Thursday, 12 April 2007

Leaping to McEwan's defence (honestly)

I’ve no great affection for the recent work of Ian McEwan (see my comments on his latest work below) but it’s hard not to sympathise with him when you read a letter as silly as the one published in today’s Guardian. Written by Professor Judith Okely, of Oxford, it drags up the accusation of plagiarism levelled at McEwan some time ago in a paragraph that could do double time as a textbook example of a non sequitur. She says:

Ian McEwan tells Natasha Walter, the reviewer or his novel On Chesil Beach, novels are not always about you”. But he did not fully acknowledge that his novel Atonement is partly using the autobiography of Lucilla Andrews’s No Time for Romance (1977; George Harpers).
The rather odd grammar of the second sentence suggests that Ms (sorry, Professor) Okely isn’t entirely at home with the English language. But logic is, or should be, extralinguistic.
She goes on to say:

Apparently fiction is creatively original (!?), but non-fictional, published details of a woman's life are mere "reportage" to be used in fiction.

Take out 'apparently', 'mere' and the inverted commas, and replace 'woman's' with 'man's' and see what you get. Okely's no great shakes at syntax or logic, but she's clearly a dab hand at cheap rhetoric.


Elizabeth Baines said...

There was another letter which tried to disprove McEwan's claim that his Chesil Beach character's attitudes weren't his own by showing that McEwan had used the same phrase to describe those who want to identify with novels as his protagonist in Saturday uses to describe anti-nuclear campaigners.

Something is happening to logic...

Anonymous said...

Writers of fiction, part of the luvvie celebrity circuit, do not understand that writing an autobiography is also a creative selection of ideas and events. Anthropologists who generally write non fiction also make creative assessments and judgements. We are not just recording machines for what the media novelists reduce or even denigrate as reportage.
I have had my work lifted paragraph by paragraph, with neither quote marks nor acknowledgement in the chapter, by a 'celebrated' journalist (married to a novelist )writing on Gypsies.She did not see that the ideas were based on years of fieldwork and the selection and interpretation of a mass of seemingly random facts. The text was eventually based on an original analysis of ideas of animal pollution. But the New York Review of books singled out those very ideas and presented them as new findings in HER book.We non fiction writers are seemingly just reporters of 'simplistic facts' for the luvvies to appropriate.
Incidentally, words of the sentence in that letter which the wise guy so despises were changed by the Guardian editorial team.
It is still puzzling why the publisher of non-fiction does not need acknowledgement whereas dead poets do. Just to give the name of the individual at the back of the book does not reveal she has a publication used in the 'creative' text. The named woman could have been the novelist's typist, cook or nannie.

Charles Lambert said...

Dear Anonymous

There are a number of issues here.

First of all, McEwan made it very clear that he was not nodding thanks to his nanny. You may not have read his Acknowledgements but what he wrote was: 'I am indebted to the following authors and books [...] Lucilla Andrews, No Time for Romance'. It may not be fulsome as you'd have liked, but it's pretty clear that McEwan does acknowledge his use of the book and clearly identifies both book and author. There is nothing there to suggest that he regards it as material to be pilfered from. The use of terms like 'reportage' come from Okely's letter; McEwan has never suggested that he regards non-fiction writers as 'recording machines', nor that he considers non-fiction as 'simplistic facts for luvvies to appropriate'..

Second, if what you say is true about entire paragraphs being taken from your own work without acknowledgement (although I notice you specify 'in the chapter' -- does this mean they were acknowledged at the back of the book, standard practice in academic texts?), then you certainly have a right to be angry and I think you should have identified the writer in question (and, indeed, yourself), though I'm not sure what her husband's profession has to do with her plagiarism, unless you prefer ad hominem argument to logic. And it was equally wrong of the NYB reviewer to assume the ideas expressed were hers (though I don't see what else s/he could have done if your first claim is true). But this has nothing to do with the use made by McEwan of Andrews' text.

Finally, both your comment and Okely's letter (as printed in the Guardian -- I have no idea what it originally said and I'm intrigued that you should have this information) seem to be inspired not so much by a concern for defending intellectual property as by, for want of a gentler word, envy. The rancorous use of terms like 'luvvie celebrity circuit' and 'media novelist' (as opposed to what? non-media novelist?) undermine the valid points you make elsewhere in the comment.

Anonymous said...

It is not envy but bewilderment. It fits with the English contempt or mistrust of intellectuals.Why tell 1st year undergraduates they must put quotations around others' material, when celebrity writers see nothing wrong in doing just that?

In his defence ,(given front page headline coverage above all other global or local news), McEwan first introduced the concept 'reportage' to describe Andrews' work. Hence the reproduction of it in the letter.It was not the letter writer's invention.
sorry about the typist, nanny ..
My linkage was relevant because
there is a general confusion by some fictional writers about what is involved in non fictional research and final texts. Are all historians, social scientists just superb reporters, if we accept McEwan's judgement? Is Rousseau's pioneering autobiography mere reportage?

The plagiarism in my book was not salvaged by any end note. In the overview of the literature in the refs, there was a barbed and totally distorted caricature of another unrelated theme in the book.
Only after huge sales and another edition, was some grudging admission made of the original source.(Many others also found and complained about plagiarism but did not insist via their publishers).
The mention of the spouse was to give an insight into the milieu where such pubications are constructed.
When celebrity novelists accept visiting professorships will they be made aware of university policies on plagiarism for their own students? Perhaps they will find themselves marking essays which have lifted the 'reportage' without acknowledgement from their own texts?But by McEwan's criteria, its only wrong if the plagiarism of entire paragraphs is of another's fiction.

Anonymous said...

One final comment from anon.I dont like to be googled as much as I can help.
You ask what relevance does being associated with a celebrity novelist have to my account of plagiarism by the partner. When the book was published, I was approached by radio scotland to discuss it at 36 hours notice. People who are involved with Roma/Gypsy research have usually heard about such specialist researchers both in the West and beyond long in advance of publication . I had never heard of this person and asked the radio caller who she was. The SOLE reply was 'She is X's (the novelist) girlfriend', giggle, giggle down the phone..
I contacted all the key weeklies, and respectable Sunday papers asking if I could review it. I had not as yet seen it in the shops. The slots had already been reserved and, guess what, only for celebrated writers of fiction (I would still call them luvvies on the same circuit). The reviewers almost unanimously hailed it as a brilliant NEW study of a people NOT studied before...Thus the reviewers swallowed the literary agent's hype. They seemed to know nothing of decades of scholarship and entire library collections. Some of these publications obviously have major flaws, but need to be addressed.
Only last week, I met a Harvard professor of literature who, hearing of my specialism, innocently waxed lyrical about this plagiarising book. He knew of no others over a decade after its publication.

Charles Lambert said...

Nothing you say justifies Okely's original claim that McEwan had failed to 'fully acknowledge' his use of Andrews' book. You clearly feel hard done by, but the solution surely isn't to thrash out against luvvie culture as though its existence were a proof of anti-intellectualism. A novelist who engages creatively with his or her world, as McEwan does, has every right to be considered intellectual, just as do those who engage with their world in other non-fictional ways. And no one in their right mind would consider Rousseau's autobiography (itself, in many way, a work of fiction) as less important than, for example, Emile.

It might be more pertinent to name the person who has stolen -- or misrepresented -- your research and make the fact known. But if you're afraid of being googled (and I can't imagine why), maybe you prefer to hide both her crime and your light under a bushel.