The outrage over the Kaavya Viswanathan story confuses me.
For starters, I am not sure I understand what plagiarism means in art. That does not mean I condone it. All I am saying is, I am just not sure how to draw the line between "borrowing", "quoting", "homage", "imitation" and "plagiarism".
The generally accepted principle is this: an artist can borrow from another's work only if the new creation is "very" different from the borrowed work and bears a stamp that distinguishes the borrower from the "lender".
The best plagiarists take something old and make something new. The worst are the ones satisfied with the old. (Correction: the very worst would be the ones copying Thomas Kinkade paintings while listening to instrumental covers of songs written by American Idol winners.)
Film-makers borrow all the time. It's one medium in which borrowing is accepted. Directors and writers borrow plots, situations, characters and the "look and feel" of their favorite films. God knows how many samurai films and French New Wave films Tarantino must have consumed in his formative years. A Coen Bros. film like "O Brother" has so many homages to their influences one cannot even count them. (Wait, someone at imdb.com did count them.) My main man Akira took Dashiell Hammett's words and turned it into "Yojimbo". Coen Bros. then took Yojimbo and Hammett's novel and produced something familiar yet so utterly Coen-esque. I can bet you somebody somewhere has totally internalized "Yojimbo" and "Miller's Crossing" and read "The Glass Key" and is creating something familar and something totally new. That is art. Even Shakespeare turned to other sources for plots for his plays. Don't let that break your heart.
In the context of rock music, one can probably write a thesis on plagiarism and Led Zeppelin. Only after Zeppelin had learned to play "You Need love" could they hammer out "Whole Lotta Love". But only after The Yardbirds had survived those experimental years could Jimmy Page re-use those radical ideas on I, II and III. (Just curious - why are Yardbirds largely forgotten today?)
The I-IV-V progression of the blues is simple and elegant. All of blues and most of rock music depends on it. Using that chord progression in a song is *obviously* not plagiarism. Why is that? Because it is now a conventionally accepted wisdom that no one "owns" the I-IV-V chord progression. However, if you used the exact opening riff from "Smoke on the Water" (which, if you think about it, is really just a series of Fifths, nothing more) for a completely new song, not only is Ritchie Blackmore likely to pummel you with his Strat, critics and fans will call you a plagiarist. Strange, isn't it?
If musicians and film-makers are allowed to tinker around with their inspirations and influences, why are writers not allowed to do the same? Why is the written word more sacred than recorded sounds and images and why should the writing process be considered pure and insular? All writers read. A lot. They have their favorite passages, openings and climaxes. So why can't we, the readers, accept a borrowed paragraph or two?
Moreover, how does one propose to handle plagiarism in literature? Does the simple act of crediting a quote or a passage (to the original writer) make it not plagiarised?
At their worst, most arguments over plagiarism are ridden with double standards (as in "artist XYZ can steal, but artist ABC cannot"). At their best, the arguments are supported only by individual taste and public consent.
So why the outrage?
I think the answer may have to do with that $500,000 advance and the author's educational background. Anna at Sepia Mutiny has another idea why there is so much schadenfreude among Indian bloggers over this incident. She may be right.
Salvador Dali once said "Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing". So why don't we just assume that Kaavya Viswanathan was merely imitating the writer she enjoyed reading and see if her next book - or the one after - has anything interesting to say?
(For those of you interested, Malcolm "Tipping Point" Gladwell wrote about this subject in a superb article in the New Yorker titled "Something Borrowed".)