Atonement for Ian McEwan
Plagiarism With a Human Face
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, November 29, 2006
It was a babushka of a plagiarism story: In May 1991, J. Joachim Maitre, dean of the Boston University school of communication, delivered a commencement address on “the declined of morality in American culture,” as the Times had it back then. This, remember, was the head of a journalism school talking morals and ethics to 1,000 journalism graduates and their families. Except that Maitre had lifted “about 15 paragraphs from an article by Michael Medved” (the Anthony Comstock of film critics), and never attributed a word to him. Fox Butterfield of the Times reported the plagiarism. Butterfield, it turned out, plagiarized the Boston Globe for parts of his story about Maitre’s plagiarism. “Besides the quotations from Mr. Maitre’s speech,” The Times explained in a mere correction, “the Times article included a passage of five paragraphs that closely resembled five paragraphs in the Globe article,” and therefore “was in this instance improperly dependent on the Globe account.” Butterfield was the Boston Bureau chief at the time. He was suspended for a week then resumed his usual duties. He wrote for The Times until 2005. His story was one of many that were treated to a greater or lesser extent somewhat gingerly, as Trudy Lieberman documented in an eminently plagiarizable piece for the Columbia Journalism Review in 1995.
Punishment has become more severe since as incidences of plagiarism have seemingly increased. College and high school students too larcenous to resist the lure of internet short-cuts, the higher incidence may only be due to improved means of detecting plagiarism than an actual increase in plagiarism. If anything, it must have been easier in pre-internet days to steal obscure and forgotten lines, knowing that musty tomes or crinkly microfilms are seldom read twice. These days of entirely scanned and googled libraries, not even the Rosetta stone can be plagiarized too safely. And every time it happens, the plagiaristas unsheathe their truncheons and start swinging. If, as someone surely once said, we’re all descended from Homer, then we’re all plagiarists. But lousy writers don’t deserve to plagiarize because they shouldn’t be writers to start with, and good writers should plagiarize even less, because they should be above it. They should exclusively be the ones others plagiarize. So when lousy writers plagiarize, it’s satisfying to see them exposed for the racket they are. When great writers do, it’s a heartbreak. It puts creativity itself, if not creation, in question: If a great writer plagiarizes, what’s to say that God herself isn’t a plagiarist? And wouldn’t that make us all pawns in a cosmic fraud? (We may yet be, but that’s another story.)
To the heartbreak in question: Did Ian McEwan plagiarize Lucilla Andrews in “Atonement”? In the strictest, most narrow-minded terms, yes: McEwan’s line — “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”—is almost indistinct from Andrews’s: “Our ‘nursing’ seldom involved more than dabbing gentian violent on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on cuts and scratches, lead lotion on bruises and sprains.” A couple of other passages reflect similar similarities.
But it’s not plagiarism in the sense that McEwan swiped ideas and characters and plot lines and style from Lucilla Andrews. At worst, he swiped a bit of medical terminology rendered with a bit of embroidery. At best, it’s bleed-over: I imagine that sometimes compelling phrases about uncompelling subjects will stick in one’s mind and fuse about in there, becoming part of one’s own phrases. Of the half million or so words I write in any given year, I seriously doubt every single one of them is owed exclusively to the fertility and originality of my mind, which at any rate is more Siberian steppe than lush breadbasket (the fertility is just hack work, the originality imaginary). I also read a few million words a year: how many of them, phrased-up and ready to re-run, manage to deceive me into thinking they’re all my own once on paper?
But plagiarism to me has never been an ethical issue as much as a matter of ego: It’s bad enough I don’t have time to set down on paper everything I want to set down; I’m not about to sublet sentences to others, and quote marks are one of life’s great friendly freebies. They’re punctuation’s golden retrievers. There’s also plenty of truth to the notion that plagiarism isn’t really stealing others’ work to make oneself read better, since, as Lieberman wrote, “many writers who borrow from others are talented in their own right and have no need to steal,” but that it’s more about psychological derangement of the kleptomaniac sort “in that the stolen passages may not be needed and the person taking them has a wish to be caught.” It’s also true that psychobabble has its limits. At some point a stolen line is just a stolen line. Or an innocent, perhaps idiotic, unnecessary kin to that other form of plagiarism, the lunge for Roget’s Thesaurus.
McEwan needing a few believable images for his fiction was in that bind so familiar to novelists crisscrossing between so-called reality and fantasy: ““It is an eerie, intrusive matter, inserting imaginary characters into actual historical events,” he wrote in the Guardian on Sunday. “A certain freedom is suddenly compromised; as one crosses and re-crosses the lines between fantasy and the historical record, one feels a weighty obligation to strict accuracy. In writing about wartime especially, it seems like a form of respect for the suffering of a generation wrenched from their ordinary lives to be conscripted into a nightmare.” McEwan acknowledged again and again his debt to the books of Lucilla Andrews, including an acknowledgement in “Atonement.”
What he didn’t do is speak to her directly. She just died. She was about to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Romantic Novelists’ Association for the 35 hospital novels she wrote, along with a memoir and other works. But she died in October, even as she was preparing her acceptance speech at the awards banquet. It’s there that she intended to settle the score with Ian McEwan, having discovered his dabblings over her emulsions. “She had discussed the matter with her agent, Vanessa Holt, and decided that the prestigious award lunch would be an appropriate occasion,” Britain’s Mail reported. “’She was going to say something to Ian McEwan,’ Miss Holt said last week. ‘I don't think she was going to just let it go. She was going to bury the hatchet—and mark the spot.’” But it was no feud. This isn’t Stephen Ambrose pompously bullshitting his way through lies or Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair drunkenly inventing stories as their stepping-stone to journalistic fame. Otherwise every book John Updike has written (“S.” and “In the Beauty of the Lillies” and “The Coup” come to mind) ranks up there in the category of researched plagiarism. The press is making more of this than it is. As Erica Wagner writes in the UK Times, “Beryl Bainbridge’s novel The Birthday Boys is about the fateful British expedition to the South Pole; did Bainbridge “copy” Captain Scott? I think not. Did she, for that matter, “copy”, say, Walter Lord in writing about the maiden voyage of the Titanic in Every Man for Himself? Again, no. Zadie Smith admits that On Beauty is in conversation with Howards End; Graham Swift’s Last Orders echoes Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying — though Swift, too, had the plagiarism charge levelled unfairly at him. It seems to me that McEwan has done all he ought to have done. As they used to say: where’s the beef?”
When I read most American newspapers in general and columnist in particular I get the feeling every inch is plagiarized from a Gazprom-like mega-source of eternally recycled hot air: the stories, the angles, the design, that journalese style of catchy-lead-(or lede, as the insiders love to have it)-plus anecdote-plus quote. How tiresome, how predictable. It’s worse than plagiarism, which is only the actual crime. It’s a prisonhouse of language worse than Frederic Jameson at his atrocious worst, a sentence in, and to, stylistic hell. Compared to that, a few McEwan sentences medically airlifted from the dying books of an old novelist are like the wrong notes in a Vladimir Horowitz performance: you applaud them all the same, because if you were to collect them all, you’d have a masterpiece of a sonata all its own.
Incidentally, that last sentence’s idea was plagiarized from a story my mother once told me, except that Dinu Lipatti was at the keyboard, probably playing Bach, the greatest plagiarist of them all (because he mostly stole from himself, naturally).