11 May 2006


Even New York Magazine can occasionally use Schadenfreude correctly.

And then there's Kaavya herself. All the reasons an unknown girl got such a large advance for a slight novel — her promotability: extreme youth, voguish ethnicity, good looks, public poise, and Harvard imprimatur, as well as the book?s autobiographical verisimilitude — are the same reasons her downfall is so riveting. The story also has a crossover appeal, pleasing both young people envious of their mega-successful peer and older people who enjoy imputing moral inferiority and too-clever-by-half stupidity to the younger generation.

The schadenfreude also has a righteous tint: Just as the Duke-lacrosse-team case confirms ugly stereotypes about privileged white jocks, Kaavya Viswanathan, the only child of a brain surgeon and gynecologist, confirms the invidious stereotype of privileged meritocrats gone wild. She is a flagrant example of the hard-charging freaks that our culture grooms and prods so many of its best and brightest children to become, a case study in one sociopathology of the adolescent overclass.

Kurt Andersen, "Generation Xerox" (15 May 2006) (typography corrected).

Interestingly, Andersen betrays an understanding of the publishing industry's "little problem" — the one kept in the pantry with the cupcakes — far more sophisticated than what appears in the "publishing industry" press. His article mentions Janet Dailey, and Jason Blair, and several other plagiarists. He also understands the whole "sizzle withouth the steak" issue, although his criticism of that attitude is a bit more subtle than will be understood by those who need to understand it (but don't as of yet).

Where the article falls short, though — and one can hardly blame Mr Andersen for this, given the forum — is in failing to point at one of the more intellectually dishonest aspects of the whole "plagiarism" debate. The scope of what is a "copy" gets virtually no consideration. This ranges from "how much can I quote?" to "there are only 11 (or 36, or whatever) different stories." When trying to navigate through fair use, I am constantly struck by the context-dependent nature of the debate. Sometimes, "stealing" an "idea" is enough to get accused of plagiarism; other times, a virtually identical theft will be considered beneath notice. Given the nature of artistic production, there simply cannot be any bright-line tests. That, however, does not excuse neglecting to develop a coherent taxonomy within the industry, leaving it instead to a bunch of lawyers to decide. And, given how poorly most lawyers write, that's not going to result in clear communication to those who most need to understand the concepts involved, whether they're "rules" or "guidelines" or "moral precepts" or whatever.