Ian McEwan did nothing wrong, say the big-shot novelists.

Media criticism.
Dec. 8 2006 4:01 PM

What Did Ian McEwan Do?

Nothing wrong, say the big-shot novelists.

Ian McEwan. Click image to expand.
Ian McEwan

Depending on your views of what the word authorship means, novelist Ian McEwan either plagiarized, copied, borrowed from, looted, was inspired by, drew from, or relied on No Time for Romance, the 1977 memoir of novelist Lucilla Andrews, for his best-selling 2001 novel, Atonement.

Nobody denies the similarities between passages from McEwan's novel and Andrews' memoir, least of all McEwan. McEwan says he acknowledged his debt by citing her book in an author's note at the close of his novel and in public when readers ask him where he gets his ideas from. But not even Julia Langdon, the journalist who publicized the parallels last month in her Mail on Sunday news feature, uses the P-word against McEwan. She tells the New York Times the novelist was "discourteous not to have drawn [Andrews'] attention to this when she was alive." Andrews died in October.

Advertisement

As a long-time magazine and newspaper editor, I'd have no trouble firing McEwan for writing as he did if he worked for me. Take a look at the passages, which I've reproduced from the Mail on Sunday and placed into this sidebar.

But McEwan's defenders mustn't judge him by the rules of mere journalism. He  links to his champions on his home page, where his own explanation can be found. The defense goes like this: He's a novelist, operating in a world of make-believe, and storytellers have always been allowed to pilfer and pinch from other writers with impunity. Coleridge lifted from the Germans. Shakespeare ripped off everybody. And, they say, it's not like McEwan took words from another novel: He took a bit of personal history from a memoir, mashed it up with his imagination, to create his great book.

A posse of famous novelists, mustered by McEwan's publisher, rode into the pages of the Daily Telegraph—keyboards blazing—to defend their colleague along these lines. They included Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, Martin Amis, Thomas Keneally, Zadie Smith, and Margaret Atwood. "Fiction depends on a certain value-added quality created on top of the raw material, and that McEwan has added value beyond the original will, I believe, be richly demonstrated," Keneally told the Times this week. If McEwan really did nothing out of the ordinary, the authors campaigning for him would do him a great service to note the passages in their own books that rooked from historical sources in a similar manner. Don't hold your breath.

As Slate's David Plotz noted a few years ago, some minds inside academia minimize the sin of plagiarism because of skepticism about the idea of authorship and originality, "contending that everything new is cobbled together from older sources." Plotz goes on to comment slyly that these same scholars aren't so opposed to the ideas of authorship and originality that they don't put their own bylines on their scholarly work, implying that they'd howl like the damned if someone boosted their copy.

The trouble with charging anybody with plagiarism is that even if it sticks, it rarely does any lasting harm. Despite the ongoing efforts of Slate's Timothy Noah, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has slipped out of the plagiarist's noose without a hint of neck burn. And as the Columbia Journalism Review's Trudy Lieberman discovered a decade ago, newspapers allow the most hardened plagiarists in the newsroom to get off lightly. If fact-finders can steal the works of other fact-finders and not pay, then what hope is there of shaming a fiction writer who purloins nonfiction copy?

So, let's set the P-word aside and read Andrews and McEwan side-by-side. Nobody can doubt that McEwan so delighted in what Andrews wrote that he sent at least 450 words of her copy through his word processor to produce 335 words of "his." He loved the specificity of her prose, bits of her dialogue, and even the names of the life-size models in her book ("Mrs Mackintosh"; "Lady Chase") so much that he pushed them through his computer almost unchanged.

Compare the most damning examples of evidence. First Andrews:

Our "nursing" seldom involved more than dabbing gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on cuts and scratches, lead lotion on bruises and sprains.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 29 2014 3:10 PM The Lonely Teetotaler Prudie counsels a letter writer who doesn’t drink alcohol—and is constantly harassed by others for it.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.