Saturday, February 20, 2010

She May Not Be Original, But She's "Authentic"!

Plagiarism seems to have become a more serious -- or at least more high profile -- issue in recent years, no doubt due in part to the growth of the internet and all the material found there which can be easily appropriated. Just this week the New York Times uncovered plagiarism by one of its reporters, and J. K. Rowling found herself the the defendant in yet another -- quite possibly frivolous -- lawsuit, in which the estate of the author of a previously unknown children's book accused the "Harry Potter" author of stealing his material.

And then there's the case of Helene Hegemann. As the Times itself reported earlier this week, Hegemann, a 17-year-old German writer who has already had quite a bit of success, was found to have lifted whole pages of another novelist's work and included them in her new novel, Axolotl Roadkill. But here the story takes an unusual twist. Instead of trying to deny the accusations, or concede she'd made a mistake, Hegemann owned up to the appropriation of the material and insisted she didn't do anything wrong. "There's no such thing as originality, only authenticity," Hegemann has been quoted as saying. "I myself don't feel it is stealing, because I put all the material in a completely different and unique context." And Hegemann has gotten at least some support from the German literary establishment. Her novel had been nominated for the Leipzig Book Fair fiction prize, and remains in the running even after the recent revelations.

So is it stealing? Hegemann seems to see herself as the literary equivalent of a hip hop DJ, "mixing" materials from other sources to make something new. And the Jacket Copy blog quotes Jonathan Lethem as still appreciating William S. Burrough's originality even after discovering that Naked Lunch had numerous snippets of other authors' material. ("Burroughs was interrogating the universe with scissors and a paste pot.")

Of course attribution is key here: it isn't plagiarism if you acknowledge your source. But Hegemann didn't acknowledge her "authentic" borrowings until she was confronted with the evidence. Personally, I agree with Lee Ellis' conclusion as posted on The Book Bench: "Cutting and pasting shouldn't be considered writing. And though 'mixing' has a nice ring to it -- what about blending? Or melding? -- it doesn't hide the dirty reality that someone is getting robbed."

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