The Boundary Between Appropriation & Plagiarism. Booker Novel Comes to Question.
International Booker prize nominee Willem Anker has made use of Cormac McCarthy’s fiction – but is this sufficiently acknowledged?
Writing in the Observer in 1980, Martin Amis took to task a young New York-based writer, Jacob Epstein, for plagiarising him. In Wild Oats, Epstein had taken not just plot structures or character ideas from Amis’s debut, The Rachel Papers, but had duplicated whole sentences. “The boundary between influence and plagiarism will always be vague,” Amis wrote – but Epstein had “decisively breached” that “hazy” line. Rather magnanimously, Amis went on to praise Epstein as a writer of talent; he simply believed that the similarities ought to be made public.
That boundary remains hazy. Among the 13 novels longlisted for this year’s International Booker prize, announced last week, is Red Dog by Willem Anker, translated from Afrikaans by Michiel W Heyns. It tells the story of Coenraad de Buys, a seven-foot agent of war who lived and died in the violent, fractured Cape Colony. When I reviewed the novel, unfavourably, in the Times Literary Supplement, my objections lay not just in what I found to be a derivative, repetitious and at times deeply unpleasant book, but in a few sections that bore a striking resemblance to those in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which raised – as I wrote then – “some discussion about the nature and justification of plagiarism”.