Thomas Pynchon on plagiarism

1977: Romance novelist Lucilla Andrews‘ autobiography, No Time for Romance, is published. In it, she describes, in detail, her experiences as a nurse during World War II.
2001: Atonement – an Ian McEwan novel in which the heroine at one point works as a wartime nurse – is released to much critical acclaim. In the book, Lucilla Andrews is acknowledged as a source.
25th Nov., 2006: Following Andrews’ death, a British ‘newspaper’ prints an article accusing McEwan of plagiarism in relation to the late-novelist’s memoirs.
27th Nov., 2006: McEwan immediately responds, saying, in part:

For certain long-outdated medical practices, she was my sole source and I have always been grateful to her. I have openly acknowledged my debt to her in the author’s note at the end of Atonement, and ever since on public platforms.

December, 2006: A number of prominent authors jump to McEwan’s defence. Below, a particularly notable letter of support from reclusive author Thomas Pynchon, sent to his British publisher.

Transcript follows.

Recommended reading: Atonement.



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. Oddly enough, most of us who write historical fiction do feel some obligation to accuracy. It is that Ruskin business about “a capacity responsive to the claims of fact, but unoppressed by them.” Unless we were actually there, we must turn to people who were, or to letters, contemporary reporting, the Internet until, with luck, 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. The worst you can call itis a form of primate behavior. Writers are naturally drawn, chimpanzee-like, to the color and the music of this English idiom we are blessed to have inherited. When given the choice we will usually try to use the more vivid and tuneful among its words. I cannot of course speak for Mr. McEwan’s method of proceeding, but should be very surprised indeed if something of the sort, even for brief moments, had not occurred during his research for Atonement. Gentian violet! Come on. Who among us could have resisted that one?

Memoirs of the Blitz have borne indispensable witness, and helped later generations know something of the tragedy and heroism of those days. For Mr. McEwan to have put details from one of them to further creative use, acknowledging this openly and often, and then explaining it clearly and honorably, surely merits not our scolding, but our gratitude.