Updike on the Kaavya Viswanathan case

I just caught Susan Rasky's interview of John Updike on KQED Radio's Forum program. Updike was speaking about his new novel Terrorist, which is the story of an eighteen-year-old American homegrown terrorist. The full interview is available online at the KQED Forum Archive.

There are many interesting things in this hour-long interview in which Updike talks about the way he writes, the likelihood of a revival of the Rabbit books, the problems with writing a novel with a Muslim character without knowing Arabic. However, my attention was drawn to an orthogonal question – asked by a caller – about Kaavya Viswanathan's plagiarism case. As so many already know, Viswanathan claims that she had internalized the passages in question, and reproduced them in her book without knowing that they were not her own. Here is Updike weighing in:

… as a fellow writer, I watched with pity her rise and fall. But it would seem as though the passages were a little too close to the bone to really be ascribed to any kind of subconscious copying. But in the vast river of print that we read, it's not impossible that all of us pick up phrases and things that aren't our own but that is partly in a way the life of literature. She was pushed by a firm that seems to specialize in mass manufacturing something called Chick Lit. So I would blame not just the poor girl who undoubtedly was a bright and aspiring and hopeful twenty-year-old (…), but the company (whose name escapes me) got a hold of her, organized the entire deal, she got in over her head, and being young and not having read very much and – as she confessed – having read a great deal of other people's Chick Lit, it is not so surprising that she turned to copying. I also wonder if the computer age hasn't blurred the whole matter of plagiarism, if there isn't an awful lot of it now, if students don't buy papers over the internet… And they talk about this wonderful bookless world, this endless flow of quotation and thought that will come out of the internet, where the question of ownership does not even arise and copyright is an obsolete nasty thing perpetrated by capitalist publishers. So I think she was in part … she does, yes, require some blame and some chastizement but I think she was a symptom as well of the generally deteriorating circumstance.


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