terrible angels

Monday, December 11, 2006

mcewan, pynchon, and gentian violet

Regarding the dust up over charges that Ian McEwan "plagiarized" a book that he acknowledged using as a reference for his historical novel Atonement (read summary article here):

My first thought was that this was just another pathetic example of celebrity litigation. It is a baseless charge that can still be settled for a sum in order to avoid the nuisance. The necessary companion to this bottom feeder is, of course, tabloid journalism.

It is a desperate paper that will stoop to the level of besmirching the reputation of a superb writer -- one of the best contemporary English novelists -- in order to sell papers and everyone who has had a hand in this affair should be ashamed of themselves. Sadly the capacity for shame and the profession of journalism are sometimes mutually exclusive categories.

This is the problem with the way that so much of journalism is practiced today: not everything is news and not every news story has the same truth value. Indeed, the news media has a responsibility to not report every accusation, launching it into a wider public sphere and validating the claim.

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In fact, the story behind this accusation is rather sad. It turns out that the late Lucilla Andrews (who wrote the autobiography from which he pilfered some number of details and some lovely passages it must be said) felt slighted by Ian McEwen. She felt that he didn't acknowledge the importance of her book enough. Also, he never attempted to contact her or meet her.

In the giddy world of the London literati one is too busy having one's ego buffed and polished to make time for having a cup of tea with an octogenarian writer of romantic novels -- even though her autobiography was a key resource for his award winning novel. My heart does go out to her.

It is sad that McEwan could not find it in him to share a little bit of his acclaim with her -- as a gesture of generosity if not gratitude.

But there is a difference between being a narcissist and being a plagiarist.

Furthermore, I have little sympathy towards the individuals who are behind this action. It can hardly be a coincidence that this is occurring shortly after Lucilla Andrews' death -- the point in an author's career when the various leeches start attaching themselves the author's reputation -- and more importantly -- to the estate.

Even less of a coincidence is the fact that there is a Hollywood film being made of the novel. Andrews's brother has said that he is keen to make sure that his sister be given "proper credit." Indeed. Naturally that would also include the proper payment that goes with her credit.

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This charge against McEwan also illustrates the how little understanding there is about literature and the art of writing. Everyone knows that charges of plagiarism can are the way to create a scandal for a writer, but there appears to be a general confusion about what actually constitutes plagiarism. If this incident proves anything it is that there is also tremendous ignorance about literary writing and the genre of fiction.

Perhaps because literature has so much more value in England -- and writers therefore have a much higher status -- the voices of those who review books are also more significant than their counterparts in the United States, where the entire endeavor of literature is basically culturally irrelevant. Perhaps because of this additional level of importance, the British reviewers – particularly in fiction and poetry – can demonstrate a level of viciousness – even pettiness – that is rare in American criticism. Literature in this country is so invisible it doesn't need to be eviscerated in the press.

In the manner of "not saying what they mean or meaning what they say" British reviewers often undermine their subject by simply pointing out how much smarter they are than the writer under review. This method of illustrating the failings of the writer by demonstrating his or her own cleverness is a stylistic technique that would be less appreciated in the U.S. If we even understood what was being said (often it turns on some obscure word usage or some arcane knowledge that marks one as taking a certain course of study at a specific college at Oxbridge) we would be more likely to think that the reviewer was just being a pompous ass.

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This brings me to Thomas Pynchon's letter.

And what rollicking good fun that is. Starting off with his devastating first sentence:

Given the British genius for coded utterance, this could all be about something else entirely, impossible on this side of the ocean to appreciate in any nuanced way – but assuming that it really is about who owns the right to describe using gentian violet for ringworm, for heaven’s sake, allow me a gentle suggestion.

I have been rereading that sentence every now and then just because it is such a giggle. In a way he hardly needed to go any further. (To read the entire letter click here.)

I don't think of writers in terms of nations but except in the ways that nation and language are connected. And sometimes it is nice to be reminded of what the best of American writers offer, not just to the general American reading public (all twelve of them) but to the English literary world.

There are many ways that George Bush is the shame of this nation, one being that he is the preeminent speaker of a particular American idiom that utterly decimates the English language. Notwithstanding our semiliterate president, Americans tend to feel secondary to Brits with regard to the English language. Thomas Pynchon is the example of why the American idiom prevents its ossification. Or, to put it in a more vulgar way: Pynchon takes the piss out of it, Bush just pisses on it.

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Pynchon’s comparison, further in the paragraph, of the writer to the chimpanzee that is drawn to the more “vivid and tuneful” words reminded me of Flaubert’s notion of the writer creating “tunes for bears to dance to.”

Which brings me back to my point about the way that this debate illustrates an ignorance about literature. Not just how it is written but how it is read.

It is true, as Pynchon says, that no literary writer could resist “gentian violet for ringworm."

Take a look at how it works: The trochaic foot slows the reader down as the consonant sounds of shhs to rrrrs move back and under the tongue. The words themselves (gentian violet for ringworm) as well as the internal wordplay (gent, gentle, genital, inviolate, vile, violate, violent, ring, war, worm, word) create a nexus of associations between sex and marriage and rape and violence. Voila. It becomes a trope for McEwan's Atonement.

It would have been wrong for him to have left it untouched and not re-introduced the phrase to the reader again, in a new context, enriching it further. That is an example of original, creative, literary writing. (And reading).

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