Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Ian McEwan "Plagiarism" Question

The first person to not simply pooh-pooh the Ian McEwan-Lucilla Andrews borrowing/research/plagiarism problem is Jack Shafer, in Slate. Shafer provides this comparison of passages from Andrews's 1977 memoir, No Time for Romance, and McEwan's novel Atonement.

Andrews has this paragraph:

"Bit sort of tight. Could you loosen it?" ... Then as I did not think it would do any damage to loosen the gauze bows, I let go of his hand, stood up, undid the first and, as the sterile towel beneath slid off and jerked aside the towel above, very nearly fainted on his bed. The right half of his face and some of his head was missing. I had consciously to fight down waves of nausea and swallow bile, wait until my hands stopped shaking and dry them on my back before I could retie the bow... [After he dies in her arms, a Sister says to her] "Go and wash that blood off your face and neck, at once, girl!

It'll upset the patients."

And McEwan, in Atonement, has this one:

"These bandages are so tight. Will you loosen them for me a little?" She stood and peered down at his head. The gauze bows were tied for easy release ... She was not intending to remove the gauze, but as she loosened it, the heavy sterile towel beneath it slid away, taking a part of the bloodied dressing with it. The side of Luc's head was missing ... She caught the towel before it slipped to the floor, and she held it while she waited for her nausea to pass ... fixed the gauze and retied the bows ... The Sister straightened Briony's collar. "There's a good girl. Now go and wash the blood from your face. We don't want the other patients upset."

Many of the defenses of McEwan's appropriation of material from the Andrews--including McEwan's own defense--have centered around the use of technical terms used by Andrews. There are only so many ways to talk about treating ringworm.

Fair enough. But if you look at the passages above, the similarities actually go a little beyond that, don't they? There are situational borrowings here ("go and wash the blood from your face. We don't want the other patients upset"), not just technical ones.

I'm not saying it's plagiarism in the technical sense. Even Julie Langdon, who first wrote about this, didn't call it that either. Indeed, who is actually calling it that? This seems to be an allegation where the word "plagiarism" itself seems to be doing the accusing, since no one person seems to have actually made a direct accusation. (I'm not either, as I haven't been able to get ahold of the Andrews book anywhere, and most journalists and bloggers reporting the story have all cited the same passage. By itself, this one section is hardly significant. Repeated half a dozen times or more, however, and it would constitute a problem)

That said, Jack Shafer is a little unfair to us academics in his piece in Slate. According to him, we -- and literary theory -- are partly to blame for the widespread failure to actually punish known plagiarists:

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.

While it's true that many poststructuralists who might question the idea of transcendent originality would still press charges if someone were to plagiarize their own work, I don't think it's very likely that poststructuralism is really behind this confusing sort-of scandal. Indeed, if anything, the growing concern over literary borrowing -- which has grown as the detectability of borrowing has also grown (i.e., via Google) -- suggests that the concept of originality may be more important than ever, not less.

One final thought: it seems more than a little bit ironic that this controversy has arisen about a novel that is so centrally preoccupied with questions of truth and reliability. In the novel, the crisis arises not because of plagiarism, but its opposite -- Briony's failure to be honest about the details of her cousin's rape. Her tendency to fabulate is a serious moral problem, one that in some ways destroys the lives of several of her family members. It's also the quality that later prompts her to consider going into fiction-writing as a career. I wrote about some of the issues earlier, in this post .


Anonymous said...

But it is interesting to see how McEwan subtly modifies his source to tone down the drama to contemporary tastes. Smart cookie, that Ian ;) .

nitin galave said...

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Anonymous said...

it seems as if everything is somehow plaigarised these days


Anonymous said...

Good one. I was waiting to see a counterpoint to what seems to be the popular opinion. Truthfully, I like McEwan and hate to think that he is not an original and perhaps, somewhere this is true of most people. It would be so much easier if he was a debutant with a chick lit novel to his credit.

Jennifer@eldil.com said...

You're right, it is interesting to see how McEwan has modified the original, precisely because in the modification lies the originality. He molds the material to reflect his themes and direction--just as a director does a play, BTW. I see no problem with this, as long as the author points to his sources.