D J Taylor: Tales of plagiarism and atonement

The number of plausible plots available to the novelist is not, alas, extensive

Thursday 07 December 2006 01:00

The row over literary plagiarism comes round as regularly as the Saturday night lottery draw or Jordan's breast enhancements. This month's innocent victim, or - depending on your point of view - devious expropriator is the Booker-winning novelist Ian McEwan, whose best-selling work Atonement (2002) is alleged to have borrowed considerably from the war-time diaries of the late Lucilla Andrews.

In his defence, McEwan has pointed out that Ms Andrews' book, No Time For Romance, is acknowledged in his foreword and that he never loses an opportunity, on speaking engagements, of drawing attention to its merits. If this is plagiarism, then it seems a rather self-conscious way of going about an art generally practised with subterfuge.

Clearly, though McEwan was piqued by this allegation of bad faith. Now, all of a sudden, the focus of l'affaire Andrews has spread a little wider with the announcement that several world-famous writers, primed by Dan Franklin, McEwan's editor at Random House, have joined together to support not only McEwan but the literary techniques of which Atonement makes use. By their own admission, such luminaries of the trade as Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood routinely pillage documentary sources for the background material to their fiction - the get-out clause being that, like McEwan, they are careful to name names and supply acknowledgments.

All of which, as sensational literary disclosures go, is rather on the thin side. So Thomas Pynchon, whose current novel is set in late-19th and early-20th century America, actually does his research in library books and transfers the fruits of that research onto the printed page? Well, I never! One might as well accuse Dickens of plagiarising the mid-Victorian educational texts that he satirises at the beginning of Hard Times.

If this is plagiarism, then there are worse culprits. One might start by mentioning Judith Kelly, the hardback edition of whose scarifying memoir of a convent upbringing, Rock Me Gently, had to be withdrawn when it was discovered to have reproduced several passages from Hilary Mantel's novel Fludd more or less verbatim.

Ms Kelly's defence, stoutly set out in the appendices to her paperback, was that her borrowings were altogether unconscious. Blessed with a retentive memory, she merely sleepwalked her way into constructing what she imagined to be an original work. Almost immediately, though, there are distinctions to be drawn. McEwan was helping himself to an existing source in full view of his readers, Kelly, if you believe her explanation, was simply unaware of how her mental processes worked. One was a novelist making use of non-fiction; the other was a memoirist making use of novels.

What often looks like the straightforward transfer of someone else's ideas or words from one book to another is additionally complicated by both the nature of literature itself and - more narrowly - the way in which the average literary imagination works. The number of plausible-sounding plots available to the novelist is not, alas, extensive: many alleged plagiarists turn out only to have wandered into well-tenanted territory.

Back in the late Seventies, one or two reviewers of McEwan's first novel The Cement Garden detected resemblances to Julian Gloag's Our Mother's House, but the only real point of contact lay in the theme of a group of children burying their dead mother's body in the garden.Again, many novelists are keen to acknowledge the guiding spirits who first coaxed them into picking up a pen. The late JL Carr once admitted to me that, reviewing the manuscript of his Booker-shortlisted novel A Month In The Country, and wanting to crank it up to the highest imaginable point of perfection, he inserted at strategic points in the narrative six sentences culled from a work by HE Bates.

On the other hand, certain "borrowings" - usually abstruse phrasings or eye-catching metaphorical conceits - look horribly deliberate. Martin Amis once complained that a novel called Wild Oats (1978) by the American writer Jacob Epstein pilfered unashamedly from his own The Rachel Papers (1973), instancing figures of speech - in particular the act of being unable to stop ejaculating resembling "putting toothpaste back into a tube" - that no two writers could have arrived at independently. A reviewer once criticised a novel of mine on the grounds that a description of a crowd "stirring like troubled dreamers" was borrowed from one of Ian McEwan's short stories. I pleaded guilty: this was buried juvenile influence making its way out to the surface.

You wonder if, in the end, a little too much isn't made about the succession of word-heists and sentence-robbings with which the literary world regularly contorts itself. After all, the concept of plagiarism came relatively late to English literature: 18th-century novels were regularly bulked out with material taken from elsewhere, while a century later Thackeray cheerfully filled up pages of his Irish Sketchbook with resumés of books bought along the way.

Every so often an obvious rogue talent turns up on the bookshelves who has clearly put a bundle of existing texts to nefarious use, but such people are easily exposed and derided. As for McEwan and his defenders, this, however strange it may seem to the credulous public, is how books get written.

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