ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. Authors are always trying to generate publicity for their books, and this week Kaavya Viswanathan has had that in spades. She's the 19-year-old Harvard undergraduate with the six figure book contract who concedes that passages of her novel bear a striking resemblance to other books that she has read several times. Her publisher says that her book will be revised. Well commentator Lev Grossman is a novelist, and he's also the book critic for Time Magazine, and he says there is more than one way for writers to borrow from each other.
Mr. LEV GROSSMAN (Novelist; Book critic, Time magazine): I'd like to spend a couple minutes in praise of plagiarism. When Kaavya Viswanathan was caught committing literary larceny this week, she got a lot of flack for it. And I'm not going to defend her. But there's another side to this story, one we don't often hear about. The pleasures of plagiarism.
Let's look at another story that broke this week, one that's not getting quite as much attention. Lori Jareo is also a novelist, but her book is less well known. It's called Another Hope and it's set in the universe of Star Wars. If follows the adventures of one of Luke Skywalker's cousins. Another Hope is an example of a primarily internet-based art form called fan fiction. Stories and novels written by ordinary fans featuring characters and settings from pop culture franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Fan fiction expands and adds to the storylines that the franchise's creators already wrote. There's a Friends fan fiction where Monica and Chandler switch bodies, ala Freaky Friday. These stories are the work of devoted fans who love these worlds so much they need to make a piece of them their own. When Lori Jareo offered her work of fan fiction for sale on Amazon.com, George Lucas' lawyers, apparently feeling a great disturbance in the force, promptly asked her to cease and desist.
But in Ms. Jareo's defense, I think people like her are the unsung heroes of the wired, post-modern literary universe. Kaavya Viswanathan did what she did for a ton of money and 15 minutes of fame. Fan fiction writers go through the hard work of producing a novel knowing that they will never be famous writers, they will never be respected, they will almost certainly never be paid for their work and they could quite possibly be prosecuted for it. They do it just for the pleasure it gives them and a dozen or so other people who might or might not read it.
There's a kind of purity to that which I find beautiful and truly humbling. I've written two so-called literary novels myself and I'm not sure I could've finished them without at least a promise of a decent book party at the end. But there's a website that hosts over 200,000 Harry Potter fan fictions. I hope J.K. Rowling is feeling the love.
Fan fictions are loving tributes. They only promote and enrich the creative work they borrow from. In the world of art, sometimes stealing an idea doesn't diminish it, it enlarges it. Plagiarism can be malicious but it can also be a good thing and it's time we started learning the difference.
Last week another plagiarist was in then news. Apparently this novelist borrowed a character from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. The novel was called March and the author, Geraldine Brooks didn't get a letter from Alcott's lawyers. Instead she received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
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SIEGEL: Lev Grossman is a staff writer for Time Magazine. His latest novel is called Codex.