Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Internalizing versus Regurgitating?

I will never forget a moment when I was watching a play with a friend and we suddenly heard a few phrases of dialogue that stopped our hearts cold. For a few seconds we couldn't imagine what was happening. Her heart raced, and I really don't think I paid attention for a few minutes afterward.

I was sitting there, watching a play, having a good time when suddenly I heard my friend's dialogue, (which she had written in one of her produced plays.) Right there in front of us, different characters from a different play were speaking her dialogue. I mean, not just sounding like it, but IT.

Of course, both of us thought, this couldn't be possible. The play we were watching was by a famous author and was written a few years before my friend's play had been produced. So, this famous playwright hadn't copied my friend, but....had my friend copied this playwright?

After the play, we discussed it in a "man, that was weird," sort of way. And my friend insisted she had never read or seen this play before. As we walked through everything step-by-step, we realized that nothing else in the play was remotely similar to her play. However, the passage of dialogue, quite witty and unique, was there alright. We were both mystified. What most addled my friend was the nagging question that if her play is produced in the future will she have to strike that dialogue?

Perhaps therein lies the problem with some issues of awkwardly recurring dialogue. If many people are trying to be overly witty and unique with dialogue and observations, is there more chance of random similarities occuring. (Monkeys on the typewriter and all of that.)

Screenwriting Guru Robert Mckee advises something like, "Once you have written that purely scintillating gem, that phrase so wittily turned, that expression of wit which you are sure people will be quoting for ages. Once you have done that, then immediatley DELETE IT!"

I bring all this up in regards to the now raging debate about Kaayna Viswanathan who wrote the book How Opal Mehta got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. This young writer, a Harvard Sophmore now, got a $500,000 advance to write two novels of which Opal Mehta is the first. This is enough to drive people absolutely crazy with jealous rage.

However, I am sure not many people would trade places with Opal's author this morning. It appears that Kaayna was cribbing from another Young Adult author, Megan McCafferty to the tune of 29 similar passages. You can read all about it at the Boston Globe or Harvard Crimson.

Although the idea that two authors in the same genre would come up with a couple of glancingly comparable half-witty commentaries about the suburban landscape in which those genres inhabit is actually quite understandable. However, the sheer number of passages that are similar are a little overwhelming.

Viswanathan has released a statment saying that she had read McCaffrey's work and must have (ooops) "internalized it," but after reading more than a few of the similar phrasings it seems as if her excuse may be getting too much traction for my taste.


Her excuse would appear to suggest Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence without the Misreading.

Lest, theatre lovers, you think we dramatists are exempt from such scandals, might I remind you that one of the best articles about the nature of creative plagiarism was about a play called Frozen, by Bryony Lavery. It was by Malcom Gladwell and is still available online.

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