Monday, February 22, 2010

Are you too old to understand?

The following article by Laura Miller appeared on on February 16th. Thanks for the link, Dr. McMahon!

Plagiarism: The next generation

A 17-year-old novelist defends herself in the latest copycat scandal. Are we just too old to understand?

Recent plagiarism accusations against the 17-year-old author of a German novel feel like déjà vu all over again, with one key distinction: Helene Hegemann, who wrote the best-selling tale of drugging and clubbing, "Axolotl Roadkill," is defending the practice, telling one German newspaper, "I myself don't feel it is stealing, because I put all the material into a completely different and unique context and from the outset consistently promoted the fact that none of that is actually by me."

Hegemann lifted as much as a full page of text from an obscure, independently published novel, "Strobo," by a blogger known as Airen. Another German blogger, Deef Pirmasens, was the first to point out the passages from "Axolotl Roadkill" that are said to be largely duplicated from "Strobo," with small changes. Despite the uproar caused by this revelation, "Axolotl Roadkill" has been selling better than ever and has been nominated for the $20,000 fiction prize at the Leipzig Book Fair. "Obviously, it isn't completely clean but, for me, it doesn't change my appraisal of the text," a jury member and newspaper book critic told the New York Times, explaining that the jury knew about the plagiarism accusations when it selected the novel for its short list. "I believe it's part of the concept of the book."

To read the rest of the article, click here.


  1. Intertextuality, huh? It's true that this is a very respected and wonderful technique among artists and writers since the Modernist era, but intertextuality is not plagiarism. A prime example of this is T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland. That marvelous work is chock full of other writers' material, from John Middleton to Dante to Wagner and everyone else in-between. Yet there is a crucial difference here: he was attempting a moasic of experience, whereby we could understand the blending of past and presnet, and how our own world contains "mythic" qualities--and indeed, even the exhausted businessman at a local pub could be Odysseus. The works, which he fully expected everyone to recognize (and even footnoted them!) are signposts for the reader to follow; indeed, they would lose all their power if they weren't recognized but read as original material. In art the same is true--artists use other material in a new context to highlight the borrowed material. Did Andy Warhol really claim to create Campbell's soup? Intertextuality has meaning because of recogniition; you pull something out of context to show us a new way of seeing and experiencing it.

    The example above, from the article alone, seems to entirely lack this quality. If you steal, verbatim, a page or two from someone else's novel which is more or less on the same topic, what are you highlighting? What CONTEXT are you changing? It sounds lazy and pretentious; I have no real literary standards, so I stole what I could and passed it off as my own, unique aesthetics. IN the article, her aesthetic comes off as unbearably naive, as if "stealing" is tantamount to intertextuality.

    And yes, writers do "steal"--but not other writer's words. Shakespeare "stole" all but two of his plots from old Italian and English sources. But he utterly transformed them--indeed, the plots were merely skeletons for his elaborate, profound creations which in no way resembled the original. Read Hollinshed's Chronicles and compare them to any of Shakespeare's me, you will prefer the Shakespeare. Stories are there to be borrowed, since no one can create a story (not since Homer and Gilgamesh, anyway); but words, the living thumbprint of a writer, are sacred. To me, words ARE the writer, not the characters or the plot. When you steal someone else's words without recogniition, you cease to be a writer (to me) and are simply a plaigarist. That's what plagiarism is--trying to look like someone else. And sorry, that just doesn't sound like the aesthetics of intertextuality to me.

    But then again, I don't read German.

  2. Ms. Hegemann should have noted in an appendix of some kind that the passage that begins on page whatever and ends on page whatever are taken from "Strobo” by Author Whoever. She didn’t. Bad show. From a legal standpoint, she should probably be forced to share some of her earnings with the author of Strobo. She should also be forced to pay a penalty of some kind (all the earnings of the book?) to discourage other writers and publishers from committing similar acts in the future. I don’t intend for anything I say below to suggest that I think otherwise.

    This doesn’t mean that the book surrounding the stolen text is not valuable. I don’t know if it is or not, because I haven’t read it. Ms. Hegemman might be a very talented writer. And if I were on the jury that judges the quality of her novel, I wouldn’t automatically toss it into the trash. Maybe she’s a cheat, but as a reader of novels, I am not interested in the moral stature of the author.

    I am intrigued by this phrase from the Salon article: “a jury member and newspaper book critic told the New York Times, explaining that the jury knew about the plagiarism accusations when it selected the novel for its short list. ‘I believe it's part of the concept of the book.’

    Here’s a thought experiment: In what way could the “concept of the book” justify or explain such stealing? What if it was a book called “Stealing”? Or “I Am a Thief”? Or “The Word Stealer”?

    Another rabbit trail: Consider the world of art, and especially modern art, where context counts for so much . Is a collage that incorporates bits from an unidentified newspaper plagiarism? What if I tear out the pages of a book and use them to cover the surface of a sculpture? To what extent are the words themselves part of the meaning of such a work of art and to what extent is the meaning of such a work of art contained in the context in which those words have been placed?

    Maybe literature and art are different in this way. At least we are used to thinking of them as different in this way: literature is the words and the order in which they are placed. But here’s another thought experiment: what kind of art would challenge the blurry border that separates literature and art and thus complicate our familiar understanding of plagiarism, copying, stealing, and the individual author?

    So here’s the question: You are on a jury. You are charged to judge the value of the novels before you. The only thing you know about one of them is that it contains some plagiarized material. Do you toss it in the trash?

  3. Perhaps the article itself doesn't give us enough context for judging/appreciating the book? If a jury member says that "it's part of the concept of the book," then maybe it is. I would ask how consistently does she "steal," and how does he alert us to this fact? I mean, if the appropriation has some purpose in the work, and as reader we can see this--it somehow stands out, or we can see "behind the curtain," then I might agree. But if she just borrows passages here and there and says "that's what artists do," that seems to be a bit slipshod. Its seems convenient rather than thoughtful.

    My problem is that I read works not for the author's morality (as Benton said), or for his or her unique brand of artistic dogma. Rather, I read a work for a writer's style--how he or she sees the world and uses words in an innovative or unique (personal) way to show me this. That's how I have a relationship with this author/work and why they stand out from a million other similar works. If the goal of art is to erase the author and simply play endless invisible intertextuality experiments, then what's the point of reading anything? If there is no author, then should there be a reader, either? Let's just say we read what you didn't write and have the ultimate experiment of all. I think intertextuality is cool and the pop art movement has shown how much you can do with this. Is literature more limited in this regard? I think yes, since art "announces" any borrowing--you can visually "see" a reference or borrowing from, say, Da Vinci in a modern painting. It makes its presence known and you can make a much more effective ironic or satiric comment using it. In literature, you only have words, and it is much trickier to use a passage and make its effect known to the reader. How, as a writer, do you distinguish this? To me, intertextuality only has meaning if you see the two (or more) texts coming together. If you believe that it's all one and don't question the existence of other texts that have been borrowed, then the effect is lost. Of course, much of this has to do with the maturity and experience of the reader...nevertheless, it's trickier to pull off, and can be abused in the name of artistic dogma.

    If I was on the jury, I would (a) read the book thoroughly, and (b) question the author personally. What does it mean that plagiarism is an artistic aesthetic? How does it add to the overall concept of the book? Why not borrow someone else's entire book and just slap your name on it? That would make a profound statement, too. How did you determine how much to write and how much to borrow? And what if the most searching and illunminating passages are borrowed? What if the core of the work, that which most merits its award winning status, is plagiarized? Does that simply make you a good reader or a good writer? Or a good editor?

    Maybe that's the problem; postmodernism has scared the shit out of anyone being an author--isn't it safer simply to edit and wash your hands of the whole messy, Romantic business of "creation"?

  4. I wish you could have been at the meeting, Josh! As I mentioned to you earlier, I liked it because it was lively and intellectually challenging, even if we only scratched the surface of the issue and didn’t hear as much as I would have liked to from everyone present.

    [What follows was going to be one long comment, but I'm going to break it up into smaller bits to make it easier to get through--or bail out of!]

  5. At the Feb. 25 Sigma Tau Delta meeting (and in my earlier post), I tried to make it clear that while I found Helene Hegemann’s case to be something of a dead-ender (she plagiarized and we condemn the act), I find discussions about private property in the realm of culture and the arts to be much more interesting, and I am drawn by instinct and training to seek out the fuzzy boundaries between traditional categories of literary analysis (such as the boundary between what is original and what is stolen, copied and imitated).(I referred to this as the “Blurry Zone” at our meeting.)

    It is not that I don’t think that some clear cases of plagiarism exist or that they should not be punished. If I were charged with judging the value of Hegemann’s book on behalf of the Leipzig Book Fair, I would want to know how much of it was plagiarized. If it were a single page out of 300, say, and the other 299 were head and shoulders above all the other submissions to the contest, I would favor recognizing the value of the 299 pages, but against giving the author the $20,000 prize.

  6. In the spirit of my fascination with the Blurry Zone, and my interest in continuing this conversation, let me put a few more questions out there for you or anyone else who cares to answer it: is their no point to reading a text whose authorship may be in question? Whether I enjoy a text or profit from it or am bored by it may be influenced by my ability to identify its author or authors, but it can not be wholly determined by that, can it?

    Sometimes I appreciate a work because of the way its author sees the world and uses words in an innovative or unique (personal) way. Sometimes I don’t—when I look up something on Wikipedia, for instance. Is the significant difference here that Wikipedia is not “literature”? If so, is it possible to define the terms—“innovative,” “unique,” and “the way the author sees the world” (used in your previous post)—in a way that might include Wikipedia as a work of literature? [Parenthetical aside: I know that there is a clear difference between Wikipedia, whose authors freely committed their work to the project, and Axototl Roadkill , one of whose authors did not make such free contribution.]

    I think it would be easy to argue, for example, that Wikipedia is innovative and unique (How many of us could have imagined such a thing before it existed? A continually evolving, comprehensive encyclopedia authored by a vast collective for free?). And when I am looking for information, I appreciate the way Wikipedia presents it to me (even if I know that I have to take everything I read there with a grain of salt, so to speak). It seems to me that Wikipedia might make a good candidate for a Wonder of the 21st Century World—a literary wonder, even. And yet, one thing Wikipedia is not is personal. Does it have to be personal to be art? Is there not something beautiful in such a collective endeavor—the literary equivalent of a flash mob?

  7. Can you say a little more about what you mean when you say you can “see” a borrowing from Da Vinci more easily that you can see a borrowing from Shakespeare? If you know Da Vinci, you may see something that has been borrowed from him, and if you don’t, you don’t. The same goes with Shakespeare, doesn’t it?