how can we condemn all those subsequent hack-written desert island tales? And what is Jane Eyre but Pamela with a few twists?
However, between Daniel Defoe and Charlotte Bronte, to collapse literary history, the Romantics put originality and inspiration up on a pedestal, Byron sued over imitations of The Corsair, and via Art and Law, it became important for writers to make up their own stuff.
Except, not so much. Harlequin romances anyone? Wide Sargasso Sea? A Thousand Acres? Yes, yes, those are artistic revisionings, but my point is that there is a vast literary history of imitation, some of it respectful and respectable, some of it not.
So which side does Kaavya Viswanathan fall on? I'm not quite sure. Did she really sit there with Sloppy Firsts next to her computer and copy big chunks of it into How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life? If she did, she's an idiot. Or are Megan McCafferty's books (which I only heard of for the first time two weeks ago, and once again felt like an idiot for not knowing about something so popular) so popular that they were indeed seared into her brain to the point that the words and ideas felt like they were hers? Or, like all those first novelists who write about a young boy at odds with the world out on a spree (did you say Catcher in the Rye?), was it a bit of both, as she paid homage to what she loved and forgot what she had remembered?
I don't mean to deny the problem of plagiarism here. If you write a biography of, say, Lyndon B. Johnson, and you copy into it passages from someone else's biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, you are using their work for your gain and that is wrong. If you download a Newsweek article on Afghanistan and hand it in as a paper for your PoliSci class, you are being unethical. But in literature, things are fuzzier, and have been forever, and it behooves us to remember that.
[The real issues here, I think, are money, elitism, and celebrity culture. Nobody would be fussing if Viswanathan had put out a cheap knock-off teen chick lit book and made $8,000; people are going nuts because she got a $500,000 contract, Harvard, and a review in the NY Times, and there are few people nastier and more competitive than writers and wannabe Harvard students. Which begs the question, what are we doing giving $500,000 book contracts for first books by teenagers that were put together by book packagers? As for McCafferty, I bet her Amazon ranking surged this week.]
Edited to add: If you're coming here from Technorati or some such, please read my next post.