Mixing and matching, or outright plagiarism?

>> Friday, February 12, 2010


Another young novelist has been outed for plagiarism--but this time, she's not only copping to it, she's embracing it, telling reporters she took the other author's work and put it "into a completely different and unique context." Her name is Helene Hegemann. She's seventeen years old, and already a produced playwright, produced screenwriter, and bestselling novelist in Germany. The book in question is Axolotl Roadkill, and it was recently announced as one of the finalists for the $20,000 fiction prize at the Leipzig Book Fair.

The problem is, entire pages of it are lifted directly from the fiction and blog of another writer.

The publication last month of her novel about a 16-year-old exploring Berlin’s drug and club scene after the death of her mother, called “Axolotl Roadkill,” was heralded far and wide in German newspapers and magazines as a tremendous debut, particularly for such a young author. The book shot to No. 5 this week on the magazine Spiegel’s hardcover best-seller list.

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...

Although Ms. Hegemann has apologized for not being more open about her sources, she has also defended herself as the representative of a different generation, one that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of information across new and old media, to create something new. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said Ms. Hegemann in a statement released by her publisher after the scandal broke.

The Leipzig Book Fair seems to agree; they knew all about the plagiarism before they named her to the short list for the award. Again, from the Times:

“Obviously, it isn’t completely clean but, for me, it doesn’t change my appraisal of the text,” said Volker Weidermann, the jury member and a book critic for the Sunday edition of the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, a strong supporter. “I believe it’s part of the concept of the book.”

I love the idea of mixing and matching. I've written two novels based on Shakespeare plays, have a novel in the works about the early life of Jules Verne's Captain Nemo, and next year will publish a book that features just about every single children's lit character I could think of. (Treading the copyright line very carefully.) In that sense, I agree with Ms. Hegemann--like club DJs sampling centuries' worth of music, I think it is the particular province of my generation of writers to take what has come before and give it a new and funky spin.

But lifting entire passages from books and passing them off as your own? No. Plagiarism is taking another's words and passing them off as your own, and that's what this is. It isn't remixing, it's stealing. In later editions, she is apparently crediting the original author of those passages, but it doesn't change the fact that she tried to peddle it as her own to begin with. She's only contrite now that's she's been caught out.

That a major literary prize in Germany--and apparently thousands of book buyers--are legitimizing the theft is the most troublesome thing. Beyond whatever legal recourse the original author has at his or her disposal, the real punishment in most plagiarism cases is shame. The offending authors know very well they are lifting passages, and they are ashamed to get caught, and forever branded as plagiarists. If we lose that shame, if it becomes brazen and accepted, where will we be?


tanita davis February 12, 2010 at 2:04 PM  

I admit that this made me want to cry - but only because I taught school right after college... for the State of California. My kids had so much trouble with the idea of honesty, and doing their own work -- part of those troubles landed them at my school in the first place, where they were guests of Uncle Sam.

The fact is, the struggle to do something on your own gives you the right to the justifiable pride you feel in a personal accomplishment. I don't know what the Leipzig people are thinking, rewarding this? Is it because she's seventeen, and it's kind of cute for a kid to do this?? I think there may be a cultural clue I'm missing.

...but this really depresses me.

CL February 13, 2010 at 10:08 AM  

This is interesting. I actually had an idea for a book about a girl who is obsessed with Harry Potter, and I was advised by a lawyer not to pursue it. Now I wonder if I got bad advice? So many kids are into HP and I thought it would be cool to write about one who's completely over the top with it.

Alan Gratz February 13, 2010 at 10:18 AM  

@ CL - Well, I too would advise you not to do it. While I've had characters in novels talk about how they played Harry Potter in the back yard as kids (the way I played Star Wars in the back yard as a kid), doing ANYTHING that focuses on Harry Potter right now is an invitation to a lawsuit. I had some oblique references to HP and company in Fantasy Baseball, but my publisher had me take them out, where other contemporary references were left in. Both the HP and Seuss properties are notoriously litigious...

You could, instead, have a girl who is obsessed with a fictional series of boy wizard books--that is, a series you invent--that is clearly meant to echo Harry Potter. But using Potter and his world gets dicey.

CL February 13, 2010 at 10:32 AM  

thanks, Alan. I figured you would have some helpful info on this issue. Your idea sounds like a good way around the problem.
And my kid and her friends are still playing Star Wars games, even though mine has never seen any of the movies. Madeline even has a light saber.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a go-go dancer.

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