Channelling Agatha 3

Two separate approaches to accusations of "literary plagiarism" were on display over the weekend in Australia. The "Sydney Morning Herald" reports that Murray Bail has been accused of lifting some passages from a textbook about eucalypts for his Miles Franklin and Commmonwealth Writers' award-winning novel Eucalyptus. Bail has stated that he is aware of the problem now that it has been pointed out and that he intends talking to his publisher about including an acknowledgement in future editions of the book.

The novel is currently being filmed in New South Wales with Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman in two of the three lead roles (Geoffrey Rush had to pull out due to filming clashes) so future editions will be pretty much assured. Bail has taken the direct approach of admitting the obvious copying (which amounts to about 180 words out of a 90,000 word novel) and has offered an explanation for how it came about. This is a pretty sensible attitude and will probably mean that the "controversy" will be dead within a week.

On the other hand, the question of how much an author has read, has remembered or has just invented afresh is at the heart of the Jessica Adams issue that I have detailed wice previously in the past week. Literary journalist Murray Waldren leads off a discussion in the "Weekend Australian" by outlining the cases for and against Adams, but not coming to any conclusions. Adams then follows this with her account of what has happened, basically stating that there are vast difference between the two stories, and that she had never read the original Christie story in the first place. Which is fair enough, though I think her tone in the early part of her piece does nothing to endear her to Christie fans. And appearances are important here.

Bail has been conciliatory and acknowledged that there is a problem. Adams says there isn't a problem and she isn't to blame anyway. I have read neither story and I don't have an opinion at this point. So I decided to do a Google search for Christie's story "The Idol House of Astarte". The first thing I came to was the realisation that this is a "Miss Marple" story. Even I, who is definitely not a reader of Christie's works, am aware of Miss Marple and of the author. I don't really see how you can be English literate and not be. And even if you haven't read the stories themselves there have been countless film and television adaptations of the works swimming around in the cultural aether for the past 60 years or so. Some of that will inveigle its way into a writer's sub-conscious, only to re-surface some time later in seemingly different guise. Is that what has happened here? I have no idea. I doubt if Jessica Adams knows either. But some form of acknowledgement that such a thing is possible might well have helped her cause.

"The Australian" newspaper has also decided to make available the two stories in question (in PDF form) so readers can decide for themselves. And now having read the two stories, in order of publication, I can make a few points:
1) I don't think I'll read anything by either author again - neither story was particularly good.
2) I am willing to believe Adams when she says she didn't plagiarise the Christie story
but, in all major aspects, they are the same: the set-up, the plot, how the murder is committed, how it is explained, how it is solved and the final outcome. It is hard to see how anyone could stick to an argument that they are totally different. I just don't believe that Adams would be so stupid as to deliberately plagiarise a story by someone as well known as Agatha Christie. It beggars belief that she could have thought that she could have gotten away with it. Her best course of action from here is to follow Murray Bail's lead and just apologise. It would appear that her whole reputation is at stake, and in the Australian literary world that is somethng you don't want to lose. If in doubt, just ask Helen Darville.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on February 7, 2005 1:10 PM.

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