Tales of Plagiarism and Atonement ; EDITORIAL & OPINION

Article excerpt

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 mer-inable its. 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 Pyn-chon, 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Judith Kelly, the hardback edition of whose scarifying memoir of a convent upbringing, Rock Me Gently, had to be withdrawn when it was discovered to have reproduced several passages from Hilary Mantel's novel Fludd more or less verbatim.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 nonfiction; the other was a memoirist making use of novels. …