Ain’t nothing new -

- this plagiarism thing. It rears its head every so often, frequently in unexpected places. There are egregious instances, such as the most recent Cassie Edwards scandal or the Lanaia Lee kerfuffle of a little further back – and in these cases it is actually possible to point to sentences, paragraphs, pages, that are acutely and embarrassingly identical to some other sentences, paragraphs, pages, found elsewhere and written by quite other people.

But “plagiarism” is a Red Rag Word – and by that I mean that it can be taken out and waved about in the hope of attracting the bulls to charge, whatever the actual story behind the evidence.

Heaven alone knows why I kept the printout, but I was cleaning out my desk today and I came across an article by Sarah Lyall published in the New York Times on December 7, 2006. That’s, like, fairly recent; only the other day it would have been “last year”, and it only barely isn’t that right now. The title of the article is “Novelists defend one of their own against a plagiarism charge”. The gist of the thing is this: novelist Ian McEwan had just been accused of plagiarising from a historical memoir in hos novel “Atonement” (yes, THAT “Atonement”. The one that is now a Major Motion Picture in your theaters now).

Authors of the caliber of Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Updike, Zadie Smith, Martin Amis and even Thomas Pynchon (who is notorious for shunning publicity) all wrote letters published in that week’s Daily Telegraphs, basically standing up and saying “I am Spartacus” – saying that if McEwen was to be so casually accused of this heinous crime then they themselves were intimately acquainted with the crime in question. If anyone was to be waving a tar brush, it seemed, the overwhelming response from the writers was “tar one, tar all”. The authors all admitted with gay abandon that they themselves had cheerfully plundered other work – be it historical writing, autobiography, primary-source documents, even other novels – in the writing of their own books, and said that such research was the lifeblood of any novel that depended on period detail. We simply cannot expect our authors to be consciously reincarnated, and to have first-hand knowledge of ancient Rome, the empire of Charlemagne, Columbus’s landing in America, the Christmas truce of the First World War, the abdication of an English king for the love of an American divorcee, the Nurenburg trials or the concentration camps of Belsen and Auschwitz, for that matter even the everyday existences of their own grandparents when those good folks were nippers of ten or eleven summers. Denying a writer to research such eras, removed from the author in space and time, would mean that the only novels that ever got written would be soap operas dealing with the trite everyday existences of the authors themselves. If a novel is set in a period in which the author in question was not alive, or was not alive in the social circle or circumstance (s)he is describing, and the author is not allowed to use period material relevant to his or her story to research the background and setting, we are left with either no novel at all or one which is so flimsy and flyaway that a breath would bring the whole house of cards tumbling down.

Lyall quotes Thomas Kennealy, author of “Schindler’s list”:

“If it is sufficient to point to a simultaneity of events to prove plagiarism then we are all plagiarists, and Shakespeare is in trouble from Petrarch, and Tolstoy stole the material for ‘War and Peace’. Fiction depends on a certain value-added quality created on top of the raw material.”

Literary editor of the august Times of London, Erica Wagner, weighed in too:

“We have come to a pretty pass where an author like Ian McEwen has to write on the front page of The Guardian explaining what research is. The myth of originality? There’s no such thing.”

Research is essential, and we all do it, from all sorts of sources. Some of the authors who wrote their letters in support of Ian McEwen revealed their own sources – Colm Toibin admitted to using actual phrases and sentences from the work of Henry James in “The Master”, his (fictional) reimagining of a period in the life of said Henry James; Rose Tremain acknowledged that her book “Music and Silence” depended, as she put it, “to a shocking extent” on a small illustrated book by the name of “Christian IV” by one Birger Mikkelson; Peter Carey, two-time winner of the Booker Prize, said, “There’s a line from ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ in ‘Bliss’. ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ has a Christmas pudding lifted from Edmund Gosse’s ‘Father and Son’, and a number of consecutive zoological words practically snipped from the zoological notes of P.H. Gosse. There are also sentences from the Bible and a tourist brochure, too.”

Carey summed it up, I think, when he said that the work of the novelist was essentially “…mixing what we see with what we think, with that which can never be.” Or with that which once was, but is now beyond our physical grasp – except when reached through the medium of a memoir of the time, or a work of history, or… heck, even zoological notes.

Perhaps even black-footed ferrets. If only they had not been forced into Cassie Edwards’s story with a sledgehammer.

Academia puts it thusly, that lifting information from just one source is plagiarising; lifting from many sources is research. Let’s just keep this in perspective when we look at the word “plagiarism” being flung about with what seems to be such glee sometimes. Yes, there are cases where you can point at it and an instance of it will sit up an beg like a prairie dog, just ASKING for a game of whack-a-mole. But if an author has read twenty books about the period in which their story is set, and inadvertently strings together four words in the same order in which they appeared in some dusty tome published in the early part of the twentieth century and long relegated to the oubliette of public indifference – give them the benefit of the doubt. No writer worth his or her salt WANTS to go out there and become famous for someone else’s words. We all have to do some research, or else the readers would (rightly) pillory us for not doing it. So long as we don’t actually stray from the straight and narrow, and freely acknowledge and praise our sources where acknowledgment and praise are due – so long as you KNOW that we are doing our homework and not buying the paper off some sleazy Internet essay mill – let us cross our bridges in peace. And do our research.

And dream new dreams inspired by all the times and places that are the heritage of human history.


This post appeared on my Live Journal on January 17 this year, and a couple of my SFNovelists colleagues suggested that it might be suitable as a discussion post for the SFNovelists blog – and to this end I am throwing out a few genre-releated research questions, here.

How the heck are you supposed to “research” an invented past that never happened, or a future that – at the very least – hasn’t happened *yet*?

And yet, writers do, and to me at least it is painfully obvious when worldbuilding is done with care and knowledge and when it’s done on the fly and being invented as and when necessary. There is a world of difference between standing on solid bedrock and in soggy marshland with water up to your knees and your toes squishing mud. Not that the latter isn’t fun, on occasion, from a purely let-loose-and-let-rip kind of writing kind of point of view, but in a published book you expect internal consistency, a certain cohesiveness, a certain understanding that if X is true in this world then Y has to be true also and Z cannot be true at all and trust me readers will know and whine if you break this covenant. And to my mind, this is the value of research in genre. You research the real world. You may make your own rules in your own little spheres but before you can break the real world rules with panache and impunity you really really need to know what the rules used to be out here where the rest of us live and give us a damned good reason why they are different, um, elsewhere.

Sure, when it comes to science fiction there is a fair amount of handwavium when it comes to science because a lot of your action may actively depend on technologies not yet invented (FTL drives, anyone…?) – and you are given leeway for this. But in the context of the invented world, your science (as you posit it) has to hang together, and in a way that at least marginally resembles the way that science hangs together in our world. DOing research in this instance isn’t blindly spouting other people’s published papers – but it might be reading those papers with at least enough comprehension and interest to use them as a springboard for new ideas, an inspiration for a “what if” riff, and at least as a basis for things that came before your own tech was rampant. And when it comes to people, well, your dock workers in space station Omega Thirteen (sorry, Galaxy Quest [grin]) are going to be DOCK WORKERS, and if they suddenly start behaving and talking like displaced aristocrats or, worse, tech-geeks with knowledge and aptitudes which would REALLY have taken them out of this kind of menial job – well – you need to have a damned good reason for this, and the reason is grounded in basic research into how a society functions.

Research isn’t just boning up on the latest technology or on historical accuracy. For any writer, and especially for a genre writer where the milieu is weird by definition and all we have to go on is the author’s word and the actions and attitudes of the characters in the story, research involves reading much and reading widely, and being immersed in the way that the human animal thinks and acts and believes.

We have all met research.

And it is us.

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There are 2 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Ian Hocking

    Interesting article, Alma. Somewhat in reply, and to draw attention to this article, I’ve written a few thoughts on my own blog:

  2. 2. Alma Alexander

    Thanks for the response-article, Ian. I just replied to you on your blog…

Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.



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