When McGrath gets into Mazzeo's understanding of plagiarism at the end of the 18th century, things start to get interesting:
In style and methodology, Ms. Mazzeo’s new book is an academic wheezer, a retooled dissertation perhaps, but it’s also smart and insightful, and points out that 18th-century writers took a certain amount of borrowing for granted. What mattered was whether you were sneaky about it and, even more important, whether you improved upon what you took, by weaving it seamlessly into your own text and adding some new context or insight.
Interestingly, the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally recently defended Mr. McEwan in just this way, writing, “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.” In the case of “Atonement,” the principle seems inarguable, but it’s also a slippery slope. You could argue that Kaavya Viswanathan improved upon the raw material of the Megan McCafferty novel she relied on so liberally, and yet no one is rushing to her defense. (link)
In short, in the early 19th century a certain amount of borrowing was taken for granted and even allowed, as long as it was well-concealed and accompanied by fresh insights and work -- "value-added." And today, while both the law concerning plagiarism and the ethos of originality are quite different (today plagiarism is generally seen as shameful), some of the same thinking is still used, especially when there are gray areas (as in the McEwan case).
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Speaking of gray areas, there are a number of them in the case of a famous plagiarist from the 1960s that I only recently learned about, the Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem.
Here's the back-story, as provided by Richard Serrano (author of a recent book called Against the Postcolonial):
In 1968 the Malian Yambo Ouloguem's novel Le Devoir de violence [English: Bound to Violence] was published by Editions du Seuil to widespread critical acclaim, culminating in the Prix Renaudot the same year. Reviewers and literary critics in the West praised the novel's "authenticity," some hailing it as the first authentic African novel ever written (as it was described on the back cover of the American edition). Matthiew Gallez, writing for Le Monde, called it the first African novel "digne de ce nom" [worthy of this name].
After the English edition was published in 1971, an anonymous article appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, noting that certain passages in Bound to Violence appeared to plagiarize Graham Greene's It's a Battlefield. The TLS writer even noted the irony that the novel's heralded African "authenticity" was at least partly derived from the text of a British travel writer:
Yambo Ouloguem said on television that he 'wrote this book in French but followed the traditional African rhythms and the spirit of the African past.' It presumably says something for Graham Greene that, even before he went to a continent that later much concerned him he was capable of effortlessly conveying its traditional rhythms. (cited in Serrano)
And shortly thereafter, it was discovered that Ouloguem had borrowed -- even more heavily -- from a French novel by Andre Schwartz-Bart, Le Dernier des justes (1959), which had, also ironically, won the same literary prize -- the Prix Renaudot. And in a manner characterisitc of plagiarism, once discovered, it seemed to spread: "citations" were soon found to half a dozen other writers, listed by Serrano as "Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant, Pascal, Godard, and in the English translation, T.S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson."
Graham Greene filed suit, and Bound to Violence was banned in France. Ouloguem himself went back to Mali shortly after all this transpired, gave up fiction, and took up Islam. (The critic Christopher Wise visited him there in the mid-1990s, and discovered him to be somewhat disturbed; he was spouting various conspiracy theories, and refused to directly address the controvery over his work)
But here's the thing: shortly after all of this broke, Ouologuem himself claimed that the passages he took from other writers were in quotations in his original manuscript, and that those quotations were omitted by his publisher. As Christopher Wise notes, the publisher has never specifically denied this -- but it's also clear that the original manuscript of Le Devoir de violence has never been made public, which would allow Ouologuem's claim to be definitively supported. (The status of the manuscript isn't discussed in the Ouologuem scholarship I've read.)
Once one starts looking closely at some of the specific instances of plagiarism in the text, especially from the Andre Schwartz-Bart, it begins to be clear that Ouologuem wasn't just randomly grabbing nice passages for his own use -- Schwartz-Bart's book is about the experience of European Jewry from the medieval period up through the Holocaust, and many of the passages that Ouologuem appropriates are in fact tied (in Ouologuem's redployment of them) to the advent of the early (pre-European) Arab slave trade in Mali, an event that Ouologuem views as catastrophic (Holocaust-esque). Moreover, postcolonial critics like Christopher Miller and Kwame Anthony Appiah have argued that Ouologuem's other borrowings are equally strategic -- that is to say, they are used ironically, to send up European misrepresentations of Africa. As Miller puts it, "this is a novel so highly refined and perverse in its manner of lifting titles, phrases, and passages from other texts that it makes the binary system of quotation and firect narration irrelevant" (cited in Serrano, 18). And Appiah, in his defense of Ouologuem, sees Bound to Violence as specifically a rejection of the first generation of modern African novels:
[T]he first generation of modern African novels -- the generation of Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Laye's L'Enfant noir--were written in the context of notions of politics and culture dominant in the French and British university and publishing worlds in the fifties and sixties. This does not mean that they were like novels written in Western Europe at that time: for part of what was held to be obvious both by these writers and by the high culture of Europe of the day was that new literatures in new nations should be anticolonial and nationalist. These early novels seem to belong to the world of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary nationalism; they are theorized as the imaginative recreation of a common cultural past that is crafted into a shared tradition by the writer. . . . The novels of this first stage are thus realist legitimations of nationalism: they authorize a 'return to traditions' while at the same time recognizing the demands of a Weberian rationalized modernity. (cited in Serrano, 23)
Ouloguem's novel is harshly critical of African nationalism, and in fact, reserves its greatest hostility for the violence Africans committed against other Africans (though the Europeans don't get off scot-free; there is a brilliant parody of western anthropology in chapter four, which you can read online). For Appiah, this ideological critique mirrors the novel's formal disintegration -- the story is convoluted, and must be, as a refutation of the false clarity in the first generation of African novels. And this argument might even be extended to explain Ouologuem's gratuitous borrowings; plagiarism may be a way of showing contempt for the entire ethos of European/colonial writing.
Well, maybe. Though Wise, Appiah, and others are firmly committed to defending Ouologuem (while Serrano remains a bit hostile), it might be that the most intelligent position on Ouologuem would neither aim to exonerate him nor convict him all over again. There is clearly a commentary on the ideas of authorship and authenticity at play in many of the specific instances of plagiarism in his text. But there are also problems of intellectual property that have to be contended with; a decision has to be made about whether strategic or polemical borrowings such as the kind Ouologuem makes can be rendered acceptable (and one notes that the reasons given for those borrowings are adduced by critics, not by Ouologuem himself, though they are consistent with the idea that Ouologuem intended for the borrowed passages to have quotes around them). What one might study (or teach) is not just the book, but the controversy the book has generated -- Ouolgouem, and the "Ouoluguem Affair," if you will. In this light, Ouologuem, I believe, is in the plagiarism gray area after all.
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Incidentally, another excerpt from Ouloguem's novel is here, and there's a 1971 interview here. Also see an article in TNR that covers much of this same ground, as well as the Yambo Ouologuem Forum, a weblog started by Ouologuem's daughter, Awa.