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November 7, 2002
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Canadian novelist Yann Martel, whose novel, Life of Pi (excerpt, review), won the 2002 Booker Prize, has been accused of plagiarizing Brazilian novelist Moacyr Scilar's 1981 novella, Max and the Cats, which shares a similar premise. Martel freely admits that the premise of Scilar's work, which he discovered via a half-remembered (and scathing) critique, inspired Life of Pi, but he has not read it. The issue is whether a premise is intellectual property or whether such ideas are recycled all the time. While this would ordinarily be a literary tempest, Canada and Brazil have had a shaky relationship over trade in recent years; this may not help the situation.
posted by mcwetboy (29 comments total)

 
Also, that Shakespeare guy ripped off the premise of Hamlet.
posted by callmejay at 12:29 PM on November 7, 2002


if premise is intellectual property, then hollywood owes us all a fat check and a great big apology.
posted by tangent at 12:35 PM on November 7, 2002


I confess: I've read neither - so I can't comment on the question of plagiarism. Still, in all the reports I've read on this, the thing that repeatedly strikes me as an egregious wrong is Martel's claim that a brilliant premise had been ruined by a lesser writer. That's just bad karma.
posted by minnesotaj at 12:38 PM on November 7, 2002


This kind of thing happened after Graham Swift's "Last Orders" won the Booker and was accused of ripping off "As I Lay Dying." I think Swift claimed "homage" in that case.
posted by transient at 12:40 PM on November 7, 2002


Canada and Brazil have had a shaky relationship over trade in recent years;

Not mention kidnappers.
posted by timeistight at 12:41 PM on November 7, 2002


It's a fine line.
If Hollywood is to be believed, the endless recycling of ideas makes for a golden age of cinema.
You can't actually copyright an idea, or a premise, at least not in these parts, but in some things, like writing, the idea and the implementation are harder to separate than in other things, like engineering.
posted by Fabulon7 at 12:43 PM on November 7, 2002


minnesotaj, the quote was not that it had been ruined.

In an essay published on the Web site of the bookstore Powell's City of Books, Martel recalls once reading a lukewarm review of Max and the Cats and, based on the review, being dismayed by the possibility that "a brilliant premise" might have been "ruined by a lesser writer."
posted by futureproof at 12:46 PM on November 7, 2002


Well, of course you can't copyright an idea. But any writer with an ounce of respect for himself, other writers, or the public wouldn't dare rip off such a striking, unique idea, and I suspect he wouldn't have ripped it off from somebody he felt was "important." He figured it was some minor Brazilian, so who would know or care? As minnesotaj said, that line about "Why put up with a brilliant premise ruined by a lesser writer" is very telling. Martel gets the Jonathan Franzen Annoying Author award for November.

On preview: futureproof, you're right that he didn't say Scliar was a lesser writer, but come on, listen to the way it sounds and what that says about the way he thinks. Franzen didn't say Oprah was a lowbrow pandering to morons, either. It's a matter of style and intonation.
posted by languagehat at 12:55 PM on November 7, 2002 [1 favorite]


The Brazilians can go jump. Given that Scilar's book was met with indifference or scorn -- and was widely unknown before today -- and that Yann won the Booker with his novel, I'd say it's clear who the "lesser writer" is in this case, wouldn't you say?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:08 PM on November 7, 2002


Has Martel managed to realize the "brilliant premise" any more than Scilar (the "lesser writer")?

Presently, I'm midway through the book. The first hundred pages -- the portion of the book before Pi is shipwrecked with the Tiger -- are interesting, if somewhat mundane. Martel creates an inquisitive youngster who has precocious religious beliefs. Some of the observations on religions, and belief in general, are thought-provoking, but nothing that hasn't been written about for centuries. Is Martel plagiarizing Maugham's The Razor's Edge?

Actually, I preferred the first part of the book. Since the shipwreck, the story has become tedious. Martel's writing is sometimes too detailed, too descriptive. My eyes glaze and I think, "I should just skip this page." I'm hanging in there, though, and the book is picking up pace.

Perhaps the last hundred pages will knock my socks off. Maybe that's where Martel earned his Booker Prize.
posted by jdroth at 1:08 PM on November 7, 2002 [1 favorite]


languagehat, don't take the passage out of context (I did link to it above):
I looked for the book, but booksellers consulted their computers and shook their heads. And then I forgot about it. I wanted to forget about it. I didn't really want to read the book. Why put up with the gall? Why put up with a brilliant premise ruined by a lesser writer. Worse, what if Updike had been wrong? What if not only the premise but also its rendition were perfect? Best to move on.
In other words, he didn't want to know one way or the other, for fear that it would somehow ruin things. He did not say that it was by a lesser writer, though that was the implication of the review, but rather, what if it was? And then, what if it wasn't?
posted by mcwetboy at 1:10 PM on November 7, 2002 [1 favorite]


Having listened to a few interviews with M. Martel post-Booker, I can most generously describe him as an iconoclast. He has strong views on a wide variety of subjects.
On the book I have no opinion. It sits on my bed-side table in the read pile.

Frankly, we need more polarizing characters in CanLit. Everybody seems to like and respect everyone else. Perhaps a little boy poking the anthill is what we need right now.

Also, it certainly appears that we canucks do have an Enemy in Brazil. They even have some cause! How utterly mistifying.
posted by bonehead at 1:19 PM on November 7, 2002


Why put up with the gall? Why put up with a brilliant premise ruined by a lesser writer. Worse, what if Updike had been wrong? What if not only the premise but also its rendition were perfect

Do any of you read links or just comment on other comments? He never said, or even implied, that the writer was lesser, only that if he was lesser, he wouldn't want to see a premise he'd indirectly fallen in love with ruined.

The idea of copyrighting a premise is absurd. Should we sue Gilliam for making Brazil, which had echoes of a novel an Orwellian dystopia? Sure, they're different mediums, but a premise is a premise, right?
posted by The God Complex at 1:39 PM on November 7, 2002


Stupid changing sentences mid-flow. How I miss this stuff is beyond me.

Stike the "of a novel an" please and thank you ;P
posted by The God Complex at 1:40 PM on November 7, 2002


strike that strike the "of"

I give up. You know what I'm saying.
posted by The God Complex at 1:41 PM on November 7, 2002


Now I'm going to get it...

God Complex -- I confess. I screwed up. I took the clipped remarks (framed against Martel's honor) in their context.

Nevertheless, I have two things I'd like to say (in general -- I'll leave Martel out of it: he could be really interesting, genuine guy; Scliar could be bitter curmudgeon -- who knows? I don't.)...

One: If you know you're stealing a premise -- doesn't it somehow lessen your work to completely ignore it, rather than artfully trope/overcome it?

Two: Is it really that false to demand a kind of graciousness in the light of (bestowed) celebrity?
posted by minnesotaj at 1:54 PM on November 7, 2002


As I think the Guardian pointed out, while Martel and Scliar may share an "idea," the meaning and execution of the former's novel are so different that it makes the "plagiarism" call really tough. (Scliar was writing a political allegory, for starters.) Insofar as Martel didn't read Scliar's novel, however, I don't think you can quite call what he did "homage," either. "Homage" is more along the lines of William Wordsworth's Prelude (Paradise Lost), or, more recently, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres (King Lear), where you have an author actively in dialogue with his or her chosen predecessor. Martel just said "Hey! Cool idea!"
posted by thomas j wise at 1:57 PM on November 7, 2002


Scliar should have gone all priceline dot com and patented that shit! As it is Martel clean-roomed him.
posted by sad_otter at 3:06 PM on November 7, 2002


if premise is intellectual property, then hollywood owes us all a fat check and a great big apology.

Funny and true, tangent. But Hollywood, with its own denizens, has the right idea as far as authorship is concerned and one that may very well become the norm many years from now.

You know: concept by X, based on an idea by Y; original story by Z; based on character created by A; screenplay by B; doctored by C, D, E and F. ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 3:38 PM on November 7, 2002


Apparently Canada is invading brazil secretly. Molson just acquired one of, if not their biggest beer producers. Not commenting on the quality of Brazilian beer, but we may soon have a country so blasted on Canadian booze that we can walk right in and take over :)
posted by Space Coyote at 3:41 PM on November 7, 2002


You know, I kinda dig 'LitFilter.'
*ducks*
posted by elwoodwiles at 4:13 PM on November 7, 2002


Jonathan Franzen rules. catch him in NYC or SF if you get the chance. the Corrections was a minor letdown, but The 27th City was pure briliance. he'll be back.

the story with the two pictures of him was lame. neither looked like him. this is better.
posted by mrgrimm at 4:22 PM on November 7, 2002


or brilliance. sorry.
posted by mrgrimm at 4:23 PM on November 7, 2002


I enjoyed Life of Pi a lot; I'd like to read Max and the Cats for comparison. That said, you can't plagiarize a book you haven't read. The premise is just the seed; every writer makes a unique garden, even if they stir up a lot of the same compost.
posted by rushmc at 7:32 PM on November 7, 2002


Apparently Canada is invading brazil secretly. Molson just acquired one of, if not their biggest beer producers. Not commenting on the quality of Brazilian beer, but we may soon have a country so blasted on Canadian booze that we can walk right in and take over :)

That would be Kaiser, Space Coyote - the worst of all Brazilian beers. But then again the best of Brazilian beers is probably a good deal worse than the worst Canadian beer, whatever it is.

posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:39 PM on November 7, 2002


So...it's not an award winning novel about the history of the ratio between a circle's radius and its circumference? Damn.
posted by straight at 8:34 PM on November 7, 2002


Oh there are some bad ones. Labatt Blue springing to mind *ducks*

I still stand by my original statement that it's part of the huge secret war going on between Canada and Brazil. :)
posted by Space Coyote at 8:36 PM on November 7, 2002


Great premise, poorly executed. Maybe I was just expecting much more from the book, but I definitely didn't think it was prizeworthy.
posted by gramcracker at 9:06 PM on November 7, 2002


And so the cycle continues...

And then I forgot about it. I wanted to forget about it. I didn't really want to read the book. Why put up with the gall? Why put up with a brilliant premise ruined by a lesser writer. Worse, what if gramcracker had been wrong? What if not only the premise but also its rendition were perfect? Best to move on.
posted by rory at 2:22 AM on November 8, 2002


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