What’s the difference between a plagiarist and a copycat? Nothing really — except one admitted it and the other didn’t, one is a writer and the other is an artist, one had her novel withdrawn by the publisher and the other had his layout in The New York Times Style Magazine defended by a Times editor as a case of copycat “coincidence.”
Consider Kaavya Viswanathan’s plagiarism vs. Vik Muniz’s copycatting.
Here’s a widely cited example, one of many borrowed passages in Viswanathan’s recently published novel “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life”: “He had too-long shaggy brown hair that fell into his eyes, which were always half shut. His mouth was always curled into a half smile, like he knew about some big joke that was about to be played on you.”
Which bears a striking similarity to this passage in Megan McCafferty’s 2001 novel, “Sloppy Firsts”: “He’s got dusty reddish dreads that a girl could never run her hands through. His eyes are always half-shut. His lips are usually curled in a semi-smile, like he’s in on a big joke that’s being played on you but you don’t know it yet.”
Here’s an example, on the right, of what Muniz produced last December for a NYT Style Magazine fashion spread.
Which bears a striking resemblance to Norman O. Mustill’s image, on the left, from his 1969 book of collages, “Flypaper”:
Although the copied visual image is not exact, it bears as much similarity to Mustill’s original as the plagiarized verbal passage bears to McCafferty’s, and there’s enough exact material — tree branches within a human form in the context of a fashion statement and the referential hand — to draw the appropriate conclusion.
As for the notion that Viswanathan’s plagiarism is of a different order from Muniz’s copycatting if only because of sheer numbers — she apparently copied dozens of passages from two McAfferty novels — it doesn’t hold up unless 1) you fail to see the similarity between Muniz’s borrowed technique of combining newsprint and human figure cutouts in the image on the right with Mustill’s image from his 1971 pamphlet “Twinpak,” on the left, or 2) you fail to compare percentages..
Viswanathan plagiarized roughly 40 passages (a sentence or paragraph each) in a book that comes to 320 pages. As blatant as that is, the total percentage of borrowed words comes to very little compared with the two Muniz copycat images, above, and a less obvious third borrowing (scroll down), which is 50 percent of the six-image Times spread.