Ian McEwan accused of stealing from a romance novelist

Kate Rothwell alerted me to this little tidbit by badgerbag regarding allegations that Ian McEwan plagiarized parts of romance author Lucilla Andrews’ memoirs in his tremendously well-received novel, Atonement.

I’ll admit up front that Atonement ranks as both one of my favorite books of all time and one the best-written books I’ve had the privilege to read, so finding out about the plagiarism came as a shock. It was almost like finding out my best friend had been cheating on her husband without my knowledge all this time; there’s a distinct feeling of how could you? to my reaction. Really, there’s no denying that the one excerpted passage in Atonement bears more than a coincidental resemblance to Andrews’ memoirs.

However, distressing though the news is, and I really think McEwan should cop to stealing instead of sputtering nonsense about the difficulty of making up realistic treatments to decades-old ailments, I think badgerbag’s reaction to the article itself strikes me as somewhat out of proportion. Yes, women authors have a tougher time of it, and yes, fiction written by and aimed at women is quite consistently denigrated and played down, but the tone of the article is quite respectful of Andrews. What I do feel, however, is that McEwan is getting off lightly because he’s a literary fiction author, and because Atonement is, to be frank, a masterpiece of writing. These two factors seems to have softened the outrage from the literary community. Shit, much as I’d hate to admit it, it’s probably softened my reaction—well, not so much the literary fiction author bit (I share Sara Donati’s opinion that lit fic is a genre in and of itself, and not so much a statement of quality) as the whole “Atonement being one of my all-time favorite books” bit.

I’m also really curious as to whether the *ahem* borrowing extends beyond the one passage excerpted in The Daily Mail. I’ll have to see if I can get my hands on Andrews’ memoir and read it side-by-side with Atonement.

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  1. 1
    Jane says:

    Hopefully your library has it because Janine looked it up and the used copies are selling for around 2K.  Not having any knowledge of the situation other than what is reported, Eloisa James “borrowed” heavily from sources.  “At various points Hellgate borrows from the letters of Sarah Bernhardt (a French actress from the 1800s) and from those of Napoleon Bonaparte to Madam Marie Welewska in 1807.”

    Is that really any different?  In the forward, McEwen gives acknowledgment and thanks to McAndrews.

  2. 2
    cassie says:

    “Is that really any different?”

    Would it have anything to do with copyright issues?  Eloisa James used a bit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in PFP (actually I think there’s Shakespeare in all her books), too, but I think it’s okay to use without permission.

  3. 3
    Robin says:

    I haven’t seen a comparison of passages, but my question is whether McEwan was actually trying to pass of her *writing* and *ideas* as his own, or whether he was basically drawing from Andrews as the inspiration and identity for Briony.  In other words, did he intend for people to recognize the similarities because he was basically using Andrews as a model for his own character, or was he actually lifting her work without acknowledgment?

    Interesting about Eloisa James—I haven’t read her books, so I didn’t know about that.  Same question applies, I guess.  If she’s taking lines from Shakespeare, for example, that everyone recognizes as such and are not copyrighted, well, no plagiarism.  But if she’s inserting passages of other sources into her work as her own—copyright or no—that’s a whole different story, so to speak.

  4. 4
    jmc says:

    Is it still “research” if at least three passages have almost identical phrasing?  And no direct attribution or citation…except in speech?  This article in The Times (which includes McEwan’s response) lists three passages at its end.  http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-2473382,00.html

  5. 5
    CantateForever says:

    Yikes. Whether he deliberately referenced her or not, i can’t believe it wasn’t addressed before publication. At my college, people have been expelled for failing to cite sources in a rough draft. It is a little mind- boggling that in the professional realm, such blatant theivery is only addressed if it is caught by the right people.

  6. 6
    Vicki says:

    If it is copyrighted material, then it is pretty much plagerism. Shakespeare is not copyrighted and I believe the letters from Sarah would have exceeded the date for them to be copyrighted.

  7. 7
    Nora Roberts says:

    I love how plagiarists often term it ‘research’ or ‘borrowing’. Changing a few words here and there doesn’t make it yours.

  8. 8
    Helen M says:

    ^I completely agree. As was drummed into us during my postgrad studies, paraphrasing is still plagiarising, if you don’t cite/acknowledge your sources.

    Ian McEwan’s response.

    Hmmm. IMHO, there’s a difference on relying on the works of others for information you cannot get anywhere else, and there’s not even bothering to come up with your own descriptions and just using their turns of phrase. You don’t have to footnote your fiction, but you ought to properly acknowledge your debt to other authors in your own book (at the front), not in other places that are unaccessible to readers of the book at the time of their reading your work.

    But that’s just my two cents.

  9. 9
    Robin says:

    I don’t know; a “plagiarist” generally tries to hide the source of his or her “borrowing,” so I’m in no way ready to call McEwan a plagiarist, lit fic writer or not.  He doesn’t seem to be backpedaling or trying to hide what he did or call himself “forgetful” or any of that other stuff common to common copyright violators.  Does that mean he didn’t plagiarize?  No, of course not.  But I guess I’m just not ready to convict.

  10. 10

    I have not read Atonenment, though reading all these descriptions I can’t imagine why NOT.  It sounds as if he gave full respect to Andrews from the beginning, and although the passages quoted are quite similar, they’re describing things it might be difficult to describe another way.  A novel is not footnoted as an academic paper is, so noting her influence in the acknowledgments seems the only way to go. 

    I dunno. I work really hard on my prose and it would be painful to have that work stolen, but I also feel a sense of compassion to Ewan—how horrifying this must be!

    Accusations of plagarism are like accusations of sexual misconduct—they stain badly even if they are not true, and the accused is often guilty until proven innocent. 

    And Eloisa James is a Shakespearean scholar, FWIW.  I’m sure she knows where the lines are.

  11. 11
  12. 12
    Carrie Lofty says:

    Like Helen, I believe that if a subject has not been thoroughly researched and published, writers must rely on the details available in whatever sources they can find. If Andrews’ memoir is one of the only examples of WWII London nursing, that is the source to use. McEwan cites her work in his acknowledgements, which in fiction is an acceptable alternative to footnotes and bibliographies.

    That said, C’MON! If you’re going to write about gentian violet and lead lotion, break it up a little! If I found that passage in one of my former students’ papers and ran it through a plagiarism site, I’d have been all over it.

    Sigh. Atonement is my favorite novel, so this is a little painful.

  13. 13
    sherryfair says:

    I’m glad this is being discussed thoroughly here. I almost didn’t want to look at the remarks here because I’ve seen too many discussions in Romance forums where the words “literary fiction writer” and “male” would be enough to convict any writer immediately in the romance audience’s eyes, no matter what the evidence & arguments were. I’m very glad that’s not happening here. (But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised because this blog is often an exceptional place.)

  14. 14
    Jane says:

    I think I am a bit confused about copyright v. plagiarism. This is my understanding: you can plagiarize even if the work is in public domain.  However, if you attribute your borrowing, it is neither copyright or plagiarism, correct?

    So if McEwen acknowledges the Andrews influence and James acknowledges the borrowing of early literature sources, then it is not plagiarism or copyright infrintement?

  15. 15
    Ann Aguirre says:

    What bothers me the most is that Ms. Andrews never got the chance to rebut. Now she’ll never get to say whether she’s okay with it, whether she feels she deserves a bigger chunk of recognition or whether McEwan bungled his handling of it. He can say whatever he wishes about her thoughts, feelings and opinions and who is there to contradict him?

  16. 16
    Wry Hag says:

    Wow, that’s a stunner.  McEwan has been one of my favorite authors since I read The Comfort of Strangers way back when.  Gotta check into this.

  17. 17
    sherryfair says:

    On this subject of plaigarism, borrowing & literary influence, I want to recommend very highly Malcolm Gladwell’s article in the Nov. 22, 2004 issue of the New Yorker. Gladwell had one of his nonfiction articles for the New Yorker plaigarized by playwright Briony Lavery for her (fictional)award-winning play, “Frozen.”

    Gladwell has made it available in its entirety on his Web site:

    http://www.gladwell.com/2004/2004_11_25_a_borrowed.html

    I’m citing it here because I see some analogies to the situation at hand.

  18. 18

    What bothers me the most is that Ms. Andrews never got the chance to rebut.

    Apparently Lucilla Andrews did know about this before she died, and she was OK with it. The issue was discussed in her obituary in The Guardian:

    She was probably the best known exponent of romantic “hospital fiction” and her personal experiences of war-time nursing provided the backcloth for the hospital scenes in Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement. It was only last year that Andrews learned, with considerable amusement, that McEwan had expressed his indebtedness to her biographical memoir, No Time for Romance (1977), in his acknowledgments in Atonement (2001).[...]

    Andrews learned of the link between the two books because of an academic thesis written by Natasha Alden, a student at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, who drew the attention of Andrews to her status as a significant material source for the Booker-shortlisted novel. [...]

    Natasha Alden coincidentally delivered the thesis for her DPhil on second generation fiction about world wars within days of Andrews’ death. She described part three of Atonement as closely based on No Time for Romance and the experiences of McEwan’s character Briony as very closely drawn on what happens to Andrews. She emphasised that she was not suggesting that McEwan had plagiarised the Andrews autobiography as he had accorded it credit in his afterword, but she suggested it should be seen as a considerable tribute to the quality of Andrews’ writing.

    When Andrews learned of the link between the two books, she observed wryly that her view of the matter was similar to that of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind. (“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”).

    That obituary dates from Tuesday October 17, 2006.

  19. 19
    Ann Aguirre says:

    I thought I read in one of the articles that Ms. Andrews was going to give a speech at an Awards luncheon that revealed her true feelings, but that she fell ill and never got the chance.

  20. 20
    Robin says:

    I think I am a bit confused about copyright v. plagiarism. This is my understanding: you can plagiarize even if the work is in public domain.  However, if you attribute your borrowing, it is neither copyright or plagiarism, correct?

    Yeah.  I think the problem for me is that plagiarism isn’t a legal category but people use it as such.  Of course, it CAN be a form of copyright infringement, which it might be in this case if McEwan didn’t credit Andrews (it’s outside fair use, isn’t it?).  But if you pass off something out of copyright as your own work, it’s plagiarism (which has no per se legal status) but not copyright infringement.  If you quote well-known lines from Shakespeare without attribution, though, it’s neither plagiarism or copyright infringement, since they would be easily recognizable as not your own work. 

    Personally, I totally agree with Barbara Samuel’s characterization of the “stain” of the term “plagiarist” and use it very very sparingly.  Because it seems to me to be a potential form of defamation, depending on the circumstances. 

    Do I think McEwan was lazy in some of his phrasing?  Yes.  But the fact that he so openly acknowledges Andrews does not, IMO, make what he did dishonest, which is what plagiarism is—a form of academic or literary dishonesty in passing off the work of another as your own.

  21. 21

    Yes, you’re right, Ana. I found a reference to that in an article in The Daily Mail:

    When the bestselling author Lucilla Andrews was admitted to hospital in Edinburgh last August at the onset of what was to be her final illness, she was deprived not only of the chance of being honoured in person with a lifetime achievement award by the Romantic Novelists’ Association, but also of the opportunity of using the platform to deliver a very personal J’accuse.

    Unbeknown to all but her closest friends, Lucilla had decided on a good-humoured but very specific acceptance speech for the lunchtime ceremony at the Scottish Parliament. [...]

    Lucilla was initially amused by the discovery. She was a kind woman with a keen sense of fun and a great deal of consideration for others. Indeed, she described her reaction to Natasha Alden by saying her view was similar to that of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

    But it may have troubled her that McEwan’s novel met with such reverent acclaim – it received rave reviews and was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize – when her own writing was regarded by the literary elite as ‘mere’ romantic fiction.

    The luncheon was held on Friday 18 August 2006, at the Scottish Parliament. The fact that romantic fiction isn’t taken seriously, even though much of it is well written was the subject of a speech Eileen Ramsey, Honorary Secretary of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, gave a couple of days after the luncheon, as part of the Edinburgh Book Festival (there’s a description of that speech here ).

    I don’t know if there’s a connection between what Lucilla Andrews might have said, had she been well enough, and what Eileen Ramsey actually did say, but there might have been, and from what The Daily Mail are saying, maybe Lucilla Andrews’ comments might have been along similar lines to those made by Eileen Ramsey, but where Ramsey used quotations from ‘great literature’ and romantic novels to make her point that it can be difficult/impossible at times to tell the two apart, maybe Andrews’ was planning on using the facts about McEwan’s novel to make the same point, namely that romantic novels don’t get the respect they deserve, and it isn’t because of the quality of the writing.

  22. 22
    Robin says:

    On this subject of plaigarism, borrowing & literary influence, I want to recommend very highly Malcolm Gladwell’s article in the Nov. 22, 2004 issue of the New Yorker.

    What a great article, Sherry!  I was particularly struck by this paragraph (quoted under fair use—hah!):

    And this is the second problem with plagiarism. It is not merely extremist. It has also become disconnected from the broader question of what does and does not inhibit creativity. We accept the right of one writer to engage in a full-scale knockoff of another—think how many serial-killer novels have been cloned from “The Silence of the Lambs.” Yet, when Kathy Acker incorporated parts of a Harold Robbins sex scene verbatim in a satiric novel, she was denounced as a plagiarist (and threatened with a lawsuit). When I worked at a newspaper, we were routinely dispatched to “match” a story from the Times: to do a new version of someone else’s idea. But had we “matched” any of the Times’ words—even the most banal of phrases—it could have been a firing offense. The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of small differences: because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence.

    When I caught plagiarism in my students’ work, which I seemed to have a particular eye for, it was heartbreaking, even as I had to turn them in.  I think I felt less ambivalence there because it was a teaching situation and important that they understand how important it is not to be intellectually lazy and to understand that thoughts can be things.  But it was still difficult, because often the student wasn’t really understanding of what they were being punished for, outside of the fact that they understood they broke the rules.  Oh, they understood the broad concept, of course, but our cultural products ARE more and more derivative and mimicked, which makes the discussion very difficult to have in any linear way, IMO.  I know a lot of people don’t credit intent, but I really do, especially in cases like McEwan’s.

  23. 23
    SB Sarah says:

    “‘research’ or ‘borrowing’”

    “Research?” Seems to me one ought to have learned better at some point to cite sources correctly.

    And “borrowing” just kills me. Are you going to give it back? Like a burglar might bring back my tv?

    What I hate is the attitude that just because it’s women’s fiction, it’s no big deal to lift passages.

  24. 24
    SB Sarah says:

    From the Gladwell article: “A successful music executive has to understand the distinction between borrowing that is transformative and borrowing that is merely derivative….”

    (thank you sherryfair for linking it – I’m enjoying it immensely.)

    The author makes a parallel argument between music and writing as subjects of copyright, intellectual property, and plagiarism, and that sentence stopped me cold. I had to read it at least three times.

    I understand the argument as pertains to music, but how on earth can it apply to writing? Music is an intangible art that truly exists when it’s being performed, and performance makes room for that “transformation” with improvisation and the like.

    And then, of course, you have artists like the Rolling Stones acquiring the rights to The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony because it contained a sequence from their song “The Last Time” as recorded by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra – it wasn’t their recording that was sampled. It was a “transformed” version that was sampled, then?  And of course the Stones themselves were sued by K.D. Lang because their song “Anybody Seen my Baby” bore more than a little resemblance to her song “Constant Craving” and, according to the Wiki, was “unconsciouly plagiarised.” So that wasn’t transformative? That was derivative? Does Kaavya Viswanathan know about this option for future books for Alloy?

    And again, how does that apply to writing? I don’t think it can. How does one transform and augment the writing that someone else did? Once words are down on paper, they’re set. How do you transform someone else’s words? It doesn’t make sense. Do I start writing stories about Frances and Hawk and that pot of cream and make it even more midsummery and magical than the original? I’m jaw-dropped at the idea that taking someone else’s words for your own use is somehow sometimes serving a larger purpose, and therefore excusable.

  25. 25
    Robin says:

    And again, how does that apply to writing? I don’t think it can.

    Aren’t notes the musical version of words?  Notes in certain groupings and order create sounds in the same way that words grouped and ordered create sentences, paragraphs, etc.  For me, at least, the analogy to music is easier to see than to some visual media.

    I remember watching League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with a friend who knew every filmic reference that was, in her opinion, ripped off in the film.  Plagiarism or inspiration? 

    Whatever you think of McEwan’s actions, I think the fact that he did acknowledge Andrews so publicly works against a denigration of women’s and/or romantic writing.  Although I can’t speak for how others are characterizing Andrews in all this.  Frankly, I think anyone with less cultural cache than McEwan would suffer by comparison, but perhaps not.

    Then there are writers who plagiarize themselves, which is just plain weird, IMO.  That you can violate copyright by reusing your own words is a fascinating quirk in the copyright scheme.  I really wonder whether intellectual property laws are going to become more narrow over time, or to be broadened, especially as our media outlets continue to expand and multiply.

    I found this site a while ago that cracked me up, but also made me think a lot about how many eminent artists, scholars, statesmen, etc. have faced accusations of plagiarism over the years:  http://www.famousplagiarists.com/

    I’m always terrified of unconsciously plagiarizing, because I read and write so much.  Since I started law school, it’s even more scary, since what I would previously consider plagiaristic isn’t always seen that way in the law.  The law THRIVES on uniformity of expression and ideas, so I constantly have to readjust me perspective as I switch back and forth between legal and other disciplines.

  26. 26
    sherryfair says:

    Glad you’re finding the Gladwell article interesting. It’s certainly stayed in my mind. Maybe because I’d been very impressed & moved by the play “Frozen” when I saw it & was really saddened to read subsequently about the plagiarism involved. As I am to hear about what’s happened with “Atonement.”

    Let me bring up again poetry, which is a largely financially profitless genre in which a lot of work deliberately echoes older work. Sarah, the analogy that I can think of between words & music would include, at its most abstract level, borrowing another poet’s meter or a particularly unusual but clever end rhyme. Or it would include echoing a famous phrase. (The equivalent for fiction would be the numerous times in romance that you have seen riffs on: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that …”) Let me bring up T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” Most of us are familiar to some degree with the vast reams of footnotes that usually accompany this poem, pointing to Eliot’s quotations, allusions & source material. And this same apparatus commonly accompanies a great deal of poetry in the most widely used anthologies. And yet, for the most part, the poems originally appeared without anyone pointing to the sources & allusions. This was because the audience often knew that stuff already. But also because of our culture’s changing notions of originality, creativity, literary influences & the traditions of craftsmanship.

    I think that intent is terribly important, as Robin states. So is reinterpretation (the degree of “spin” or “riffing” if you will), as Sarah mentions—and let me also add the degree to which the new context differs from the old. If you lift large passages & concepts from someone’s novel and place it within your own novel without any acknowledgment, that’s looking pretty bad. Particularly if the two works belong to the same genre. (Then I’d describe you as having a death wish of some sort.) If you lift some factual passages from a nonfiction work, and incorporate them within a much larger & more elaborate fictional structure, acknowledging your source in a place traditionally used to point to sources, then to me it’s a slightly different matter. McEwan was careless & could have put more effort into the “sentence by sentence” transformation which Gladwell points out. But also, I think cynically that in 40 years, this won’t matter for McEwan’s book.

    So McEwan is getting a pass from me because of his achievement in “Atonement.” I’ll admit that. Because the extent of his borrowing is comparatively minor when contrasted with the largeness of his own accomplishment. Put it this way: When I think about “Atonement,” it’s not the description of the nursing duties that I recall first. I am not being fair, but I’m thinking some of the things that Gladwell is thinking.

  27. 27
    Wry Hag says:

    What I continue to find dismaying—and I suspect this will forever color my reading of McEwan—is the fact that, despite his considerable reserves of creativity, he could not be more “transformative” in his borrowing.  Such signs of laziness or carelessness in an author impugn his craftsmanship and make my respect for him plummet.  There’s just no excuse for it…no matter how honest he was in acknowledging his source.

  28. 28
    Stella says:

    Now, I’ve read neither of the books but I did read the quotes side by side and I don’t think it’s plagiarism, I think it’s a loving wink. What’s the point in altering the details further just to make it more “original” (i. e. “can’t remember where I got it from so I assume it’s my genius, autonomous artistic imagination”)? I say yay for postmodern intertextuality! Go postmodern intertextuality!
    Let me “steal” a quote or two from author Shelley Jackson (who you should all go and read because she’s a feminist author who kicks butt):

    “I am interested in piracy and plagiarism. I’m not interested in copyright, except when it guarantees some inheritance to the meek, and punishes the powerful who are, sadly, its usual beneficiaries.”

    “I want piratical readers, plagiarists and opportunists, who take what they want from my ideas and knot it into their own arguments. Or even their own novels. From which, possibly, I’ll steal it back”

  29. 29
    Robin says:

    Now, I’ve read neither of the books but I did read the quotes side by side and I don’t think it’s plagiarism, I think it’s a loving wink. What’s the point in altering the details further just to make it more “original” (i. e. “can’t remember where I got it from so I assume it’s my genius, autonomous artistic imagination”)? I say yay for postmodern intertextuality! Go postmodern intertextuality!
    Let me “steal” a quote or two from author Shelley Jackson (who you should all go and read because she’s a feminist author who kicks butt):

    “I am interested in piracy and plagiarism. I’m not interested in copyright, except when it guarantees some inheritance to the meek, and punishes the powerful who are, sadly, its usual beneficiaries.”

    “I want piratical readers, plagiarists and opportunists, who take what they want from my ideas and knot it into their own arguments. Or even their own novels. From which, possibly, I’ll steal it back”

    Be careful, girl, or you’re going to give Nora Roberts apoplexy!

    Anyway, as much as I tend to like all those gray spaces, as well, I really think there’s an enormous and substantive difference between, say, a student who lifts passages of another researcher’s work to pass off as his or her own and the kind of phrase-play that sherryfair talks about in her comments.  Sometimes that line is easy to draw, and sometimes, IMO, it isn’t.  The cases where it isn’t are much more interesting, of course, from an intellectual standpoint, because they bring all those issues of intertextuality and inspiration into play.  And of course there are those who find that there’s no difference at all, that anyone who uses the words and/or ideas of another—assuming that such a relationship is recognizable to someone—is an act of theft.  What for me is a judgment call isn’t for some, which is, IMO, another reason the whole issue of intellectual property and the idea of ownership one has over one’s words and ideas is so twisty and turny, legally, ethically, morally, etc.

    Emotionally, I’m in sympathy with what Jackson says there in the sense that it’s often the big names who have access to those legal resources to protect “their” work, while the unknown is often powerless.  The wisdom of such a situation is hardly ever questioned, despite all the questions silently engendered.  What if the unknown is the more original?  Does fame translate automatically to originality that must be protected?  Has the “more powerful” one always been pristine in his or her respect for the intellectual property of others?  Is the right to claim plagiarism itself primarily a societal privilege, and if it is, what does that mean?  Even real property law, for example, recognizes adverse possession.  Yes, yes, yes, it’s all very interesting.

  30. 30
    Kate D says:

    The real question here is, why didn’t Mr. McEwan contact Ms. Andrews and ask permission to lift entire passages from her copyrighted work? She was still alive and had an agent, so the logistics wouldn’t have been too daunting. He could have told her that hers was the only source he had found, and that she phrased it so wonderfully, he simply didn’t believe he could do it better.

    She sounds like the kind of professional artist who would have graciously agreed. That would have taken care of the problem.

    An acknowledgement without permission isn’t sufficient to avoid breaking the law – a law that’s there to protect the author and to benefit society.

    P.S. I love your site. Have lurked here until now, but this issue makes me see red, so I thought I’d jump in. Thanks.—Kate

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