The New York Times
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December 3, 2006
The P Word

Her Life, His Art, Your Call


The plagiarism Furies, idle for a time as the more clandestine and irreproachable forms of literary borrowing and imitation continue from day to day, have been unloosed again.

This time, the context is the British literary world, and the accused is one of its leading lights, so the indictment has taken on a moderate, even decorous tone. Ian McEwan has been called to account for using some brief wording in his best-selling novel ìAtonementî that some feel was drawn too directly from, rather than merely inspired by, a memoir by the romance novelist Lucilla Andrews.

Ms. Andrews, who died in October, worked as a nurse in a hospital during World War II, as does the heroine of Mr. McEwanís novel. A few pedestrian strings of words Ms. Andrews used to describe her experience, reworked perhaps a little too minimally by Mr. McEwan, were proffered as Exhibit A for the prosecution.

Ms. Andrewsís agent demurred at echoing the charge of plagiarism implicit in articles raising the issue that appeared in two British papers ó The Mail on Sunday and The Times of London. ìDiscourteousî was as far as she was inclined to go in describing Mr. McEwanís transgression, if such it was. More definitive was Jenny Haddon, the chairwoman of Britainís Romantic Novelistsí Association, who called the charges ìnonsense.î

I must hurry to give proper credit to my own literary inspiration. The above facts and quotations are drawn from an article by my colleague Alan Cowell that appeared in The New York Times on Tuesday. I assert my right to employ these nonfictional events now in the public sphere for my own creative ends. Any specific correspondences between my phrasing and his are purely incidental or accidental, and I sincerely hope not actionable.

If any there be, itís because I got my notes mixed up. Or call it a witty form of literary homage to Mr. Cowell. Or maybe itís because certain words in the English language ó ìtheî comes to mind ó are well nigh unavoidable. Oh, dear! Looking back I must apologize for my use of the phrase ìbest-selling novel,î the very same words Mr. Cowell employed in describing ìAtonement.î I am aghast. I should have said ìMr. McEwanís novel ëAtonement,í which flew off the shelves like a massive flock of birds heading southward in the gloaming over the windswept moors.î Or something like that, to differentiate my description from Mr. Cowellís. A grave mistake.

Wait a minute. ìGrave mistakeî sounds eerily familiar. Egad! So does ìeerily familiar.î I must get back to you in a few hours, after an exhaustive Google search that will doubtless allow me to credit any and all authors who have used those phrases.

Doesnít it seem wearying, this stream of ìgotchaî stories trumpeting the news that a novelist or a lyricist or a playwright has used a few turns of phrase or the curves of somebody elseís life story without proper accreditation, or with improper specificity? I half expect to read of a lawsuit brought by a journalist covering last yearís plagiarism scandal against a journalist covering this yearís, asserting copyright infringement.

To recap just the highlights from recent years: Lyrics from Bob Dylanís latest album echo phrasing of the 19th-century poet Henry Timrod. ìHow Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life,î the debut novel of a Harvard student, Kaavya Viswanathan, was pulled from publication and reworked when it was discovered sheíd swiped from at least two other novels. Bryony Lavery was accused of basing her play ìFrozenî too closely on the experience of a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of serial killers, and of drawing too liberally on a Malcolm Gladwell portrait of the psychiatrist that appeared in The New Yorker. Susan Sontag came under fire for interpolating bits of a published memoir, among other sources, in her novel ìIn America.î

The ìOpalî case seems a clear act of thievery, or at least a lazy writer cheating by copying another work of fiction. But the others involve the complicated relationship between art and the raw material of life that artists have always drawn on. As the more finely detailed articles about them acknowledge, the liberal use of recorded fact for artistic purposes is hardly a new practice. It also seems hard to believe that the swelling tide of accusations in recent years stems from a sudden mania for word theft in literary culture.

The string of scandals seems, rather, a symptom of a shift in cultural attitudes toward the meaning and uses of personal experience. We are living in an age marked by a heightened sensitivity to the idea of oneís own life, and oneís own words, as a commodity with prospective commercial value. In earlier times, it was only writers and other artists who were expected to make profitable use of their everyday experience; the rest of us couldnít hope to make a dime from the upheavals of existence.

How things have changed. With the rise of so-called reality-based entertainment and the surging popularity of the memoir as a literary form, it now seems that everybodyís life is a yet-to-be-developed television property or a memoir waiting to spring from the laptop, uncontaminated by the greedy depredations of the artist. The rush for self-fulfillment and self-expression that characterized the ìMeî decade of the 1970s has evolved into a desire for maximum self-exploitation and self-commercialization in these early years of the 21st century, which might be dubbed the ìBuy Meî decade. Weíd be fools to let someone make a profit off our own backs, and so as a culture we become exercised at the idea of a writer making money by making use of experience or words not entirely his own.

Where does this leave the real artist? Much of the finest literature expresses some truth about life, and the best way to get at it is to start with grains of the factual. Shakespeare drew on Plutarchís lives; Henry Jamesís notebooks were filled with what he called donnÈes, bits of dinner party gossip that occasionally bloomed into fictional flower; innumerable historical novels have drawn on biographies and memoirs. The richness of Mr. McEwanís ìAtonementî derives in no small part, Iíd venture to say, from its intimacy with deeply lived experience investigated and shaped by the author.

If, in todayís climate, a mere few words corresponding too closely to a few others in a previously published work can bring you newspaper headlines, will all written records of contemporary human experience eventually become off limits to other writers? In his thoughtful defrosting of the ìFrozenî case in The New Yorker, Mr. Gladwell pinpointed the absurdity eloquently. ìThe ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of small differences,î he wrote. ìBecause journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence.î

Itís easy to see how such continued enforcement could create a climate antithetical to the kind of free ferment that artists need. Fiction writers are treasured precisely because they can transmute the unruly dross of daily experience ó whether it is their own or that of a guy they once knew or a figure from tabloid headlines ó into narratives that have a pleasing shape and pattern and give us insight into our lives. If our lives ó and dare I say even our words ó are to be our sovereign property, how many of us will really be able to make meaning from them that enriches the world?