Monday, December 18, 2006

Plagiarism Police: McEwan vs. Andrews

Earlier this week, the Achenblog had a very wide ranging discussion about plagiarism accusations against Ian McEwen and his book Atonement. As a new feature, I am holding mock trials against the more egregious examples of suspiciously similar excerpts.

Charge: Stealing a passage from a memoir about nursing practices in World War II.

Evidence (from Slate):

Atonement by Ian McEwenNo Time for Romance by Lucilla Andrews
In the way of medical treatments, she had already dabbed gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on a cut, and painted lead lotion on a bruise.Our "nursing" seldom involved more than dabbing gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on cuts and scratches, lead lotion on bruises and sprains.
…only after the second change of washing water should the freshly soaped back flannel and back towel be passed to the patient so that he could "finish off for himself."…the freshly soaped "back" flannel and "back" towel were to be handed the patient with the words, "I am sure you would like to finish yourself off now…

The Defense: (Yellojkt Plagiarist Excuse® #3) Ian McEwen in a long article that invokes his dad the military veteran, he concludes with, “For certain long-outdated medical practices, she was my sole source and I have always been grateful to her. I have openly acknowledged my debt to her in the author's note at the end of Atonement, and ever since on public platforms…”

Closing Arguments: I'm not familar with Atonement, but I have read (well, listened to the unabridged audiobook) of Saturday. The novel Saturday covers one day in the life of a twee British neurosurgeon who gets in a fenderbender and has his life fall apart. If this sounds like a tough premise, you’re right. I found the book absurdly plotted and had a tough time sympathizing with his upper-class twits. Still, the medical scenes were very well researched and clearly beyond the scope of expertise of a novelist.

I expect a writer to have to rely on more knowledgeable sources a little bit because it’s so bad when they get it wrong. I lost all respect for Tom Clancy when MacDill Air Force Base got called Fort MacDill. You have to get the small stuff right. For McEwan to hew very closely to the written account is to avoid risking embarrassment by changing details that either didn’t or couldn’t happen. Also, the burden of proof against fiction writers is much higher than for historians and the like. Nobody wants to see tons of footnotes in a novel.

Verdict: Misdemeanor cribbing. No real plot points or themes were stolen.

Sentence: The official epithet for McEwan shall hereafter be appended to be “Booker Prize winning author and alleged plagiarist” as a cautionary warning against writers wishing to cite him as a precedent.

Next case on the docket: Sorkin vs. Spy


Anonymous said...

He should be sent to the bastinada. He ruined the last sentence. I can see why he would use her voice. An authentic nurse knows it is possible to prick your finger.

yellojkt said...

I had to Google 'bastinada'. I never was much of a Buffy fan.