Plagiarism: The next generation

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

Topics: Plagiarism, Books,

Plagiarism: The next generation

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.”

Plagiarizing journalists like the recently fired Gerald Posner (currently providing the occasion for ecstasies of self-righteousness over at Slate) could never pull off such a justification. Novelists and other artists, however, are always boasting about how much they “steal,” as Robert McCrum pointed out in the Guardian a few weeks ago. How, then, can they wax indignant when other writers lift their work? “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” Hegemann pronounced in a statement to the press. (Jim Jarmusch, incidentally, said virtually the same thing, and he probably got it from somebody else.) When the admirably game McCrum posted a quick follow-up take on the Hegemann affair, he prompted a heated conversation about copyright and its validity in the Information Age.



To this conundrum, Hegemann has added a heaping dollop of generational special pleading, and the story has prompted teachers to offer multiple examples of students who don’t seem to understand what plagiarism is or that it’s wrong. Kids these days, this Cassandra-ish line of reasoning goes, have unfathomably different values, and their elders had better come to terms with this because children are, after all, the future. You can’t tell them anything! It’s as if people under 25 have become the equivalent of an isolated Amazonian tribe who can’t justly be expected to grasp our first-world prohibitions against polygamy or cannibalism — despite the fact that they’ve grown up in our very midst.

Count me among those who think that most plagiarism scandals are overblown — a classic example being the novelist Ian McEwan, who replicated in “Atonement” a few phrases from a memoir he used as historical research for that novel. What smells off in this instance is precisely Hegemann’s claim to be using her borrowings to advance a cutting-edge concept of artistry. The daughter of an avant-garde dramatist, she says she practices “intertextuality” and explains, “Very many artists use this technique … by organically including parts in my text, I am entering into a dialogue with the author.”

This would be more plausible if Hegemann had acknowledged from the beginning that she’d included work from other writers in “Axolotl Roadkill,” but by all indications, she did not. (Granted, it’s hard for me to substantiate this for myself since I don’t read German and can’t compare Hegemann’s novel to Airen’s.) Some copyright critics have pointed out that, thanks to “Axolotl Roadkill,” “Strobo” is now enjoying a sales boost, proving that “remixes” can be a rising tide that lifts all boats. However, it took Pirmasens’ plagiarism accusation to bring Airen’s involuntary “contribution” to “Axolotl Roadkill” to the public’s attention. If Hegemann intended to enter into a dialogue with Airen, she took pains to make it look like a monologue. If she viewed the writing itself as collaborative, she suppressed any urge to share those handsome royalty checks.

McEwan, who did credit the out-of-print nurse’s memoir he used as a source for “Atonement,” could at least argue that what he incorporated from that source was only a tiny portion of a very different and substantively original work. Hegemann has already, and rather stupidly, cut herself off from that option by declaring that she intended to write a collaboration from the very beginning, only she just forgot to mention it before this. How innovative is “Axolotl Roadkill”? Again, it’s difficult for the Anglophone observer to say for sure, but since both “Axolotl Roadkill” and “Strobo” recount life among the youngest participants in Berlin’s wild club scene, Hegemann’s claim to be presenting the material in a “completely different and unique context” seems a stretch.

And — please! — how much longer can very young writers publish novels depicting anomie, drug use and casual sex among their peers and still provoke wonder among their elders? It happens every few years, from the apotheosis of “Less Than Zero” to the sensation of Nick McDonell’s “Twelve,” yet every new iteration is treated like some shocking, never-before-imagined exposé, when, really, only the playlist changes. With suspicious frequency, the enthusiasm for “Axolotl Roadkill” seems to boil down to just this strain of titillated astonishment. You can’t blame other 17-year-olds for finding it incredibly daring and fresh, but as for us adults — shouldn’t we know better?

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>