Friday, January 11, 2008

The Purpose of Acknowledgments

I am one of those readers who read the story, the copyright page, the dedication, the author bio, the acknowledgments, the foreword and the afterward. My spoiler phobia prevents me, in most cases from reading the preview of the next book (unless it's already out on shelves) and I usually save the Back cover copy or jacket copy until after I finished.
Now, as far as I am aware, there are not actual requirements for acknowledging people or other sources used in the creation of fiction. But people do it. Perhaps some authors don't want people to know how much of the story was inspired by real stuff, don't want to lift the veil and ruin that magic. I had a history professor who always read my bibliography first. The reason was, he knew, based on what I had cited what information I should have (which, admittedly, was a double edged sword).
But, in light of the Ian McEwan issue with Atonement and now the Cassie Edwards issue (covered extensively over at Smart Bitches) it seems that the difference between Kaavya Viswanathan's passage lifting and Ian McEwen's was that he acknowledged the source material and used non-fiction as source material rather than borrowing more fun paragraphs from fictional works.
That seems a razor thin line, but sure. It is pointed out that authors are always borrowing story ideas, and while that makes sense to me, it seems to me a very different thing to borrow the idea of a story about star crossed lovers, than to borrow a paragraph. And certainly I have heard people state that there are some actions that are routine enough that many authors would sound similar describing them and it's not plagiarism - it's just life.
So, at this point Edwards is saying she used source material in her research for historical and cultural setting, and because novels do not typically require a works consulted list, she did not specifically acknowledge these works but meant no disrespect. Her publisher apparently agrees. And I see her point. I see McEwen's point. But I'm not really buying that it's okay to borrow a paragraph from a work of non-fiction but not fiction. And while certainly age or status are no excuse it seems that Viswanathan was skewered for something McEwen and Edwards are being defended for.
I am thrilled that authors are researching the settings and I recognize that if I write about someone baking dough and look at a dough recipe to make sure I haven't left out anything stupid, my description will sound a lot like the recipe I'm using. But if I just plop the recipe in, even if the recipe isn't copyrighted, it would seem I still owe some sort of disclosure. If the publishing world deems that an acknowledgment is enough, then great. But that seems to me the very least I can do.

ETA: Author Barbara Caridad Ferrer has weighed in and said some great stuff.