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Book News for Monday, December 11, 2006

  • Although his prestigious contemporaries have come to his defense, Ian McEwan gets a harsh rebuke from Slate editor Jack Shafer, who wonders why nobody is using "the P-word" against the novelist.

    As a long-time magazine and newspaper editor, I'd have no trouble firing McEwan for writing as he did if he worked for me.

    Shafer compares similar passages from McEwan's (aptly titled, it turns out) novel Atonement and novelist Lucilla Andrews' 1977 memoir No Time for Romance, from which McEwan is accused of "copying." Here's one of the more damning examples, starting with the Andrews passage:

    Our "nursing" seldom involved more than dabbing gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on cuts and scratches, lead lotion on bruises and sprains.

    And here's the McEwan:

    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.

    Shafer notes:

    I detect no mash-up here, no adding of value, and no "creative use," to quote Pynchon's generous letter of support. McEwan helps himself to Andrews' words as if they first appeared on the planet in one of his rough drafts. To protest, as he does, that her memoir served as "research" is a lie. McEwan rewrote Andrews' vivid copy and called it his own. The laugh of larceny is that the Booker Prize-winner didn't even improve it.

    Didn't some Harvard undergrad named Kaavya Viswanathan get her ass kicked a few months back for doing exactly the same thing? Funny how you can get away with it when the literary lions decide to defend one of their own.

  • Noir writer Elizabeth Stromme, author of Joe's Word, has died at the age of 59.
  • The New York Times has a feature on film adaptations of W. Somerset Maugham's works, including the most recent, The Painted Veil (the second time it's been filmed), starring Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, and Liev Schreiber, which will open on Dec. 20th.

    I'd have a lot more interest in this article if the writer, Charles McGrath, hadn't incorrectly identified Bill Murray's 1984 version of The Razor's Edge as "a vanity production" that was worse than the "pretty bad" 1946 film starring Gene Tierney and Anne Baxter.

    Maybe I'm in the minority here (and I've never read Maugham's novel, it's true), but as a Bill Murray fan, I've always thought the film was grossly underrated. Now that the rest of the world is starting to recognize Murray as more than a sarcastic "funnyman," watch the movie again and see if you don't like it.

  • Publishers Lunch reports that Johns Hopkins University Press has received a $750,000 grant "to fund the publishing of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot, which will consist of seven volumes published over nine years. According to the press, "only about 10 percent of Eliot's prose writing has ever been published and available" — and, tragically, most of that in the form of a really awful musical.
  • Last Friday, Adam Haslett and Tobias Wolff received the PEN/Malamud Award "recogniz[ing] a body of work which demonstrates excellence in the art of short fiction." Maud Newton has the full details.
  • More from the Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: Danielle Marshall, a front-line book buyer for Powell's new Beaverton store at Cedar Hills Crossing, is interviewed extensively about the hottest new books for the Tigard Times.

÷ ÷ ÷

Brockman is the head writer for the daily Book News posts on the blog. In his free time he's hard at work on his fictional memoir, which changes titles daily.

The views and commentary posted by Brockman are entirely his own, and are not representative of the whole of Powell's Books, its employees, or any sane human being.

Books mentioned in this post

5 Responses to "Book News for Monday, December 11, 2006"

    KyleRanger December 11th, 2006 at 3:24 pm

    To compare McEwan to Kaavya Viswanathan is downright ridiculous. McEwan is describing a medical process, not a trip to the mall. Borrowing information in that context is entirely different; it reminds me of something called, um, oh right: research. If the lines you compare are as bad as it gets, please forget about using the P-word -- forget about this moronic distraction altogether -- and move on to subjects more worthy of our time.

    Will Nussbaum December 11th, 2006 at 3:42 pm

    "McEwan is describing a medical process, not a trip to the mall." So in other words - a trip to the mall (i.e. girl stuff) is inconsequential and therefore subject to being plagiarized - but a medical process is fair game to copy? Doesn't a writer doing research still have to use his own words - or can he just copy the source material as long as he wins big literary prizes?

    KyleRanger December 11th, 2006 at 7:54 pm

    The issue isn't the setting. The difference is that McEwan is describing a specific process, a routine, that needs to be performed in a regimented order of events. You can't make up the steps of the operation; they are what they are. He's writing about a procedure. He learned about its steps from Lucilla Andrews, whom he credits.

    How many ways can you describe applying a Band-Aid? Would anyone demand (or even expect) that each time it's described will sound entirely new? It's pretty much the same act whether I do it or you do it or someone in England does it, and a good author knows not to turn that simple act into a literary exhibition.

    Going to the mall, on the other hand, entails a different series of events every time it's done, by each different person. The path you walk depends on the layout of the space; what you see varies according to the displays on that given day and the other shoppers you happen to encounter. But the deeper matter still is that the visit will be described through the consciousness of the narrator or character - which means that every experience is going to be fundamentally different, despite what any two trips to the mall have in common.

    That's why you can't -- or, rather, you shouldn't -- compare the two.

    But for the record, yes, an award-winning author does get the benefit of the doubt. When the evidence of wrongdoing is so incredibly sparse, absolutely. It has something to do with the thousands of pages of incredible prose in McEwan's canon. What percentage of Viswanathan's work was found to be not her own?

    Marianne December 12th, 2006 at 11:10 am

    Actually, the musical was based on some of his poetry. So his prose is even more previously unavailable than you thought!

    meg December 12th, 2006 at 12:16 pm

    kyle - he is _not_ describing one procedure in the cited passage. he is listing a set of procedures. a list he copied from someone else's book, using the same vocabulary. in other words, "a series of events." I loved the book, but I do feel like I might've enjoyed the original even more. in either case, I'd like to've been given the opportunity to know about the "source" from reviewers and "literary lions" during the season of mcewan's publishing and award-winning.

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