This take by Ann Hulbert in Slate on the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism scandal seemed to strike the right note:
The darker moral of her story seems to be that if you succeed by packaging, you can expect to fail by packaging, too—and you alone, not your packagers, will pay the price. McCafferty's publisher, Steve Ross of Crown, has rejected as "disingenuous and troubling" Viswanathan's apology for her "unintentional and unconscious" borrowings from two McCafferty books, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, that she says she read and loved in high school. He's right, it doesn't sound like the whole story. I don't mean simply to let Viswanathan off the hook, but her own book—indeed, its very copyright line, Alloy Entertainment and Kaavya Viswanathan—suggests a broader culture of adult-mediated promotion and strategizing at work. It's a culture, as her novel itself shows, that might well leave a teenager very confused about what counts as originality—even a teenager who can write knowingly about just that confusion. In fact, perhaps being able to write so knowingly about derivative self-invention is a recipe for being ripe to succumb to it. Viswanathan may not be a victim, exactly—she's too willing for that—but she is only one of many players here.
Lots of good points there. Above all, I agree with Hulbert's suspicion that there's more to it than just Kaavya Viswanathan screwing up. (This article in today's Times supports Hulbert's conjecture.)
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There's also another interesting article in Slate by Joshua Foer, on the relationship between plagiarism and memory, which brings up the phenomenon of "cryptomnesia":
Viswanathan is hardly the first plagiarist to claim unconscious influence from memory's depths. George Harrison said he never intended to rip off the melody of the Chiffons' "He's So Fine" when he wrote "My Sweet Lord." He had just forgotten he'd ever heard it. And when a young Helen Keller cribbed from Margaret Canby's "The Frost Fairies" in her story "The Frost King," Canby herself said, "Under the circumstances, I do not see how any one can be so unkind as to call it a plagiarism; it is a wonderful feat of memory." Keller claimed she was forever after terrified. "I have ever since been tortured by the fear that what I write is not my own. For a long time, when I wrote a letter, even to my mother, I was seized with a sudden feeling, and I would spell the sentences over and over, to make sure that I had not read them in a book," she wrote. "It is certain that I cannot always distinguish my own thoughts from those I read, because what I read become the very substance and texture of my mind."
Psychologists label this kind of inadvertent appropriation cryptomnesia, and have captured the phenomenon in the laboratory. In one study, researchers had subjects play Boggle against a computer and then afterward try to recreate a list of the words they themselves found. Far more often then expected, the researchers found that their subjects would claim words found by the computer opponent as their own. Even if cryptomnesia is a real memory glitch that happens to all of us from time to time, however, it's hard to figure how it could lead to the involuntary swiping of 29 different passages.
Hm, if I were Kaavya Viswanathan, I might claim cryptomnesia!