The sound and the fury
This article, reporting a charge of 'direct imitation' by the novelist Graham Swift, set off a stormy debate. Did the allegation deserve such prominence?
Sunday 16 March 1997
Reviewers of my novel, it is suggested, displayed shameful ignorance in not spotting my allusion to William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. The obvious and unexciting truth is that the allusion in question is a tiny part of my novel. It may be worth remarking on - I think it is and at least one reviewer thought so too - but it is simply not that important, and is far from essential to an intelligent and I hope enjoyable reading of my book.
Is Professor Frow the guilty one then? On balance, I think not. He is entitled to his opinion and can hardly have expected it to receive such prominence in a British Sunday newspaper.
All this leaves me puzzled. What can have prompted your attempt to undermine my literary reputation?
I GAVE a rave review of Last Orders but on three re-readings, misgivings set in. The ersatz Bermondsey "characters" had as much plausibility as Kipling's Cockney rhymes. One began to imagine the embarrassment of reading this stuff to a real Bermondsey butcher.
Together with the other 1996 Booker judges, I have been made to look pretty silly. At the final judges' meeting, the five judges each expressed an initial preference for a different book. Only one judge made Swift his first choice, but two others made him their second. Strangely, it was the original champion of Swift who began to waver and to concede that there was a case for considering another author. By this stage, Swift's only rival was Margaret Atwood. Having failed to persuade the others to vote for Beryl Bainbridge (my first choice), I favoured Atwood who, as our chairman agreed, is in every way a more distinguished writer than Swift. But very oddly, having made this concession, Carmen Callil told us that we had already given the prize to Swift. Had the Australian's devastating critique of Last Orders been brought to our attention before the meeting, I have no doubt that the 1996 Booker prize would have been awarded to Margaret Atwood. To this extent, it is a matter of public interest, and your newspaper was quite right to regard the "academic from Queensland"'s article as a scoop.
A N Wilson
Novelist and critic
THE closeness of Swift's Last Orders to Faulkner's As I Lay Dying reminded me of the debt Swift's earlier work, Waterland, owes to another American novel, namely The Great Gatsby.
Waterland begins as follows:
'And don't forget,' my father would say, as if he expected me at any moment to up and leave to seek my fortune in the wide world, 'whatever you learn about people, however bad they turn out, each one of them has a heart, and each one of them was once a tiny baby sucking his mother's milk... '
Fitzgerald's novel begins:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.
'Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,' he told me, 'just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.'
The final paragraph of Waterland finds Swift's first-person narrator recording, "We row back against the current." The final sentence of The Great Gatsby finds Fitzgerald's first-person narrator musing: "So we beat on, boats against the current, bourne back ceaselessly into the past."
But this is not to accuse Swift of conning us. Surely it's a measure of his respect for his readers that he gives us these literary signposts. Anyone familiar with Gatsby (itself inspired by "The Wasteland") should anticipate the elegiac nature of Waterland from its first paragraph.
Isn't that one of the ways good literature works?
Dr Nigel Rayment
University of Westminster
LIKE SO many others, I was puzzled by your eagerness last Sunday to discredit the author Graham Swift and his novel Last Orders. What was this all about? Very well, it was an academic from Queensland, not yourselves, who first brought charges of (near) plagiarism. But as you well know, any internationally celebrated book will set circulating very many opinions - some insightful, some bonkers - and if one decides to trawl the corners of the world for comments, one will in time find virtually anything. By giving these allegations your front page, you presumably believed there to be substance in them. And yet when the rest of the nation's media, taking up your "scoop", widely canvassed over the following days opinions in the cultural world, not a single voice could be found prepared to give credence to these allegations. The unanimous view has been that only a reader devoid of sophistication could mistake this for a case of plagiarism.
So what made you believe this story merited such prominence? Did you stop to consult anyone who had read the two novels concerned? If so, where on earth was your advice coming from?
Meanwhile, since muck of this sort, however unfairly thrown, tends to stick, may I clear up at least one misleading impression created by our Australian professor and perpetuated this week even by some of Swift's defenders? It is quite wrong to say Last Orders borrows the plot of As I Lay Dying. It borrows only the premise: namely, a group of people go on a journey to take the remains of a loved one to a resting place. ("Hysterical man manages a small holiday hotel" is the premise, not the plot, of Fawlty Towers.) Swift's plot - that is, what actually happens in the book - bears no resemblance to Faulkner's. The two books have not one common incident, dialogue exchange or twist. The endings are completely different. No character in Last Orders resembles any in As I Lay Dying. These two fine works are related solely by (1) the premise, and (2) the technical device of having the characters take turns to narrate the story. In other words, as many have pointed out, Last Orders does no more than what countless books, movies, paintings and musical works have always done, and will continue to do - that is, to allude to an established classic for its own purposes.
This is a story that should never have run.
AS ONE of last year's Booker judges I have to say - contrary to Chris Blackhurst's suggestions - that I already have "thought harder before awarding the prize to Mr Swift's work". I gave Swift's work more attention than any other. It was not my favourite on the short list, was much favoured by others and I wanted to understand why. I had difficulties with the book's structure. Difficulties which made me prefer another book. Difficulties, as a judge, which would not make me claim, as a writer, that I could do better. Difficulties I would prefer to be discussing here, because mature discussion is the least I ask of my media. I would prefer not to witness the public and gratuitous dismemberment of Swift's reputation and the silly assertion that a novel dealing with the emotional reality of grief following death is plagiarised because this concept is not unheard of in other fiction.
But perhaps this is an English problem visited on Swift. Last Orders was presented as the quintessentially English Novel on the list, hemmed about by Celtic and colonial voices. Much as the English Novel generally is. Does this current hue and cry reflect shock that an English writer was corrupted by a colonial influence? Does it mean the English Novel should not attempt to make emotional contact with readers, for fear of critical crucifixion? Must it now only ever be a sterile account of country adulteries or a cloudily autobiographical account of abuses past? As a believer in literature that transcends nationality, I hope not. As a reader and as a Scottish writer, I hope not. For all our sakes.
A L Kennedy
The case for ...
By Jan Dalley
Last Sunday this paper printed an article about Graham Swift's Booker prize-winning novel, Last Orders. In repeating accusations made in a letter to an Australian literary journal - that Swift had borrowed too freely from the structure of a novel by William Faulkner - the article caused a stormy reaction in the press and other media. Here are some of the letters we have received in response.
Any liberal newspaper values proper controversy and debate. Any liberal newspaper worth its salt also accommodates within its own ranks, as well as in its relation to the world, a lively - even heated - level of dissent. It is in this spirit that we print these letters, and this spirit that allows me to disagree with a colleague.
It is not that I wish to "defend" Graham Swift. In my view, there are no charges to answer. On page 27 of today's Review, Blake Morrison reminds us that there is no copyright in form, structure, idea, concept or titles. If you choose to write a five-act tragedy about an obscure foreign princeling with parent-trouble, and to call it Hamlet, you are perfectly free to do so, both artistically and morally. The only risk you run is that of comparison.
For many centuries, artists deliberately constrained their originality within tightly prescribed forms: the sonnet, the symphony, the still life, whatever. The whole point was to play against past masters by the same set of rules, to reflect the wealth of the tradition and rebound off other work to make a new creation: that was what artistry was considered to be.
Now, obsessed with "originality", we forget that the novel, too, is a very tight, conventional form, one with a dense, interlocking, self-referring tradition. All good novels contain a rich weave of reference, echo, re- working, partial adaptation - call it what you like. You might like to play ball (if pedantic parlour-games are your thing); you might prefer half-glimpsed delights, a passing scent in the air. You may not notice; you may not care. It doesn't matter. The only thing that counts is the artistic calibre of the work in front of you. That is what art is, and that is why Last Orders is different from EastEnders.
The second part of the week's debate focused on the Booker judges. Did they, didn't they spot a resemblance? Would it have made a difference? Does it matter that they didn't? And will I, as one of this year's Booker judges, be anxiously scanning every entry for a hint of Austen or Akhmatova here, a soupcon of Barnes or Batman there, terrified of being caught out? Sorry, but no. I love books that resonate with their authors' private literary passions, but one of the tiresome things about many "postmodern" novels is that you get elbowed in the ribs - geddit?? - at every reference. So when Professor Frow complains that Swift doesn't make a knowing nod to Faulkner, I think he is asking Last Orders to be less than it is.
Booker-bashing is now an established national pastime. The list of winning writers who have attracted charges of this sort is predictably long, and their books struggle, with varying success, to overcome the taint. As armchair blood-sports go, it might seem reasonably harmless. But, like the real thing, it's only good rough 'n' tumble if you forget about the fox.
Jan Dalley is literary editor of the 'Independent on Sunday'
The case against ...
By John Frow
Graham Swift's Last Orders is a close imitation of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. The resemblance is not just a matter of the similarity of story, which is a common one, or of the use of shifting point of view, which again is a standard in the modern novel, or of the representation of vernacular speech. The resemblance goes down to small details, including the use of first names as chapter headings, the use of a one-sentence chapter, the attribution of one chapter to a dead person, and the organisation of a chapter by enumerated points. Taken singly, any of these resemblances would be trivial. Taken together, they constitute a likeness to the formal structure of the earlier novel that is more than casual.
But why would this be a problem? Certainly not for the reason that seems to have sprung to the minds of some journalists and editors. Close imitation does not constitute "plagiarism" or "theft", and it is dismaying that Mr Swift has had to respond to accusations of improper conduct, which I was careful not to make.
The fact is that the concept and practice of imitation has a long and honourable history in the Western literary tradition. The Romantics, for example, accepted that literature develops by way of the imitation and transformation of previous texts. This has been a central argument of contemporary literary theory, including much of my own work: that writing is made out of other writing, which it echoes, reworks, parodies, undermines, repeats. This freedom to make creative use of other writings is absolutely crucial to the vitality of any literary culture.
Even the closest of imitations may be absolutely unproblematic. Think of the way John Coetzee's Foe rewrites Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea displaces the story of Jane Eyre. Think of Emma Tennant's Bad Sister rewriting The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, or of Kathy Acker's versions of Don Quixote and David Copperfield. All of these are instances of successful and indeed highly "original" works of art which use a tranformative mimicry to very powerful effect. So why does Last Orders not belong in this series?
The reason, I'd like to suggest, is that Last Orders comes uncomfortably close to breaching the tacit conventions that govern literary imitation in our culture. These conventions are nowhere codified, but they are that the imitation should be (1) relevant, and (2) constructive.
The use that Last Orders makes of As I Lay Dying is neither relevant nor constructive. It's an inert borrowing, which neither sets up a parallel or a contrast between Faulkner's South and Swift's South of England, nor makes anything of the modernist perspectival structure of the earlier text. It simply repeats that formal structure.
Writers of fiction have a licence in the imitation of other texts that is greater than is extended to many others; it does however entail responsibilities. In this case, a simple acknowledgement of the relations between the two novels, or even passing allusion to it, would probably have been enough to meet these responsibilities. For every gift, a gift should be returned; Last Orders borrows but does not repay.
John Frow is professor of English at the University of Queensland. He first raised the matter in a letter to 'The Australian's Review of Books'.
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