Plagiarism

AKIE BERMISS: In a story not unlike the Tavi narrative we dealt with last week, we’ve been drawn into a great debate over the nature of art by 17-year old Helene Hegemann and her critically-acclaimed and critically-decried new book, “Axolotl Roadkill.”  Now, I haven’t read it and I so I can’t claim to have any understanding of whether her writing is excellent or piss-poor or whatever.  But what we do know is she appears to have supplemented her own writing, in the book, with largely unattributed sections of other people’s writing.  And when confronted with this accusation — on of blatant plagiarism — she counters with the excuse that she is merely “mixing” (as if she were a DJ or hiphop beat-maker).

Well, I’m afraid that simply won’t do.  I can’t accept it.  And again, I want to stress how little I know about Hegemann’s own writing and that there is a good chance I will never read this book.  That said, I know quite a bit about “mixing” or, as she probably meant it: sampling.  Yes the problem is two-fold since, firstly, she seems to be comparing herself with DJs and not producers to begin with.  Producers would make more sense since it is often they who “sample” the original material of others and re-contextualize it as part of a hodge-podge “beat” on top of which NEW original material is lain.  DJ actually stands for: Disc Jockey.  And  DJ is traditionally someone who doesn’t do very much that is original.  A DJ takes records made by artists and plays them for people.  Yes, often they choose the way in-which they are played, the order, they change the speed, and so forth.  Some very enterprising DJs even take vocal a capellas and put them over instrumentals to different songs.  Assuredly, a DJ can do many cool things that make you hear music in new and unexplored contexts — that is the art of the DJ — but I don’t think they could ever be accused of making something original.

A DJ plays an hour-long set of music and its likely to be 15 or 20 songs by various artists.  Do we then look upon that hour long set as the work of the DJ?  Or the work of the artists?  Debatable, perhaps, but only up to a point.  At some level, you have to appreciate that if the individual artists themselves weren’t making records, the DJ wouldn’t have anything to work with.  And so really a DJ is a glorified collector, compiler, and arranger.

Shall we say the same of Hegemann?  She reported to have lifted a good deal of material from another author and in one case and entire page with very little alteration.  An entire page?!  How is that writing?  Is it in block-quotes?  How does this pass for art?  Axolotl Roadkill is now apparently a finalist for the $20,000 prize at the Leipzig Book Fair.  Really?  I hate to sounds like a sensationalist but: what is the world coming to?!  Is this art?  Is this writing?  How is this acceptable?  The young lady is 17 years old and she’s basically handed in a crappily pasted-together book report at the last minute with no bibliography.  Is that deserving of a $20,000 prize?  Apparently the panel that made the decision on finalist for Leipzig were aware of the plagiarism charges when they selected her book!  Where is the rigorousness?  Where is the accountability?

I’m serious — this must be some book to get all this praise and be so wholly flawed in its construction.

As an artist, as a writer, as a musician I can appreciate the temptation to plagiarize.  Its hard enough to be productive (to keep ahead of deadlines and expectations) without also having to worry about being original. And for so many of us we chose to go into art because we were inspired by a certain someone.  A particular singer, or writer, or choreographer — who knows?  It can be terribly difficult to go your own way if you’ve always had a very crystallized idea of what you want to achieve in your mind.  That said, you MUST go your own way.  You MUST find your own voice.  One of the most devastating demands of the artistic occupation is that you cannot simply “do your part” and be another brick in the wall.  Every level requires innovation, originality, and internal momentum.  Drive is not simply enough.  Nor ambition.  What is required is an iron will to stand up in the face of all the odds and decide that whatever happens it worth it to have attained that level of mastery — whether the world knows it (or its just your cats).

Something in the Hegemann story makes me think she hasn’t quite caught on to that yet.  Perhaps she is talented.  Very talented, I’d warrant.  But talent does not great art make.  Talent, in fact, has been the sole arbiter of some of the worst art in our history.  Talent is not much to go on.  More is required to reach that highest level.  And for writers, one of the sacred forms is the novel.  Of course in this day and age much of what is sacred is also profane and profligate.  And we look to institutions of learning and artistic merit to uphold the sacred traditions in a rapidly expanding (and yet rapidly contracting) world community.  Plagiarism is a simple crime.  Like murder, you’ve either done it or you haven’t.  Explain it away as you like: crime of passion, temporary insanity, self-defense.  But at the end of the day — its done.

And if you’re the one who’s done it — you’re guilty.  And you shall be judged.

MOLLY SCHOEMANN: So, a 17 year old author in Germany has been accused of plagiarism, and she’s defending herself by asserting that she’s taken a stand against “copyright excesses” by “mixing” the words of other authors into her published work.

My first response to this is, ‘sure!’ When I was 17 I also invented weak excuses for my objectionable behavior, and I gave them to anyone who would listen to me. It’s what high-school students do well (apparently along with novel-writing, when they’re permitted to steal passages from other authors). Still, although claiming as Helene Hegemann has that your smash-hit first book utilizes “intertextuality” rather than “passages you didn’t write yourself” is a pretty lame duck excuse, I probably wouldn’t have sounded any better back in the day, even if I’d had an agent who was making statements to the New York Times.

I’m not surprised that Hegemann is trying to get away with plagiarism. There were lots of things I tried to weasel out of during the lazy, wayward days of my youth. There is nothing strange about a teenager, caught in a lie, trying brazenly to twist that lie into some semblance of acceptable truth. I don’t blame her for thinking she can bluff her way out of the charges. After all, she managed to bluff her way into a book deal after bluffing her way through a manuscript that stole from other authors. Few writers publish critically-acclaimed novels at the tender age of 17; certainly Ms. Hegemann should not be blamed for feeling that her life was exceptionally charmed and that fame and fortune could happen to everyone, even thieving plagiarists.

The important question is, why are we letting her get away with it? How can anyone defend Hegemann’s “right to copy and transform” the writings of others, which is in direct opposition to longstanding (and completely correct and necessary) copyright law? Can we listen with a straight face to her argument that “true originality doesn’t exist anyway, only authenticity”? Apparently the judges of the coveted Leipzig Book Fair prize can, because according to the New York Times, one of them stated that “the panel had been aware of the plagiarism charges before they made their final selection.”

It is my hope that the serious charges leveled against Hegemann stick, tarnish her reputation, and force her to grow as an author and a person into someone who recognizes that stealing the work of other writers is a crime. Or, if that doesn’t happen, I hope that some enterprising thirteen year old takes her novel, “Axolotl Roadkill”, rearranges the chapters, adds some stick figure illustrations, and publishes a bestseller which deeply undercuts her sales. After all, what’s the harm in a little “mixing” now and then? There’s no originality, after all—nor, apparently, is there shame.

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