Roberts, McEwan and the lords of creation

It is, of course, kind of funny that the Globe and Mail’s take on the plagiarism claim recently laid against Paul William Roberts’ A War Against Truth didn’t find room to mention that Roberts, as the British say, has form on that subject. He was similarly accused just last April over an article he wrote for, ahem, the Globe. But knowing that inconvenient truth is not merely amusing, it’s actually helpful in trying to figure out what went on, in Roberts’ case and in others.
In his April article for the Globe Roberts wrote about Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his eerie resemblence, in Roberts’ opinion, to his American opposite number, George Bush. Eleven paragraphs of historical background to the piece, however, were essentially taken—in a combination of minimal paraphrasing and exact copy—from an article by German political scientist Matthias Küntzel in the then-current issue of the New Republic.
The fuss soon disappeared almost without a trace. Five days after the Iran article appeared, the Globe ran an ambiguous “clarification,” which put the blame on a mistake of uncertain source: “It appears that notes by the author were mistakenly inserted into the story without proper attribution. The Globe has apologized to the New Republic and regrets the error.” (The clarification, illustrating the boundless capacity of the passive voice to avoid responsibility, was worthy of the master himself: P.G. Wodehouse once had an excited Earl of Emsworth accidentally break a window, then call in a servant to clean up, saying, “Some glass has become broken.”)
The clarification hardly mollified the National Post’s Jonathan Kay, who also disparaged Roberts as a “freelance fantasist” peddling “outrageous nonsense” with his Ahmadinejad-Bush comparison. He accused the Globe of reaching a “plea bargain” with Roberts, “obfuscating a clear case of plagiarism.” But, in fact, there was little clear-cut about it: a deliberate plagiarist, at least one without a death wish, could hardly expect to get away with lifting material from a prominent magazine presently lying on the coffee tables of many of the same people who read the Globe; indeed, Roberts even mentions Küntzel’s name at one point.
Matters are more serious now, in the case of A War Against Truth, Roberts’ critically acclaimed on-the-ground account of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. On Jan. 4 lawyer Tom Clyde, acting for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and its deputy editorial page editor Jay Bookman, sent a letter to Vancouver-based Raincoast Books, publisher of A War Against Truth. Included with the letter was a copy of Bookman’s Sept. 29, 2002 column “Bush’s real goal in Iraq: Invasion would mark the next step toward an American empire,” and a copy of pages 39 to 43 (plus relevant endnotes) from Roberts’ book. Column and book excerpt are virtually identical, but not only is there no attribution to Bookman in A War Against Truth, a statement obtained by the American journalist and quoted in his article is attributed in the endnotes—to Roberts: “Interview with author.”
Lawyer Clyde was pleased with Raincoast’s response, a prompt freeze on its warehouse stock in Canada and the U.S. so that no further copies could ship to bookshops, but considerably less impressed with Roberts’ two-page letter of apology and explanation. In it, the author describes his writing and research conditions during the assault on Iraq. He had access to the Internet only when friendly journalists allowed him to use their satellite connections, and there was no paper for printing to be had. So when he did manage to read websites—one of which had posted Bookman’s column—he had to copy what he read by hand into notebooks.
Months later, writing A War Against Truth, Roberts didn’t realize that Bookman’s words were not his own: “With the knowledge I have now, I can see what I failed to see when going through my notes: the smudge that spells out ‘A J-C,’ the scrawl that looks like ‘Boo–lsm’ yet seen through hindsight reads ‘Bookman.’ ” “I appreciate he’s contrite,” Clyde allows, but there’s still the matter of those three damning words: Interview with author. “The endnote is an extraordinary lapse that can’t be explained.”
Roberts, who couldn’t be reached for additional comment, went on in his letter to flick at a larger issue—the demand for speed in modern journalism, particularly from freelancers—without touching on the factor that ties the April and January episodes together. And, perhaps, to Ian McEwan’s recent spot of unpleasantness.
In December it came out (passive voice, because I can’t remember how it came out) that McEwan had found such compelling war-time material in the autobiography of romance novelist Lucilla Andrews, that he used some 450 words of it in his 2001 masterpiece, Atonement. Trouble is he didn’t change much at all, just pulled a quick cut—and—paste job. McEwan was able to shrug it off—he is, after all, probably the world’s greatest English-language novelist. A horde of big-name peers rallied to the cause, fellow lords of creation who adhere to the novelist’s first article of faith: we have the right to utilize as we wish the scribblings of lesser mortals (i.e. non-fiction writers), just as we have the right to play with the lives of real people (at least those who are safely dead and unable to establish lucrative relationships with libel lawyers). And McEwan did credit Andrews, much as Roberts mentioned Küntzel.
Recovery won’t be as easy for Roberts: he’s a non-fiction writer too, and—like the rest of us—he’s no Ian McEwan. But a similar dynamic was surely in play. Roberts is a personal writer, and as much a crusader and moralist as he is a journalist. The heart of his work is a passionate commentary on his own experiences, and he can—at the very least, just like a novelist—be impatient and sloppy in compiling the backdrop for those opinions.
It may be plausible that a writer in a hurry, faced with thoughts—in his own handwriting—that echoed his own beliefs, might fail to recognize the wording was not his. Anyone who writes commentary (or fiction) for a living is at risk of forgetting the contributions made by the people whose work provided the scaffolding. There but for the grace of God, etc. is the most rational as well as the most charitable response from the rest of us—who could also use a hard slap of reminding now and again
But—there’s always a but—lawyer Clyde’s conclusion about those three little words still stands: a writer might forget who wrote what, but he really ought to remember who he interviewed. M