A Postmortem on Viswanathan’s Opal Mehta: Wolves Circle for the Final Kill

Shame on Her, Shame on Us, Shame on All of Us

Last week, on a widely-read writers’ blog, I published this brief discussion during the media’s histrionic and wildly inflamed coverage of the emerging revelations about Kaavya Viswanathan’s plagiarism in her first book, Opal Mehta:

“Is it hard work being a poser?” One commentator has pointed out that this is the taunting question that one high-society classmate asks Opal Mehta near the conclusion of Kaavya’s first novel, a book for teenagers. And this is the very question that has come back to contemptuously haunt Viswanathan herself.

[A critic] recently has published a very interesting and well-written article that compares the seriousness of her offense with the exaggerated fabrications contained in James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Unfortunately, the comparison seems to be based upon demonstrating that plagiarism and imaginative fictionalizing are not the same thing. Most readers might respond that this difference needs little explanation; it is self-evident.

Another issue that [critic] brings up in his comparison of the two works is the question of literary worth. Again, the issue begs the point: it is generally acknowledged that romanticized novels for teenagers are by their nature characterized by a lack of literary merit or value.

For me, the simpler, but far more important point is that long-term memory is highly inaccurate. Some have wondered whether the plagiarism could be accounted for by the phenomenon known as cryptomnesia, the unknowing appropriation of what one has read as part of one’s own thinking? Experimental psychology has provided some evidence for instances of this. But to claim that such out-of awareness influences could account for the now many more than forty instances of similar or exact replications is simply not believable.

It is the very accuracy of Ms. Viswanathan’s copying that gave lie to her initial attempts to explain away what she had done.

Some days later, however, my attention now has turned to another deplorable aspect of the plagiarism controversy, this time focusing upon the harrowing behavior of the critics themselves. Our present electronic technology, along with the incessant and often ruthless social interaction that it has enabled in the digital age, has driven the interest in this controversy into a state of uncontrolled mania.

In today’s climate on the Internet, critical examinations of literary works have become a form of mob rule, fueled by a feverish global beehive, pulsating everywhere at once. And if an issue is interesting enough to serve as a forum to give blogger-critics their own “fifteen minutes of fame,” it can incite a frenzied horde of amateur analysts, each with a world-wide publishing medium in the living room and what appears to be unbounded amounts of free-time. The expressions that ensue are typically characterized as the unbridled release of personal narcissism.

It has turned into a frightening incarnation of mob rule, fueled by a sense of blood lust. The amateur critics as “petty gadflies” (as one writer has called them) have become a pack of wolves all smelling blood, circling for the final kill. Suddenly, not to excuse Viswanathan’s blatant act of plagiarism, this mob-like tyranny has become more dreadful and loathsome that the original act itself.

As a monumental testament to sick and perverted dark humor, the on-line peddlers of “The MehtaMorphasis Award” (snipurl.com/Mehtaward) were offering $75 (not exactly the size of a Nobel Prize) for the most eloquently crafted moral to a week of charged debate surrounding the frothy, ephemeral novel.

Among the submissions were:

The controversy may deservedly be far more interesting than the story itself.

I might agree, but with the caveat that the far more compelling aspect of the controversy is how easily it can be to forget our sense of humanity, instead either joining or implicitly condoning the mentality of mob rule with the aim of fatally attacking its target. In this sense, the controversy is compelling because of the tacit acceptance of totalitarianism that the critics’ frenzied excitement seems to display.

Blogcritics: The Rise of Elitist Power and Control

Some writers about the internet have contended that what is now known as blogging began in an atmosphere of relatively democratic equalitarianism. Lately, some websites in the world of blogging have declared themselves to be much more accomplished or worthy than others. The claims vary from having members with more superior writing skills, to having large coverage, to being the most “popular” blogs.Blogcritics (Blogcritics.org) is a glaring example of the first type of arrogance. It presumptuously advertises itself as a malicious clique “of superior bloggers on music, books, film, popular culture, technology, and politics.” How seriously superior are Blogcritics writers? Judge for yourself by these two extracts from articles published last month:

1. John Lennon Message from the Great Beyond?
April 25, 2006

Now, this is one of the strangest things I have heard in a long time. While I am skeptical about all things supernatural, it strikes me as imprudent to dismiss alleged out-of-this-world occurrences out of hand. Sure, there are lots of kooks and gullible souls – and charlatans too – but more is happening in the cosmos than humankind will ever completely understand.

[Imagine John Lennon working for peace from the grave…] The Evening Standard’s This Is London reports that psychics claim John Lennon, the activist and musician assassinated in 1980, sent the world a message from…well, from wherever he is right now. The message reportedly was broadcast via a worldwide pay-per-view seance produced by UK firm Starcast Productions and shown on US television last night. And what did the former Beatle have to say?

“Peace…the message is peace.”

2. My Love Affair With Dr. Martens
April 02, 2006

For my 30th birthday a very dear friend gave me a pair of shoes. They were dirty and ripped, the soles were completely worn out and they smelled of 15 years worth of feet. In fact they used to be my shoes before I gave them to this friend. Yet as he passed these old, degenerate shoes to me I couldn’t help but beam with appreciation.

Rewind about 12 years to 1994. I was a senior in high school. Nevermind had been out for a couple of years, Grunge and alternative were still all the rage. My wardrobe was full of flannel, t-shirts, baggy pants and sneakers. At the time I was well into a pair of skater-styled Vans. The hair was long, the attitude sullen.

Enter Dr. Marten. I had eyed many a pair of those brown leather beauties many a time. But at over $100 a pair, neither my wallet nor my mother was willing to shed that kind of dough.

Ah but my brother, the savior of footwear, the beater of siblings, tormentor of all things me, came through like a mackerel in cheese. He gave me my first pair of Dr. Martens, and he didn’t even charge me a dime, or a wet willie.

It seems my brother had received the shoes as a gift from a buddy. The buddy had bought them and worn them for a year or so before he decided to buy a new pair. My brother, likewise, wore the shoes for another year or so before deciding to buy his own new pair.

I loved those shoes. They fit so well with my whole style in those days. They were comfortable, wore well, felt great on my size 11 feet, and looked pretty stinking cool.

After three years, I finally decided to get myself a new pair. I did the loyal thing and promptly gave the old pair to my roommate. He wasn’t quite so dedicated to the now five-year-old, fourth generation shoes as I was, but they were donned by his feet at least once a week for the next year. Yes, he liked them so much he bought himself a new pair of Doc Martens. Yes, he gave the old pair to a mutual friend….At this point I lost touch with the shoes.

When I opened the bag that was my birthday present and found those shoes, I couldn’t help but get a tear in my eye. Once the smell of six pairs of feet over many sweaty years wafted away, I got a big grin on my face and knew I was looking at the best present ever.

Coming home to my little den, I placed the old Doc Martens next to the pair I bought in their stead, some ten years prior. A pair I still wear to this day.

Judging from those articles published by Blogcritics, who on earth could dispute its claim to be the home of the most seriously superior writers in the world of blogs? Well, maybe, me for one….

The second claim to being the most worthy are those sites that proclaim their immense size of blog coverage. Technorati.org is a prime example of a site that makes this pompous claim: “What’s happening right now: Currently tracking 37.6 million sites and 2.4 billion links.

Then, finally, there are the blogs which aspire to nudging themselves up into the ranks of the “most popular,” as judge by the number of links to them that they can manage to accumulate. Technorati, for example, regularly lists the the 100 most popular blogs in the kingdom of blogs or, as they put it: “The biggest blogs in the blogosphere, as measured by [the number of] unique links in the last six months.”

The conclusion of this brief overview is that blogging appears be an electronic media format that has undergone a regrettable transformation from its early atmosphere of equality and democratic participation, to its present position characterized by politicized claims by some major blogger websites of superiority, domination and control.

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