Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Lucilla Andrews

Malcolm in the Middle

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Malcolm Gladwell

Last week, the journalism blog Our Bad Media accused the author Malcolm Gladwell of lapses in reporting that it alleged fell just short of plagiarism. In multiple instances, Gladwell took details in his pieces for The New Yorker, without attribution, from sources that were the only possible places where such information could have been obtained. For instance, an anecdote about the construction of the Troy-Greenfield railroad was based closely an academic article by the historian John Sawyer, which isn’t readily available online, and which includes facts that appear nowhere else. Gladwell doesn’t mention Sawyer anywhere. And while it’s hard to make a case that any of this amounts to plagiarism in the strictest sense, it’s undeniably sloppy, as well as a disservice to readers who might want to learn more. In a statement responding to the allegations, New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote:

The issue is not really about Malcolm. And, to be clear, it isn’t about plagiarism. The issue is an ongoing editorial challenge known to writers and editors everywhere—to what extent should a piece of journalism, which doesn’t have the apparatus of academic footnotes, credit secondary sources? It’s an issue that can get complicated when there are many sources with overlapping information. There are cases where the details of an episode have passed into history and are widespread in the literature. There are cases that involve a unique source. We try to make judgments about source attribution with fairness and in good faith. But we don’t always get it right…We sometimes fall short, but our hope is always to give readers and sources the consideration they deserve.

Remnick’s response is interesting on a number of levels, but I’d like to focus on one aspect: the idea that after a certain point, details “have passed into history,” or, to quote Peter Canby, The New Yorker‘s own director of fact checking, a quote or idea can “escape its authorship” after it has been disseminated widely enough. In some cases, there’s no ambiguity over whether a fact has the status of public information; if we want to share a famous story about Immanuel Kant’s work habits, for instance, we don’t necessarily need to trace the quote back to where it first appeared. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have something like a quotation from a particular interview with a living person, which ought to be attributed to its original source, and which Gladwell has occasionally failed to do. And in the middle, we have a wild gray area of factual information that might be considered common property, but which has only appeared in a limited number of places. Evidently, there’s a threshold—or, if you like, a tipping point—at which a fact or quote has been cited enough to take on a life of its own, and the real question is when that moment takes place.

Ian McEwan

It’s especially complicated in genres like fiction and narrative nonfiction, which, as Remnick notes, lack the scholarly apparatus of more academic writing. A few years ago, Ian McEwan fell into an absurd controversy over details in Atonement that were largely derived from a memoir by the wartime nurse Lucilla Andrews. McEwan credits Andrews in his acknowledgments, and his use of such materials inspired a ringing defense from none other than Thomas Pynchon:

Unless we were actually there, we must turn to people who were, or to letters, contemporary reporting, the encyclopedia, the Internet, until, with luck, at some point, we can begin to make a few things of our own up. To discover in the course of research some engaging detail we know can be put into a story where it will do some good can hardly be classed as a felonious act—it is simply what we do.

You could argue, on a similar level, that assimilating information and presenting it in a readable form is simply what Gladwell does, too. Little if anything that Gladwell writes is based on original research; he’s a popularizer, and a brilliant one, who compiles ideas from other sources and presents them in an attractive package. The result shades into a form of creative writing, rather than straight journalism, and at that point, the attribution of sources indeed starts to feel like a judgment call.

But it also points to a limitation in the kind of writing that Gladwell does so well. As I’ve pointed out in my own discussion of the case of Jonah Lehrer, whose transgressions were significantly more troubling, there’s tremendous pressure on writers like Gladwell—a public figure and a brand name as much as a writer—to produce big ideas on a regular basis. At times, this leads him to spread himself a little too thin; a lot of his recent work consists of him reading a single book and delivering its insights with a Gladwellian twist. At his best, he adds real value as a synthesizer and interpreter, but he’s also been guilty of distorting the underlying material in his efforts to make it digestible. And a great deal of what makes his pieces so seductive lies in the fact that so much of the process has been erased: they come to us as seamless products, ready for a TED talk, that elide the messy work of consolidation and selection. If Gladwell was more open about his sources, he’d be more useful, but also less convincing. Which may be why the tension between disclosure and readability that Remnick describes is so problematic in his case. Gladwell really ought to show his work, but he’s made it this far precisely because he doesn’t.

“At this hour of the morning, the prison was quiet…”

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"At this hour of the morning, the prison was quiet..."

Note: This post is the ninth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 8. You can read the earlier installments here.)

There’s an unspoken assumption among many readers and critics that a good author should base his work entirely on personal experience, either derived from his own life or those of people he knows, and that it’s a sign of weakness to be overly dependent on research. If it’s clear that a writer has relied heavily on secondary sources to tell a story, or, worse, if the nature of those sources is readily detectable, it’s sometimes treated as a sort of lapse, even as an embarrassment. It’s generally agreed, for instance, that Tolstoy’s material on the Freemasons in War and Peace was based on his reading, not on firsthand information: he wasn’t a Mason himself, and other Masons wouldn’t be likely to share any details with him directly, so the scenes depicting Pierre’s initiation—which are believed to be fundamentally accurate—were derived from a handful of books. I’ve read critics who treat this as an objective flaw in an otherwise unimpeachable masterpiece, as if the knowledge that Tolstoy had to do a bit of research undermines our impression of him as an omniscient sage of the human world. And this flies in the face of the fact that all of War and Peace is a monumental work of research and construction, since it contains so much that Tolstoy never could have witnessed himself.

And this applies as much, if not more so, to contemporary authors. Ian McEwan, for example, based large sections of Atonement on the memoirs of Lucilla Andrews, who served as a nurse during the London blitz. McEwan wasn’t shy about giving credit to Andrews—he mentions her in his acknowledgments—but when a few readers pointed out how certain details in his novel seemed to be taken directly from her work, there was a mild outcry, with some even calling it a form of plagiarism. I doubt that anyone would have raised the issue if McEwan had conducted interviews with Andrews directly, but the revelation that parts of his story were transparently indebted to another book made some readers uncomfortable. The plagiarism charge was ridiculous, of course, as none other than Thomas Pynchon, a monster of research himself, made clear in an open letter to his publisher:

Unless we were actually there, we must turn to people who were, or to letters, contemporary reporting, the encyclopedia, the Internet, until, with luck, at some point, we can begin to make a few things of our own up. To discover in the course of research some engaging detail we know can be put into a story where it will do some good can hardly be classed as a felonious act—it is simply what we do.

"When they reached the last corridor..."

Pynchon’s assessment of research as a kind of period of consolidation until “we can begin to make a few things of our own up” is absolutely correct, and library research is part of nearly every ambitious novelist’s bag of tricks. Research, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is less about factual accuracy than about providing the material for dreams, a gathering of “engaging details” that can furnish and feather the fictional nest we’ve created. (That last phrase is Anthony Lane’s, discussing Gustave Flaubert’s own voluminous research for Salammbo.) That’s true of literary as well as popular fiction: Saul Bellow had never been to Africa when he wrote Henderson the Rain King, but he was able to draw on travel accounts, textbooks, his own experience as a student of anthropology, and above all his own peerless imagination to create a remarkably convincing story, as even Norman Mailer admitted: “I don’t know if any other American writer has done Africa so well.” And it’s particularly indispensable for a novelist working in a field like suspense, where so much of the narrative necessarily deals with aspects of human life—murder, crime, conspiracy—that few writers have the luxury or desire to experience directly.

This was particularly true of City of Exiles, which I knew from the start would include long sequences set in the British prison system. I didn’t have any expectation of spending much time there myself, so I was forced to fall back on a handful of useful secondary sources: the memoirs of Charles Bronson, best known these days as the subject of a movie starring Tom Hardy, and especially the diaries of the suspense novelist Jeffrey Archer, who was sent to prison for perjury. We first see the result in Chapter 8, in which Powell and Wolfe pay a visit to Belmarsh to see the imprisoned gangster Vasylenko. Most of the details here, like the corridor that changes from lavender to green to blue as you enter a secure area, or the description of the interview room, walled with glass on all four sides like a fish tank, were taken from Archer’s book, and I draw on it repeatedly for all of the prison material that follows. I’m not sure if admitting this counts as a breach in the contract between an author and his readers—a suspense novelist, after all, is often expected to know something about everything—but I don’t see any harm in acknowledging my sources. Without their help, I wouldn’t have been able to write this novel at all. And we’re going to be spending a lot of time behind bars…

Written by nevalalee

December 6, 2013 at 9:33 am

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