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Been caught borrowing

February 18, 2010 |  9:51 am

Helenehegemann17

Is Helene Hegemann a guilty teen caught copying someone else's work, or a vanguard remixer of a new generation, bringing sampling to fiction? The 17-year-old's novel "Axolotl Roadkill" has reached bestseller lists in Germany despite having been found to have passages lifted from a pseudonymous blogger's novel. The New York Times reported:

For the obviously gifted Ms. Hegemann, who already had a play (written and staged) and a movie (written, directed and released in theaters) to her credit, it was an early ascension to the ranks of artistic stardom. That is, until a blogger last week uncovered material in the novel taken from the less-well-known novel “Strobo,” by an author writing under the nom de plume Airen. In one case, an entire page was lifted with few changes.

...as one character, Edmond, puts it in [Hegemann's] book, “Berlin is here to mix everything with everything.”

A powerful statement, but the line originally was written by Airen, on his blog. The plot thickens, however, and shows that perhaps more than simple cribbing is at work. When another character asks Edmond if he came up with that line himself, he replies, “I help myself everywhere I find inspiration.”

This week, the NY Times parted ways with Zachery Kouwe, a reporter who'd been found helping himself to reports by the Wall Street Journal without attributing the source. "We have a zero tolerance policy for unethical journalism," NY Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote in an e-mail to the New York Observer. "Plagiarism is unethical journalism."

But Hegemann is no journalist; she's a novelist. Should someone who creates art be held to a higher standard of originality? Well, no. "There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity," Hegemann said in a statement released by her publisher. She told the German newspaper Berliner Morganpost, "I myself don’t feel it is stealing, because I put all the material into a completely different and unique context."

That's the point Jonathan Lethem made in a widely read 2007 Harper's piece. Picking up someone else's writing and mixing it into your own, he pointed out, wasn't new in any art, including literature:

When I was thirteen I purchased an anthology of Beat writing. Immediately, and to my very great excitement, I discovered one William S. Burroughs, author of something called Naked Lunch, excerpted there in all its coruscating brilliance.... Later, attempting to understand this impact, I discovered that Burroughs had incorporated snippets of other writers' texts into his work, an action I knew my teachers would have called plagiarism.... I knew that this “cut-up method,” as Burroughs called it, was central to whatever he thought he was doing, and that he quite literally believed it to be akin to magic. When he wrote about his process, the hairs on my neck stood up, so palpable was the excitement. Burroughs was interrogating the universe with scissors and a paste pot, and the least imitative of authors was no plagiarist at all.

Burroughs' approach underlies the ideas of those, like Hegemann, who claim to be doing something new with others' words. And it underpinned Lethem's essay, which was largely composed of passages lifted from other sources; the above, as the reader discovered in a key, was written by science fiction author William Gibson. Yet this essential question (which contains an allusion to Harold Bloom, borrowed from a Rutgers professor), is Lethem's own:

[D]oes our appetite for creative vitality require the violence and exasperation of another avant-garde, with its wearisome killing-the-father imperatives, or might we be better off ratifying the ecstasy of influence--and deepening our willingness to understand the commonality and timelessness of the methods and motifs available to artists?

If so -- if borrowing and rebuilding are desirable, even unavoidable elements of creation in our postmodern era (or are we post-postmodern?) -- then it seems some kind of attribution is required. Influence, when acknowledged, seems to rest easy with everyone. When work is taken without pointing to its originator -- say, if Lethem had used Gibson's words without mentioning that they came from Gibson -- then we'd think of it as stealing. If Kouwe had specifically acknowledged the Wall Street Journal pieces he'd read, he might have been told to do more original reporting, but he wouldn't have been accused of plagiarism. And even though Hegemann claims she always admitted she'd borrowed freely, the main complaint of detractors is that this wasn't clear until the common passages were pointed out by another observer.

At Salon, Laura Miller points out that Hegemann is leaning on a kind of "generational special pleading" which would have us believe that copying and pasting is just what kids do. "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," Miller writes.

If technology makes borrowing so easy, is it incumbent upon us to teach values of copyright, ownership and attribution? Or should we relax, enjoy the ecstasy of remixing and see each creative work as a new pillage-able collage?

Borrowing the work of others is paying off for Hegemann -- in addition to reaching bestseller status, her novel is a finalist for a $20,000 fiction prize at the Leipzig Book Fair. And the scandal has buoyed the sales of the novel by Airen from which the passages were taken. It's easy to be sanguine when everybody wins -- but without a clear sense of what's borrowing, remixing or just plain stealing, who's to guarantee that future creative work will be fairly rewarded?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Helene Hegemann in Berlin, May 2009. Credit: Jens Schleuter/AFP/Getty Images

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