Saturday, December 02, 2006

A Little Literary Lifting

The boundary between "legitimate use" and plagiarism is at times a little blurry, and last weekend Ian McEwan found himself accused of lifting the words of another writer in his 2001 Booker nominated novel Atonement.

This is how it happened. A PhD student at Oxford University was researching her thesis on war fiction. She discovered that McEwan had borrowed extensively from No Time For Romance, a memoir by Lucilla Andrews which describes her time as a nurse at St Thomas’ Hospital in London during the Second World War.

The student contacted Ms Andrews' agent Vanessa Holt, who said that she had found McEwan’s behaviour discourteous and disappointing, and let her client know. Andrews, the grand dame of romantic hospital fiction, was amused rather than angry about the borrowing, but planned to highlight it in an acceptance speech she was scheduled to give for a lifetime achievement award by the Romantic Novelists' Association at a lunch to be held at the Scottish parliament. Sadly, she passed away before she could have her fun at McEwan's expense.

But then the whole story came to light. Britain's Mail on Sunday picked it up, and raised the spectre of plagiarism as they invited readers to:
SPOT THE DIFFERENCE

Excerpt from Atonement, by Ian 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. But mostly she was a maid."

Excerpt from No Time For Romance by Lucilla Andrews...

"Our 'nursing' seldom involved more than dabbing gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on cuts and scratches, lead lotion on bruises and sprains."
The debate then bounced around on the pages of other newspapers, and McEwan hit back in the Times and said:
... his conscience was “absolutely clear”, and that it was almost impossible for a writer not to face accusations of copying at some point. He described Ms Andrews’ memoir, entitled No Time For Romance, and published in 1977, as a unique historical document that had helped him to recreate the atmosphere of a wartime hospital, but denied that Ms Andrews was the basis for one of his main characters. ... “When you write a historical novel you do depend on other writers. I have spoken about Lucilla Andrews countless times from a public plaftform. It has always been a very open matter.”
In another article in the Guardian he talked more about his debt to Ms Andrews:
I know well from researching Saturday, a novel about a neurosurgeon, that patient traumas, medical procedures, hospital routines or details of training demand the strictest factual accuracy. When all these elements are 60 years in the past, the quest for truth becomes all the more difficult and important.

It was extraordinary, then, to find in the Wellcome Trust medical library, in Oxford, No Time for Romance, the autobiography of Lucilla Andrews, a well-known writer of hospital romances - my mother used to read her novels with great pleasure. Contained within this book was a factual account of the rigours of Nightingale training, the daily routines and crucially, of the arrival of wounded soldiers from the Dunkirk evacuation and their treatment. As far as I know, no other such factual account exists. Andrews even recounted an episode that paralleled my father's experience of being told off for swearing.

What Andrews described was not an imaginary world - it was not a fiction. It was the world of a shared reality, of those War Museum letters and of my father's prolonged hospital stay. Within the pages of a conventional life story, she created an important and unique historical document. With painstaking accuracy, so it seemed to me, she rendered in the form of superb reportage, an experience of the war that has been almost entirely neglected, and which I too wanted to bring to life through the eyes of my heroine. As with the Dunkirk section, I drew on the scenes she described. Again, it was important to me that these events actually occurred. For certain long-outdated medical practices, she was my sole source and I have always been grateful to her.
And he pointed out that he had acknowledged her in the author's note to Atonement.

John Mullan on the Guardian blog sees it all as a bit of a non-issue:
Novelists have always borrowed from historical sources ...
he says, naming Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott as borrowers of other people's material. And reminding us that:
Literary critics have long embraced TS Eliot's dictum that mediocre writers borrow, while great writers steal.
Great or not, this won't be the first time that McEwan has stood accused. As D.J. Taylor points out in this fascinating account of literary borrowing in the Independent:
In the late 1970s several critics dutifully observed that Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden, in which a gang of suburban children conceal their mother's corpse, seemed to derive from Julian Gloag's Our Mother's House, which McEwan claimed never to have read.
More on the story Ian McEwan's website.

Related Posts:

Index: Rogues Gallery of Fakers and Plagiarisers

On Ian McEwan:

His Saturday, My Sunday (4/9/05)
Hello, Would You like a Free Book? (20/9/05)

19 comments:

rehman said...

The Guardian's John Mullan avers: "Literary critics have long embraced TS Eliot's dictum that mediocre writers borrow, while great writers steal."

This, um, dictum was also, er, embraced in the recent Brendan Pereira hoo-ha. Eliot was being ironic. (And abstruse - what is "borrow" in this context? Is the material returned afterwards?) How did this quote become an apology for plagiarism?

Personally, I think properly credited citations are cool. I love using them. I think they make me look well-read and versed in obscure sources. (Ah, is that what Eliot meant by "borrow"? Still, a citation is not a loan.) Can't understand why this happens. A snagging of the moral compass?

bibliobibuli said...

yeah it's interesting and i was thinking of the brendan pereira case as i read this and how those three little words "after mitch albom" would have totally saved his hide. (and as you say, it is no shame to acknowledge sources - rather the opposite)

i don't think the t.s.eliot quote can be taken seriously because it really boils down to "if i like this guy's work then it makes everything legitimate"

i deliberately sat on the fence with this post ... but i think it does beg the question about how legitimate such borrowings are in fiction?

dan brown has had his fair share of troubles this year. but had he lost his case in the british high court, the implications for borrowing novelists like mcewan would have been enormous

but mcewan did acknowledge his sources which in my book exonerates him completely. just shows though that even fiction writers should have a bibliography to cover themselves!!

rehman said...

I think the line should be drawn between form and function. The McEwan and Pereira cases involve the use of other writers' structures - their forms, phrases and sentences - not their ideas. Dan Brown's defence was that he had used the ideas of others, including Michael Baigent & Co., duly acknowledged. McEwan and Pereira lifted - copied, stole - the original writing of others.

It's happened to me a couple of times. Being plagiarised feels very much like being burglarised. The sensation is definitely of violation. But it offers the cold satisfaction of informing these cheater-cock frauds and their publishers that I've found them out and have them abjectly apologise and implore me not to sue. As you say, though (and as I tell them), all it takes is attribution to make a gratifying compliment of what would be otherwise an outright crime.

The Visitor said...

it's one line and not a whole paragraph or book. SO WHAT?

i think ppl just get this little bitter orgasm over a little lifting becos they cant stand the fact that others are successful and they're not.

the writer herself was amused by it. so what are these other losers making so much noise for?

bibliobibuli said...

rehman - yes i can imagine it would feel like being robbed. mcewan lifted details to give authenticity to his scenes ... that's probably another category of things to lift!

no it's a lot more than one line, visitor ... take a look at the other links. that one line is just an example.

and yes, the author was amused. but come to think of it how strange it is that it took her FIVE YEARS to find out that she'd been acknowledged in a critically praised booker shortlisted book (still she was v. elderly) ... and wasn't her agent being a bit dozy not to have picked up on it??????? (do romance writers ever read literary fiction?) maybe she's so mad because she's kicking herself!

mcewan never made a secret of referring (at least) to Andrews work.

i think she should have been flattered that mcewan found value in her work.

Ron said...

I think the person who comes out of this badly is the PhD student. What a tiny life she must have. I hope she enjoyed her 'fifteen minutes of fame'.

bibliobibuli said...

i guess that if i discovered something like this i'd get excited about it, ron, and want to tell someone. and the student didn't go to the press.

i can't blame anyone in this case ... just find it very intersting for the questions it raises and the glimpse into mcewan's creative process

TJ said...

That's a medical procedure! It's not plagiarism.

Sharon, was that you in Pay Less Books?

bibliobibuli said...

i poked my nose in the 1 utama payless very very quickly monday ... so was it me?

benny said...

Plagiarism is one way an author compliments a fellow author. I think it was said by Wilde in a oneliner. He himself was guilty of it. So much so in one of the celebrated feuds of his day Oscar said after hearing Whistler the artist ," I wish I had said that, Jimmy!"
Whistler shot back," Yes, Oscar, you will.You will."
benny

rehman said...

Ah. Okay. I get it. I blundered into this with the p.o.v. of a writer (in my case, I grant, as good a euphemism as any for "loser";) whereas this is a space for readers, who may or may not be writers. And readers appreciate a tale well told, in the sum of which discrete phrases and sentences are minuscule elements, hardly worth the fuss over instances like these. To the writers here, though, I would ask: Would you do it?

Lydia Teh said...

Is this the famous Rehman? I'm scared of the big P, not that I'd do it wilfully but in the course of research, the fear that I might've unintentionally adopted sentences or phrases from other writing lurks.

bibliobibuli said...

benny - that's classic!

rehman - there are both writers and readers who drop by here.

i don't condone plagiarism at all ... in fact i've blogged a fair bit about it in the past. but it intrigues me just where the boundaries are. with newspaper and magazine articles, perhaps it's more clear cut.

but in fiction? writers take material from all sorts of sources (often plundering the lives of others) and make something new from it

how can a fiction writer put foot notes? all you can do is list your sources. now mcewan did do that. so do most novelists nowadays.

most novels rooted in the past are going to need extensive research from written sources. it would be interesting to see how other authors have dealt with that.

desiderata said...

What is this kif if, full of care
We have no time to stand and swear?

S***, F***, H*** and all because Biblio you "reprised" this P discussion which I miss'd the first round.

Even on Brendan's alleged "crime", I was like you now sitting on the fence, returning a "hung" (50-50) verdict. I had closed by saying now that many Bloggers had writ to Mitch Albom himself, I though the horse himself should give his final verdict (But like our PM I guess he chose to maintain elegant silence unless Brendan had been contacted by Mitch's lawyer. Which of course I doubt, because Mitch too had had his fair share of committing alleged "just/unjust" breaches in his journalism career.

So I tend to agree with tj and benny -- if the original author doesn't take offence, others should jest let the matter rest. "Let It Be!"

Ooops, I forgot -- the opener was a liberty I leisurely took from WH Davies (Will his agent-trustee cometh here to say: the crocket taketh offence if I forgot to attribute?) Ooops2, I also quoted a Beatles number title -- but do I have to say this? It's worse than insulting my ER intelligence, yes/no?

PS: the host @juslo.blogspot.com had writ a series of essays on P worth a reading if you don't mind paying me a dime for his promotion. Okay, biblio, I'd cut thee in for 30. the usual M tradition! Frankly, on the last, I don;t know which ruling or oppo politikus to attribute.

Alex Tang said...

hi Sharon,

I agree with you that boundaries then to become blurred when you are writing fiction especially historical fiction. When I read historical fiction, I love to read the author's citation or bibliography of his or her sources. There, I can at least judge how accurate his or her work of fiction may be.

This is different when you are writing non-fiction. Here citations is a must.

However one must acknowledge that sometimes some memorable phrases and paragraphs got stuck in our memory during our reading and then unconsciously come out ino our writing. Is that plagiarism?

I dunno. When someone plagiarised my writing or speech, I feel good. At least someone reads my writing or speech and feel it worthy of copying.Is that abnormal? Or should I call my lawyer?

Eternal Wanderer said...

Plagiarism is rather endemic in our universities nowadays. I have yet to know any local author (besides journalists) who has plagiarised material from other authors, established or not.

Curiously, all this debate about plagiarism seemed to affect English-language based literature. Considering the deluge of Malay romance novels in the market, I wouldn't be surprised if many of the stories turned out to be rather similar in terms of words and style...unless someone here is to tell me that it's difficult to plagiarise in Malay? I know that there were a couple of plagiarism cases that happened in Taiwan before but so far, I guess English literature is more prone to being plagiarised since English is a global language.

So if you want to escape from being accused of plagiarism, write in a language that not many people will read! But that defeats the purpose of writing for the mainstream doesn't it? So the best thing any writer should do is NOT plagiarise (get it, Mr Pereira??).

A question though Bibs, is it considered plagiarism if, say, one lifts an entire paragraph from an English book and rewrite it in Malay? Will the person be considered stealing the structure of the original writer or considered a thief of ideas? This is something that often leaves me quite confused...

Chet said...

If I remember right, plagiarism occurs when a certain percentage of the work is used. And I'm not sure about just phrases, or whether it must be word-for-word.

animah said...

Eternal Wanderer,
Translating a piece without permission is a breach of copyright.

Eternal Wanderer said...

Ah ok, Animah...it becomes a copyright issue then? Thanks for clearing that little confusion up.