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Ian McEwan Not a Plagiarist

And even if he were, so what? Somehow I get the feeling that McEwan could have lifted whole chapters out of an obscure 70's memoir and still be considered the most graceful English prose stylist wielding a pen today. Nor … Read More

By / November 29, 2006

And even if he were, so what? Somehow I get the feeling that McEwan could have lifted whole chapters out of an obscure 70's memoir and still be considered the most graceful English prose stylist wielding a pen today. Nor would this have diminished in the least his talent for character invention and plot progression and imagery. Lev Grossman in Time scuppers the latest "plagiarism" imbroglio surrounding the Booker winner, and good for Grossman. Here's one bruited similarity between McEwan's novel Atonement and Lucilla Andrews' Florence Nightingale-ish remembrance, No Time For Romance:

Our 'nursing' seldom involved more than dabbing gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on cuts and scratches, lead lotion on bruises and sprains." Compare that to McEwan (this is on p. 260): "In the way of medical treatments, she had already dabbed gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on a cut, and painted lead lotion on a bruise."

Let's see now. Aside from the verb "to dab," the only thing even vaguely eyebrow-raising here is the sequence of ailments and palliatives. "Gentian violet" may have been just the thing for ringworm in World War II. And by what other name was "aquaflavine emulsion" or "lead lotion" categorized in nursing stations?

Try this: "He applied rubbing alcohol to the forehead gash, set the leg with a splint, and wrapped the arm in an Ace bandage." How else would you describe those three actions which could easily be performed after a bad bike accident?

McEwan's contemporary Martin Amis once copped to purloining "nimbus cloud" (or some such construction to describe a character's hairdo) straight from Dickens for his debut novel The Rachel Papers, itself a major paragraph-lender to Jacob Epstein's own debut Wild Oats, which appeared eight years later.

Forget the inherent tribute or rationalized artistry behind plagiarism. It's a force of literary nature and it can't be stopped. (Martin Luther King took his almost his entire doctoral thesis, verbatim, from another source. And where hasn't the phrase "handful of dust" — Donne, Eliot, Orwell, Waugh, to name just four — been through and around the canon?)

We should learn to distinguish the non-examples from grand larceny.

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