Ian McEwan Has Nothing to Atone For

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Please, can we declare an end to the year of the literary gotcha? Because I’m fresh out of outrage. Yes, I cared that James Frey exaggerated or fabricated parts of his memoir A Million Little Pieces. I sort of cared that Kaavya Viswanathan borrowed bits of her young adult novel (the title of which is too long to bother typing) from other young adult novels. I even sort of tried to care that J.T. Leroy, the author of assorted literary works that almost nobody besides Courtney Love had read, was himself fabricated by a San Francisco couple looking for attention. But don’t ask me to be outraged that there are slight similarities between Ian McEwan’s Atonement and the autobiography of a WWII nurse. I just don’t have it in me.

The facts, uncovered by an Oxford University student and printed in various British newspapers, are these. In 1977 the romance writer Lucilla Andrews published No Time for Romance, a memoir of her experiences as a nurse in a London hospital during the Second World War. In 2001 McEwan published his novel Atonement, the heroine of which also spends some time as a nurse during the war. There are some inevitable similarities in their stories. There are also a few sentences in Atonement that echo No Time for Romance a bit too closely.

For example, Andrews writes: "Our 'nursing' seldom involved more than dabbing gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on cuts and scratches, lead lotion on bruises and sprains." Compare that to McEwan (this is on p. 260): "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." There are a couple more instances along these lines, but you get the idea.

What are you gonna do. Yes, it's easy give McEwan a pass because he's a writer of high literary merit — Atonement was TIME's book of the year in 2001. Yes, I feel a personal karmic debit to McEwan, because I once misspelled his name as McKewan very publicly in print and feel guilty about it (I was thinking of Ian McKellen, OK?) One could haul out the usual verities about how all great writers steal, Shakespeare included, and how in the Middle Ages plagiarism wasn't even considered a bad thing, but it's really not necessary. The disparity between the greatness of McEwan’s achievement and the pettiness of this complaint is vertiginous. That McEwan even bothered to answer the charges is gobsmacking.

Yes, I enjoy a good wallow in Schadenfreude as much as the next voyeuristic American mediaholic, but please, don't insult me. I have some pride left. At least Frey's and Viswanathan's books were lousy. For all the ink that's already been spilled over what I refuse to call a literary imbroglio, the only person who's gone on record with any public anger at McEwan is Andrews' former agent, Vanessa Holt. "I was very angry about it," she told the Daily Mail. "I felt that it was at the very least discourteous of Ian McEwan not to have been in touch with Lucilla — extremely discourteous."

Sadly, Andrews herself passed away last month at 86, but she was aware of the issue and had apparently spoken about it to Jenny Haddon, the chairwoman of Britain's Romantic Novelists' Association, who has characterized Andrews' feelings as follows: "I think it's quite clear that her response was, 'I don't give a damn.'" Cheers.