Atoning for Appropriation
Posted by: Keir Graff
I recently wrote about plagiarism, then about the fuzzy line between homage and appropriation, two topics that seem to be in the air lately. Over at Slate, Jack Shafer weighs in on Ian McEwan’s appropriation of several passages from Lucilla Andrews’ No Time for Romance (1977) for his best-selling Atonement (2001).
Shafer’s link-heavy piece is a great resource for this discussion. McEwan doesn’t deny what he did–in fact, he acknowledged Andrews in the author’s note at the end of the book–and a host of heavy hitters has rushed to his defense. Writes Shafer:
The defense goes like this: He’s a novelist, operating in a world of make-believe, and storytellers have always been allowed to pilfer and pinch from other writers with impunity. Coleridge lifted from the Germans. Shakespeare ripped off everybody. And, they say, it’s not like McEwan took words from another novel: He took a bit of personal history from a memoir, mashed it up with his imagination, to create his great book.
Shafer puts the argument to the test by examining the passages side by side. He concludes:
I detect no mash-up here, no adding of value, and no “creative use,” to quote Pynchon’s generous letter of support. McEwan helps himself to Andrews’ words as if they first appeared on the planet in one of his rough drafts. To protest, as he does, that her memoir served as “research” is a lie. McEwan rewrote Andrews’ vivid copy and called it his own. The laugh of larceny is that the Booker Prize-winner didn’t even improve it.
Frankly, I like the sound of the defense. If I were writing a novel about a particular time and place, especially one I was unfamiliar with, I imagine I’d turn to a lot of sources, including histories, memoirs, articles–and even novels–to give myself a well-rounded sense of things. And in reconstituting that torrent of information into a ream’s worth of manuscript, it seems quite possible to me that a few sentences or phrases might accidentally find their way in along with the facts.
Thinking of it like that, to judge McEwan on 335 words of a 448-page novel seems almost ludicrous. It’s like looking at an architect’s building and saying, “That is a stunningly original work, except for the part over that window on the first floor, which you’ve copied from someone else. That ruins everything.”
True, a building ornament is not the same thing as a sentence–there are standard forms for windows, and there is no standard form (other than subject-predicate) for a sentence. And when exact or near-exact phrases appear in two works, we have to assume they’ve been copied from one into the other. And if they were copied, doesn’t that prove intent?
With a writer like McEwan, I think it implies carelessness, not deviousness. Maybe Shafer is right and McEwan didn’t really improve on the original prose–but does he think that McEwan couldn’t have improved upon it had he given it real thought? Or that a writer of his stature would feel he had something to gain by taking the words? A unknown writer who took from McEwan might feel that, if no one noticed the theft, McEwan’s words would lend heft to otherwise undistinguished prose. But McEwan has done all right for himself, I think, without Andrews. And it’s worth noting that in his author’s note he uses the word “indebted”–which almost implies acknowledging that he took something.
I like the idea that fiction writers can have free hands with the facts, that if they see a new angle in someone else’s story they’re free to riff on it. I also think that stealing actual words is, if intentional, sad and petty (and unfortunate if unintentional). But if it’s a petty crime, then the punishment should fit the crime. Shafer notes somewhat sadly that plagiarism doesn’t destroy reputations, but I’m not sure it should. (A whole chapter stolen, or a whole book, would of course be a different matter.)
Because each case of theft or borrowing has its own nuances, it’s impossible to say, even if it were possible to say such things, what is acceptable or not in all circumstances. But Atonement strikes me as a poor test case of anything, given that McEwan at least acknowledged his source. If he was truly trying to pass her words off as his own, that would have been a terrible way to hide the theft.