Monday, 8 February 2010

Plagiarism?

32 of the past 45 Google searches bringing people here featured the words "Helene Hegemann". It would appear people are interested in the whole Axolotl Roadkill plagiarism issue.

So here it is in a nutshell. 17-year-old Helene wrote a book (see my very brief review plus a couple of comments on the issue) set in Berlin. The 16-year-old narrator takes drugs and goes to clubs in Berlin, among other depraved activities. Over the weekend the blogger Deef Pirmasens pointed out the many similarities between Hegemann's portrayal of drug-taking at Berghain and the portrayal in a previously neglected book, Strobo, by another blogger called Airen. And yesterday Hegemann admitted she hadn't actually credited Airen as one of her many sources and inspirations, for a book that rather comes across as a collage of ideas, images and pop-cultural references. She talks about an online culture of sampling and remixing and comments:

Although I stand entirely behind my text and my principle, I apologise for not having mentioned all the people whose ideas and texts helped me from the very beginning.

According to a sympathetic Felicitas von Lovenberg in the FAZ, the novel was at least going to be shortlisted for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair. We'll have to wait until Thursday for the dust to settle and the shortlist to come out. But of course everyone has an opinion right now.

Want to know mine? I don't care. I still think it's a good book, owing much more to Kathy Acker's techniques than to Airen's description of the Berghain toilets. Yes, it's downright disrespectful to credit David Foster Wallace and not "some blogger" as he's referred to in the text. Yes, even a 17-year-old should know better, especially one as apparently media-savvy as Helene Hegemann. But no, the publishers don't have a duty to check every word in every book for plagiarism. And no, there's so much more to Axolotl Roadkill than the few pages in question.

Whatever people wanted to believe about the book - and I'll admit I'm far from immune myself, with the intruiging narrator and the impossibly glam writer exerting a certain pull over me too - it is a work of fiction and should stand alone as such, not as a factual account of underage depravity in noughties Berlin.

I hope the HH phenomenon doesn't prove to be a house of cards. Because then I'd have to eat my words - but I don't think that's going to happen.

Update: According to Jürgen Kaube in the FAZ, Hegemann has compiled a list of sources:

There's now a list of writers whom Helene Hegemann hadn't thanked for using their works word for word or almost word for word. (...) The list ranges from Malcolm Lowry – for the book's first sentence – and David Foster Wallace through Rainald Goetz and the blogger Airen to Kathy Acker. It comes from Hegemann herself; the publishers Ullstein Verlag intend to make it available soon.


And yes, and yes, it's still a good book. It ought to have been clear from the beginning - had we cared to look! - that Hegemann was "sampling", as she puts it; all those snatches of lyrics ought to have been a bit of a giveaway. But I'm fascinated by the reactions, which vary from plain insults and abuse tainted with obvious envy to fierce defences of the poor little baby writer.

If you read German, that FAZ article is well worth a look, reflecting as many have been over the past few days on our expectations as readers of "young literature". We want it to be real, dripping with pathos, we want young writers to run straight home from the darkroom and spill their guts into their laptops. We want to live a vicarious wild youth - but it has to be genuine misery memoir to get our pulses racing.

I'm waiting for that list before I eat any words. And I can be very stubborn.

Update update: There's more evidence of Hegemann's, ummm, naive approach to other people's intellectual property at Viceland. In this case she wrote a short story dangerously close to a film, which was based on a short story, which of course is rather similar to her version. I'm still not eating those words yet though.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

at the moment, it seems like you will indeed have to eat your words.

Stefan Tobler said...

I'm really keen to read her book, it sounds great. As do some of the other Leipzig prize shortlisted titles. And it's open to short stories, yeah!
On plagiarism, in spite of post-structuralism, honesty seems a good approach, so it's great Hegemann's making her sources known.
I don't think there's a worse place to get bearings on this than in George Eliot's essay ‘The Wasp Credited with the Honeycomb’. Bit of a long summary coming up, but hope you like it:
In it a bloke, Theophrastus, imputes of another guy, Euphorion, that ‘with regard to many instances of modern origination, it is his habit to talk with a Gallic largeness and refer to the universe: he expatiates on the diffusive nature of intellectual products, [...] on the infinitesimal smallness of individual origination compared with the massive inheritance of thought on which every new generation enters’. Yet, in spite of first appearances, Theophrastus does not actually disagree with Euphorion’s Gallic questioning of the importance of the author as originator (plus ça change...), he says these ideas may ‘carry a profound truth’.
What he does object to is ‘the use of these majestic conceptions to do the dirty work of unscrupulosity and justify the non-payment of conscious debts’.

kjd said...

I'm feeling rather reassured that I'm not alone in my still high opinion of the book, too, Stefan.

I was lucky enough to read the book before it came out and the tidal wave of publicity descended. And I hope I'll manage to get hold of that list at some point, then post a reflected opinion of the novel.

David said...

I was in Germany last week and only had room in my carry-on to buy a couple of books. Hers was not one of them.

Is she a German Jay McInerney - someone who perfectly captures the Zeitgeist of a particular moment? Or is there something deeper at play? The passages I skimmed didn't convince me...

Oh, and one of two books I did buy was "Atemschaukel". Thanks for your review, KJD.

kjd said...

Jay McInerney might well be a good comparison, David. I really can't judge whether she'll stand the test of time - but right now, Axolotl Roadkill is a great book.

Harvey Morrell said...

I look forward to picking up this book (and others on the list) when I visit Germany in early May. In addition to Stefan's point, I wonder if her age has anything to do with her 'cut and paste' approach? Mash-ups are very popular in that age group, not to mention that generation's ambivalence toward intellectual property rights.

Joseph said...

I don't read German, but I'm very intrigued by this story. I suppose the concept of "remixing" is interesting, but it sounds like she lifted large chunks of text wholesale and didn't admit it until she got caught. Someone should go through and figure out what's her and what's not.

I don't know, I just feel like she's getting credit for putting together other people's hard work. But perhaps there's more to the book than that.

Christina said...

It's upsetting how much people are willing to forgive simply because they want to believe in her talent. She obviously IS talented, having penned a play and a screenplay, but the novel is plagiarized, plain and simple.

It's interesting to talk about in the context of the Information Age, hers being the first generation raised on the internet, and Carl Hegemann's (ahem, her father's) theories about hybrid artistry, but that does not render the book itself original or authentic in any way. Comments like “I help myself to whatever inspires me” are defenses. I'm hard pressed to believe she would ever acknowledge her "inspirations" had she not been caught.

kjd said...

Christina, I don't think we can say that the novel as a whole is "plagiarised". She appropriated certain lines from other writers, stole them, ripped them off, plagiarised *these particular lines*. That was wrong. There's no debating that.

I would stand by my position that the *rest of the book* is nevertheless original and to some extent authentic - whereby any judgement of authenticity can only ever be an estimate. And why is everyone insisting on authenticity anyway?