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.

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.

Now McEwan:

In the way of medical treatments, she had already dabbed gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on a cut, and painted lead lotion on a bruise.

I detect no mash-up here, no adding of value, and no "creative use," to quote Pynchon's generous letter of support. McEwan helps himself to Andrews' words as if they first appeared on the planet in one of his rough drafts. To protest, as he does, that her memoir served as "research" is a lie. McEwan rewrote Andrews' vivid copy and called it his own. The laugh of larceny is that the Booker Prize-winner didn't even improve it.

******

 Plagiarism or inspiration? Let me know your views, which will be graded for originality at slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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