Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Ian McEwan -- plagiarist?

Over on, Eugene Volokh has posted an editorial on the flap over whether Ian McEwan plagiarized portions of Lucilla Andrews' autobiography for his novel "Atonement." Nut grafs:

A historical novel, to be accurate, must borrow those words needed to accurately reproduce the historical facts, even when the facts were uncovered by others. If nurses treated ringworm by dabbing gentian violet on it, that’s what they did, and novelists must be able to say so. Nor can a novelist note the borrowing using quotation marks and footnotes, as they would interrupt the novel’s flow. Writers who strive for factual accuracy must thus remain free to closely paraphrase the factual accounts of others.

On the other hand, when the historian or memoirist depicted the facts in a colorful way that she herself created, the particular words shouldn’t be copied, at least without express acknowledgment. A historical novelist is responsible for creating his own colorful descriptions.

So where does this leave Mr. McEwan? Likely not guilty on any of the counts, if the account in the newspaper that first broke the story (the Nov. 26 Daily Mail) is thorough. Mr. McEwan borrowed facts, and those words that accurately described the facts. He is not guilty of copyright infringement, or of taking another’s original expression without specific notation. And while he did rely on Andrews’s autobiography, his acknowledgments page noted being “indebted” to Andrews and her book. Any such acknowledgment could always be made more prominent; but it appears to have been prominent enough.

I agree with Volokh's analysis, but his "not guilty" verdict confuses me. Here's one brief overlap that I cribbed from Slate's Jack Shafer, who himself cribbed from the UK paper:

Lucilla Andrews: "The right half of his face and some of his head was missing. I had consciously to fight down waves of nausea and swallow bile, wait until my hands stopped shaking and dry them on my back before I could retie the bow... [After he dies in her arms, a Sister says to her] 'Go and wash that blood off your face and neck, at once, girl! It'll upset the patients.'"

Ian McEwan: "The side of Luc's head was missing ... She caught the towel before it slipped to the floor, and she held it while she waited for her nausea to pass ... fixed the gauze and retied the bows ... The Sister straightened Briony's collar. 'There's a good girl. Now go and wash the blood from your face. We don't want the other patients upset.'"

This is not description of facts of the same sort as, say, the procedure of dabbing gentian violet on ringworm (an example cited by Volokh in defense of McEwan). Instead, McEwan is simply reusing a historical scene described by Andrews, using words that are remarkably similar to Andrews' own. The dialogue is made more effective because it actually happened. Now, you could argue that such paraphrasing-slash-plagiarizing should be allowed because we want more Ian McEwan novels (I like 'em too). You could also argue that McEwan's acknowledgments suffice to justify his liberal reliance on Andrews' memoir (though it seems like cheating to me, once the two are compared side-by-side). But I think Volokh's uses far too broad a brush stroke in calling these merely "facts," rather than evocative non-fiction prose that describes Andrews' work experience.


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