Hurray for Charles Isherwood’s astute piece in the New York Times on all of the fuss about Ian McEwan “plagiarizing” bits of Atonement from a memoir he’d used in his research.
With each plagiarism scandal, I’ve wondered what constitutes plagiarism, especially with a novel. Should a novel include footnotes? My, that would ruin the reading experience–make it much harder to suspend disbelief, as all novels require. So many other arts are granted the liberties and joys of appropriation, of riffing on someone else’s melody at the very least, whether it’s painting, rap, or jazz. Even movies can mirror past scenes, and steal plots unabashedly. But not writing. There’s something too sacred about crafting a sentence, it seems.
Of course, McEwan wasn’t appropriating to make any sort of artistic commentary. More accurately, he failed to pick up a thesaurus to mix in a few synonyms for several descriptions from this World War II nurse’s memoir. The descriptions have nothing to do with the construction of his characters, dialogue, narrative design, or authorial voice–nothing to do with any of the crucial things that make a novel good. It’s interesting to me that so many are willing to parse through such small matters, as if McEwan deserves no credit for his achievement because of this small lapse, if it’s that.
It’s so difficult and rare for an author to write a great book. So many things go into it. Why even bring up a few borrowed words–yes, borrowed, not plagiarized? I’m sure McEwan’s transgressions could have gone much further before I’d ask for a trial. Even if he borrowed all of the words in the book from a 100 different sources, it would be quite an achievement to stitch it all together into such a fine book.
For more, read McEwan’s defense of himself.