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Plagiarism, Wearing Various Costumes

News about the Harvard student who "borrowed" from other books for a new novel — and a business executive who blamed his staff for a similar problem with a book — prompts thoughts on plagiarism.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stair head, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Okay. I didn't write that exactly. They're the first words of James Joyce's Ulysses. But I wrote them down in a notebook years ago. And I guess I internalized them so much, I just forgot they weren't really mine. Sorry. Call me Ishmael.

That's essentially the explanation given by both people who figured in the most recent plagiarism scandals. Kaavya Viswanathan is a 19-year-old Harvard student. Her novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life was withdrawn from stores this week, her contract for a second book cancelled.

Readers, more careful than the editors at Little Brown, discovered striking similarities between her book and passages of novels by Megan McCafferty and others, including an obscure talent named Salman Rushdie.

Also this week, the Raytheon company's board of directors decided to deprive their chief executive officer, William Swanson, of a pay raise because many of the passages in his pamphlet, Swanson's Unwritten Rules of Management, turned out to be identical to a 1944 book by UCLA engineering professor W.J. King. Now, I don't feel much sympathy for Mr. Swanson. I also suspect he doesn't need it. He's a mature man who employs thousands of people and enjoys -- and who wouldn't? -- a $7 million annual pay package. He says some eager staff members put his rules together based on some of his presentations. One of his little rules should be: He can take it, no credit necessary, classy executives don't blame their staff for mistakes.

But I do feel a twinge for Kaavya Viswanathan. She's 19 years old, an age at which, save for drunk driving, people should be able to make mistakes and learn from them. She should have a chance for teachers to hand back her papers marked C, nice touches, but a little imitative, instead of having major publishers sign her to a deal. They wanted her presumably because she's an attractive and articulate 19-year-old who might be more appealing on Oprah than, say, a 30-year-old author who's actually learned something about life, mostly from his or her mistakes.

We learn words and writing through imitation. We try on phrases and styles until we find our own. When I was teaching at a creative writing workshop at a Catholic girls' school in Chicago, we read Langston Hughes' poem, What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? After that, I noticed the students wrote an awful lot about dreams and raisins. Then one day a 12-year-old girl wrote something like: How many dreams die in darkness? And that's where her real writing began. Maybe I should have signed her up on the spot.

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small