February 25, 2010

For those unaware, the literary world is currently aflutter over a scandal involving yet another freshman novelist accused of plagiarism.  Helene Hegemann, daughter of famed German dramatist Carl Hegemann, recently released her debut novel Axolotl Roadkill, which is currently working its way up a number of German bestseller lists.  At only seventeen, she’s heralded as a gifted writer, and the book itself is a finalist at the Leipzig Book Fair.

Sounds great so far, but accusations of plagiarism recently surfaced when blogger Deef Pirmasens discovered that several passages in the book, and in one instance almost an entire page, were copied straight from a little-known novel entitled Strobo by a blogger using the pseudonym Airen.  Surprisingly, Hegemann has not only admitted to plagiarizing Airen’s work, but actually defends the theft.  In a now widely circulated statement released by her publisher, she writes, “€œThere’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,”€ an awfully smug assertion for someone in her position.

But the young author is not without her supporters.  The New York Times quotes Volker Weidermann, a jury member for the Leipzig Book Fair, as saying of the novel, “€œObviously, it isn”€™t completely clean but, for me, it doesn”€™t change my appraisal of the text.”€  He continues, “€œI believe it’s part of the concept of the book.”€ It seems that this was not really theft at all, but a re-appropriation of found material, a “€œremix”€ if you will.

“Hegemann can bitch about originality until she’s old enough to actually get into the clubs she writes about, but it doesn”€™t change the fact that her novel is less authentic because she chose to increase her page-count with someone else’s pages.”

The novel’s literary merit, let’s be clear, is really beside the point; Hegemann could very well be the wunderkind people claim she is. What concerns me are the reasons why her re-appropriation of Airen’s material must be considered plagiarism and not, as Hegemann and her defenders argue, simply an accepted practice of the times.

Intertextuality didn”€™t begin with the Y generation remember.  Though the term itself was coined in the sixties, we can find examples of intertextuality going as far back as the Greek myths and the Old Testament.  Even the modernist master himself, James Joyce, took the title of his greatest novel, Ulysses, from Homer. The thinking men and women of letters used to be perfectly capable of making the distinction between inspiration, source material, and stolen goods.

Let’s examine, for argument’s sake, a more contemporary example of intertextuality, and one more relevant to the situation at hand.  Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, published in 2009, is a recent and successful example of novel as “€œmash-up,”€ a term Hegemann applies to her own work.  The book lists its authors as Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith.  It follows the plot and uses much of the text of Jane Austen’s original work, Pride and Prejudice, though with references to zombies and zombie fighting sprinkled here and there for comic effect.

So, what is so different about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies that it shouldn”€™t elicit the kind of outrage Axolotl Roadkill does?  Well, first of all, Grahame-Smith samples from an original novel resting comfortably in the public domain.  He wrote his “€œmash-up”€ legally, something Hegemann could have probably accomplished with a quick letter to Strobo’s publisher.  (I read today that Hegemann’s publishers are doing just that, albeit accompanied by a fairly generous check, I”€™ll wager.)

Secondly, but no less important, Pride and Prejudice, in addition to being in the public domain, is also part of our common literary heritage.  For the same reason journalists and scholars aren”€™t expected to cite sources when they mention facts that are common knowledge, literary “€œremixers”€ need not fear attacks of plagiarism when they sample from what are commonly referred to as “€œclassics.”€  Anyone capable of reading Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel can be expected to know that Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, and that the joke (albeit a crude and relatively unfunny one to my thinking) is that there are no zombies in the original at all.  The same can”€™t be said of first-time, diva novelists grabbing chunks from little-known books conveniently similar in subject matter to their own.  Transparency gives the reader a sense that the author is trustworthy, part of the very definition of the word authentic, and more important today because so much of what we read is “€œremixed.”€

Hegemann can bitch about originality until she’s old enough to actually get into the clubs she writes about, but it doesn”€™t change the fact that her novel is less authentic because she chose to increase her page-count with someone else’s pages. With all this “€œmixing,”€ “€œremixing,”€ “€œmashing-up,”€ and “€œre-appropriating”€ going on, is it possible today’s writers are ceding too much of their artistic prerogative to existing ideas and material?  By relinquishing so much control over their own work, aren”€™t they running the risk their works will not only lack originality, but also authenticity?


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