Facebook Twitter insta


Volume 9

Tall Tales - January 2012


Written by
Mahwash Badar

Mahwash Badar is a stay-at-home writer/mom/cook/amateur photographer. She's a clinical psychologist by profession and a lover of the written word.


Read more by this writer
Read more from this section

Unkind Tributes


“Only a few individuals succeed in throwing off mythology in a time of a certain intellectual supremacy — the mass never frees itself.”

CARL JUNG, Psychology of the Unconscious

It was as far back as the early 1900s when Carl Gustav Jung proposed the concept of collective unconscious. As postulated in his analytical psychology, Jung suggested that there are various primordial images that we inherit from our ancestors: ideas, thoughts, fears, and behaviors that have appeared consistently across time. For example: a child’s attachment to his/her mother and the universal fear of the dark. These are innate traits that are not taught or learnt; they simply linger as predetermined constructs of human personality.

If applied to literature, Jung’s concept describes how various characters (or archetypes) such as the wise old man, wicked witch, angels and demons appear throughout our narratives. James Bond has achieved an archetypal status in twentieth century literature and film and has inspired countless similar characters. But what happens when Quentin Rowan (also known as QR Markham) writes Assassin of Secrets, borrowing liberally from the Bond novels? The concept of the collective unconscious provides us with a unique perspective for observing and analyzing the notions of plagiarism and falsification that often occur in the literary world. Maybe James Frey needed more compelling ‘situations’ when he was writing A Million Little Pieces and so borrowed from a collective unconscious experiences that he may have felt strongly; experiences that may not have been necessarily his own, but relatable to him in some way. Who draws the line, as it were, between fact and fiction?

To embellish is human

Researchers studying the concept of memory have come up with various theories as to how human beings process, store and retrieve memory. It has been noted that embellishment of facts is, in fact, a developmental milestone. Studies have shown that children often create new realities based on existing ones; the better they are at doing so, the better storytellers they are likely to grow up to be. However, as we grow older, things get more complicated. Memory processes and recall and incorporating real facts into something that will pique the general readers’ interest have to be carefully considered.

These factors apply to fiction as well as non-fiction authors. A non-fiction writer (e.g. an autobiographer) would be expected, as a matter of course, to be honest about the facts that he/she puts in writing. However, in some cases, such as Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, we find allegations that the author fabricated events and situations. It becomes important to view such controversies with a different lens, to see whether they are fact or fiction or a bit of both. Research does tell us, after all, that anxiety, stress and physical circumstances all play key roles in recalling memory and rebuilding memories. Writing memoirs, therefore, is not as simple as it appears.

A level of honesty is also required in fiction writing. This means that even though the author can create whatever characters or situation as he/she pleases, it is important that they are the author’s own ideas and not someone else’s. Even though fiction writers sometimes ‘borrow’ from reality to depict their stories, it is imperative that they do not ‘steal’ from other writers or storytellers. Many authors, upon being charged with plagiarism, argue and justify that they wrote as honestly as they possibly could but unconsciously ended up sounding like someone else. Kaavya Viswanathan is one author who argued exactly that.

“Accidental  Borrowings” and International Scandals

How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got A Life, published in 2006, became an instant hit for which the young author attracted much attention. This chocolate-chip-ice-cream ‘chick-lit’ described a hardworking Indian student’s attempts to turn herself into a more “American” teenager, vying to be academically and socially acceptable. Everything was going perfectly for the author – Kaavya Viswanathan, fresh out of high school, had signed another book deal, Dreamworks was going to turn it into a major motion picture – until the allegations of plagiarism began. Viswanathan defended herself by saying she didn’t mean to ‘copy’ passage after passage, line after line, from literary works and did not ‘mean’ to turn them into her highly publicized debut.

It is in instances like these that the fine line between literary commonalities and directly borrowed ideas becomes blurred. Take a look at some of the instances of “accidental borrowings” in Viswanathan’s book, many of which came from Megan McCafferty’s novelsSloppy Firsts and Second Helpings.

McCafferty wrote in one of her books: “Finally four major departmental stores and 170 specialty shops later, we were done.”

And in another passage, “‘Omigod!’ shrieked Sara, taking a pink tube top emblazoned with a glittery Playboy bunny out of her shopping bag.”

This is what appeared in Viswanathan’s book: “Five departmental stores and 170 specialty shops later we were done and I was sick of listening to her hum along Alicia Keys, and worn out from her resisting her efforts to buy me a pink tube top emblazoned with a glittery Playboy bunny.”

This appears to be a clear case of plagiarism; however, Viswanathan claimed she has ‘photographic memory’ or as it is medically termed, eidetic imagery. She said that she might have been inspired by many authors (Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of

Stories, Sophie Kinsella’s Can You Keep a Secret, Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries and Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused) but maintained that she had not plagiarized any material whatsoever. This came after it was discovered that several more of her passages were almost exact copies of others from various books and authors, including those she was inspired by.

This occurrence is more common than one might imagine. J. K. Rowling herself has been taken to court on charges of plagiarism. Nancy Kathleen Stouffer, author of a series of books called The Legend of Rah and the Muggles featuring a bespectacled, dark-haired boy called Larry Potter as the lead character, filed against Rowling when the first Potter book came out. Rowling eventually won the lawsuit, but one wonders if this was an act of plagiarism that could not be proven in court; the similarities between Larry Potter, his name and demeanor, and the word “Muggles” are too analogous to be set aside as mere coincidence. Did Rowling end up making hundreds of millions of dollars by copying someone else’s ideas? Of course, the stories that she wrote might have been her own, but can she be credited with that initial idea, that vibrant spark of creativity? 

In cases such as these, it is important to address the creative mechanics of writers and to explore how memory contributes to such processes as plagiarism and distorted or fabricated facts. Memory recall is an aspect that has to be considered when reflecting upon such ideas of fact versus fiction, especially in non-fiction writing. 

In Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, for instance, the author recounted an inspirational story of survival and payback that led to the founding of a charity to set up schools in Pakistan. Last year, Jon Krakauer disputed Mortenson’s accounts of building the schools and made several allegations against Mortenson, including the cogency of the charity known as Central Asia Institute (CAI). Krakauer asserted that many of the schools that the CAI claims to have built are not functional at all. In the book, Mortenson also claimed that he got lost while climbing down K2 and ended up in Korphe in Pakistan. This story is alleged to be false and merely an exaggeration on Mortenson’s part. In his sequel, Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mortenson wrote about how he was captured and kidnapped by the Taliban. Later allegations claimed that he was merely a guest for a group of people who were not associated with the Taliban at all. Mortenson responded by saying that whatever he wrote was the truth; however, he did say that much of the information had been changed to fit a long amount of time into a few pages. 

A License to Lie

Ernest Hemingway once said:

“All good books have one thing in common – they are truer than they actually happened.” 

Of course, the amount of truth that goes into a book or a story is entirely dependent upon the genre; one cannot be expected to write “truthfully” while writing about fairies or aliens. However, most other stories, even though fictional and exaggerated, have some roots in reality. On the other hand, an author would be expected to tell the complete truth in his or her autobiography, albeit with some embellishments that usually come from romantic ideas instilled in the mind during memory recall to make things seem more interesting.

For example, an autobiographer might write about how he proposed to his wife, but instead of the large crowded park in which he actually proposed, he might replace the venue in the book with a much more secluded and romantic atmosphere. Or, if his fiancé had said, “Yes!” in real life, he might write that she said, “Yes, oh yes! I will marry you!” Such additions and embellishments are still acceptable, as they are not too far from the truth and they can be conceived as how the author actually wanted those events to occur and how he imagines them to be. These distortions of truth might be unintentional due to poor (or fervent) memory recall, however, even if they were intentional, they would not pose any problems. 

Yet, in the cases of Mortenson and Viswanathan, one cannot help but wonder if the lies and plagiarism were done unintentionally or for financial benefits. Good writing and sensationalism sells, and maybe the authors tried deception to make their work more outstanding. Interestingly enough, such “lies and deceit” can be explained through psychology. Viswanathan’s predicament could be because of something known as ‘perfect recall’. Researchers have noted that past experiences pay a strong role in memory recall and even if the data were recorded with derisory attention, recall would be almost perfect. This might explain her eidetic memory; however, this remains a controversial concept and something that does not as yet have solid scientific basis. 

With Greg Mortenson, the evidence of eyewitness testimony being faulty may have been the case. Studies suggest that accounts of memory recall were based on what kind of clues were suggested for recall, hence responses were quite easily tainted by present experiences rather than being objective reports of the past. However, critics claim that motivation to sell the book may have been an important factor for Mortenson to write events that probably did not happen. Controversies such as these may always remain absolutely unsolved, but it can be safely stated that the reproduction of items from memory is never a clear, cutout process, and is almost always vulnerable to contamination. 

Unoriginal Sin

However important the role memory plays in creating works of fiction, writers must always be vigilant of ‘conscious’ or ‘unconscious’ borrowing of words, facts, stories, characters and themes. Authors can probably lean on a genre for creating a framework for a story (rags-to-riches, boy-meets-girl, coming-of-age are popular examples of themes that contemporary writers explore for fiction). They can even choose certain types of narratives (first person, sweeping back and forth between a number of protagonists, story-teller, etc.), as well as use various archetypes (tortured hero, fallen angels, beat cop, etc.). What they cannot and must not do is let their work be an overwhelming ‘imitation’ or ‘inspiration’ from other works of fiction to an extent that their own unique style and substance is lost due to plagiarism. Signature works are never overwhelmingly inspired; classics became classics because they were the first of their kind. It is a tough job indeed to be original and to relate to the audience en mass. It is also difficult to write an autobiography where grand achievements aren’t achieved or a novel that does not strongly remind the reader of another novel they had recently read. But at the end of the day, it is this effort to be original, to be unique in one’s own artistic way that creates new worlds for the reader to explore and enjoy. This triumphs over plagiarism every time.



 More in this Issue: « Previous Article       Next Article »

Desi Writers Lounge Back To Top