Plagiarism? It's Really a Form of Flattery

The Evening Standard (London, England), November 28, 2006 | Go to article overview

Plagiarism? It's Really a Form of Flattery


Byline: SEBASTIAN SHAKESPEARE

AND INCIDENTALLY IAN MCEWAN yesterday rebutted accusations that he "copied" the work of fellow author Lucilla Andrews for his Booker-nominated novel, Atonement. "I have openly acknowledged my debt to her in the author's note at the end of Atonement," he said. By coincidence, Winston Churchill was accused of plagiarism on the same day: a Cambridge academic has discovered that the wartime premier borrowed the famous phrase "the gathering storm" , to describe the rise of Nazi Germany , from HG Wells's War of the Worlds.

It is not the first time Churchill has been accused of being a word thief.

His faux-Elizabethan rhetoric was much influenced by Shakespeare; key passages in his Second World War history were filched. At least on this occasion Churchill acknowledged the debt.

"I read everything you write," Churchill wrote to Wells. McEwan wasn't misleading his readers either. But even if he hadn't acknowledged Andrews, would McEwan still be guilty of plagiarism?

In my book, no. All literature is theft. As TS Eliot said: "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal."

Take the following two sentences: "His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks."

"Uselessly, like a sick old seal, Trev's tongue flaps among the rock pools and barnacles of his mouth. …

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