Man writes amazing words. Man wins prize for writing amazing words. We later find out that man’s words are stolen from another man’s book. You may think I’m referring to Johann Hari, but in actual fact this is an account of George Orwell.
It is widely recognised that the plot of Nineteen Eighty-Four (man lives in totalitarian society, has instincts towards rebellion, is encouraged by female companion to write down thoughts of rebellion, system finds the man and woman, brainwashes man into believing he loves the system he lives in) is identical to Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We, originally published in English in 1924.
Orwell reviewed the book for Tribune Magazine in 1946 and he acknowledged the part We had to play in the creation of 1984 in a letter to George Woodcock (1967), in which he stated that he had “only been able to obtain a copy of the book in French and was looking for an English translation.”
The Orwell Prize organisers, who are investigating whether or not to withdraw Hari’s prize for journalism in 2008, are aware that Orwell borrowed the idea for his novel from a book he understood to be circulating slowly in England.
In their print of Orwell’s We review they link to an article by Paul Owen discussing whether it matters that Orwell “pinched the plot” (to which Owen answers not really). No call, as far as I’m aware, has been made by The Orwell Prize for the Partisan Review to withdraw their prize for Orwell, which was the total of £357.
Hari’s crime is not so different. I can believe he nicked an excerpt from a book to clarify a quote during an interview – I think it’s wrong, but I can believe it – and he has since apologised. I really don’t think The Orwell Prize should withdraw his award for this matter, not least because it is part of the furniture for writing. We only have to look at Orwell himself to realise.