Little Book Thief

Ich hab genug Deutsch – I have enough German to read the many one-star reviews of German teen Helene Hegemann’s first novel Axolotl Roadkill in their original versions.  Most of them are not at all complimentary and ask why all the attention has been paid to the book’s exploitation of German grossness, ugly imagery and basically, teens doing self-destructive crap to themselves and others.

Axolotl_roadkill Hier ist das Buch – yes, the title is written in English.  There’s no regular German word for “roadkill” – it’s an American concept, though I’m sure they run animals over on the autobahn.  

Basically, unapologetic Helene, who is only 17 years old and the daughter of Carl Hegemann, an “author, theater and film producer,” does not deny that large portions of her critically-acclaimed book were copied wholesale from a book called Strobo, a small-press book by a blogger named Airen.  According to Helene, whose very-German publicity photo shows her holding a cigarette and glaring into the camera, she is sorry that she didn’t acknowledge “all the people whose writings helped me,” but that there is no “originality – only authenticity.”


Helene is my own daughter’s age, and I might like to think that I’m the mom with the most mother-teen daughter challenges, but I think Carl has his hands full with smokin’ (and I don’t mean “hot”) Helene.  According to her German Wikipedia, Helene’s mother died when she was 14 and she now lives with her father in Berlin.

Helene_Hegemann1_Jens-Berger It’s yet another sign of the vast gulf between American culture and German culture that Helene has numerous pictures of herself smoking cigarettes and, while I haven’t combed Spiegel for slams, it doesn’t seem like anybody in Germany thinks anything of a 17-year old smoking and following the great tradition of German “degenerate” art and lifestyle.

This is her MySpace and most American parents would FREAK OUT upon seeing their child doing this – and again, I don’t mean Chris Crocker. “lovelyskizze” supposedly means “lovely sketch.”






Like this – Egon Schiele.  This is far from the most disturbing Egon Schiele painting, but this bit of eurotrash classic is from 1914 – Egon Schiele and his wife Edith both succumbed to the 1918 flu in Vienna.

So, in one respect, this author is correct.  Helene’s book does follow from German culture. More than many cultures, German art does look toward mashups; it has an endless fascination with death, sex, degeneracy and dissolution.

However, it still remains that much German intellectual thought also still responds to bullshit – the critical reviews are almost universally glowing for Helene’s book, and they’ll actually swallow feeble rationalizations like “there is no originality, only authenticity.”

It’s gross plagiarism, she’s only 17, she’s clearly careening out of control, and I give her less of a survivability index than Drew Barrymore at that same age.  There’s no world in which plagiarism is “right.”  And the thing is, between her and Egon Schiele – he did prison time for his own original work.  She gets magazine covers and “internet fame.”



Little Book Thief — 18 Comments

  1. Calling Schiele Eurotrash seems a bit odd to me. Eurotrash is cheap, trashy glitz with its own aesthetic, as far as I know, with a liberal and often sexual philosophy behind it. I can’t see how the term relates to Shiele’s powerful, often moving and not at all glitzy work.

    I find this post a little disturbing, while agreeing with your disquiet about plagiarism. I sometimes feel that American popular culture is overly sweetened, and denies negativity and the angst that young people experience. This negativity is more recognised and publicly acknowledged in Germany, and to dismiss German intellectuals as responding to bullshit doesn’t make much of a valid point IMO.

    Mashup is a major and growing movement. As someone who has always striven to create original work in many media, I don’t like it much – but in all areas, from rap to fine art, it is more and more accepted as a valid way of responding to the sudden accessibility of both creative materials and creativity itself. “There is no originality,” is the base of this and it and it isn’t artsy fartsy European intellectuals driving it. It is people at home with PC’s and apps.

  2. mostly off-topic to the subject of this particular book and this particular author:

    “German art does look toward mashups; it has an endless fascination with death, sex, degeneracy and dissolution.

    However, it still remains that much German intellectual thought also still responds to bullshit”

    I guess I’m just no German enough to have realised that – then again being Anglophile I haven’t bothered much with my own culture in the last twenty years.

    I would like you to show me – since you truly seem to believe this – the evidence of US culture NOT having a fascination (come to think of it – any first-world nation) with death, sex, etc. – the TV shows that get shown over here certainly seem to have more than their fair share of this…

    When I was a kid the German art I liked didn’t concentrate on the subjects mentioned, but I might simply have been picky.

    Whatever, I really dislike negative generalisations – whether of Germany, US, UK, Arabia, Asia or whatever – especially if it’s stated as obvious, and especially if it’s not shown that the opposite is true for the criticsing culture.

    For the record, whether that book is as good as the lady in the blog you linked to thinks, or not, if she stole most of the content, this German also thinks she plagiarises (so does Cassie Edwards, so did Janet Dailey with regards to some Nora Roberts books). I’m not planning on buying the book to find out.

  3. I don’t read German, so I don’t know exactly what praise and criticism is being leveled at this book in Germany. But since I’ve seen similar unrestrained enthusiasm about questionable art produced in other countries and written in English (and Spanish and French, which I can pick my way through), I tend to doubt that there’s anything uniquely German about this particular situation. The fact that she’s the daughter of someone established in writing and theatre makes me think both the prize nomination and the critical defense of her has more to do with nepotism than it does with anything else.

    You know, what actually worries me about this young woman’s future is that she’s been hailed as a genius and then ended up with a storm of controversy about whether or not her work is her own, all before she’s even of legal age. I think both those things will destroy her faster than the cigarettes. She’ll never be free of either one.

    Of course, in this world where people are famous for being famous and reality TV gives has-beens new careers, who knows? She may end up living high and wide for decades, while the likes of you and me struggle to publish something here and there.

  4. She could lie low for a couple years and then come back with a new pen name. And if she is prudent she will use those couple years writing something of her own!

  5. Leaving aside the matter of national culture–what bothers me (and clearly everyone else here) is Hegemann’s blithe assertion that what she did is okay because it somehow increased her “authenticity”–how stealing someone else’s work and representing it as your own makes you more authentic than someone who writes the words herself eludes me.

    If Western culture is indeed veering toward the mashup (I don’t know that it is, but it’s an interesting thing to consider), at least in music in the U.S. artists are required to pay for their samples. I wonder if Airen saw a Euro from all this.

    Paranthetically, Amy, I’m not certain what you object to in the Schiele painting–maybe I’m not working at a resolution that permits me to see what you’re seeing. It’s a very impressionistic self portrait, technically interesting, but hardly a Madonna made from elephant scat.

  6. I love Egon Schiele and I am eurotrash – or let’s say, used to be. What I object to is the falsehood here, and the bragging about ripping somebody else off. The point about him, is that he was imprisoned and persecuted repeatedly for his artistic vision, which involved teen girls and a lot of partying in addition to what a lot of people think is a celebration of anorexia, death and sex. For better or worse, it couldn’t be questioned that his paintings were his own. And he was young and his wife and girlfriends also very young – the age of this girl.

    I think Helene Hegemann is in prison, commenter #1 – a prison she chose for herself, and that her father’s apparently happy with.

    Nice to see I’m getting comments again!!

  7. Ah. I’m familiar with Schiele’s paintings, but not so much with his background (and I swear, if there’s a teenaged girl in that painting I am so not seeing her…morning myopia, maybe?).

    I am not a psychiatrist and have no business with diagnosis, but Hegemann’s behavior strikes me as sociopathic. I don’t want to see her in prison, but I would like to have her understand that what she did was theft (hell, if she got Airen’s permission to “quote” that page and a half, but included it without attribution, it’s still morally equivocal), and I’m afraid the only way she’s going to get that–maybe–is by truly negative attention, being pilloried, having the book withdrawn from publication, whatever. And it sounds like that’s not going to happen.

  8. I put a non-threatening Egon Schiele self-portrait up instead of the sexually-influenced, disturbing ones of himself and his wife and girlfriends/models. My point was, he was making art out of what many people would consider a negative/unhealthy lifestyle. Young people are particularly susceptible to thinking that “art” is about all the angsty bad stuff they think about when they’re young. As some of my students said this morning, “What makes her partying, having sex and doing drugs any different from any other teenager?” If you see things differently – if you have something to say, then any subject can be a good subject for fiction.

    In this case, she’s not saying anything that everybody does not know. She’s definitely not saying something unique to herself, as she got her material from an older blogger. As another student said, “She’s only 17 – what does she really have to say about those subjects?”

    She’s being pilloried by readers, was my main point. Making art out of ugliness is a German tradition, and it is much less-embraced in America. Our most popular artists, filmmakers and authors focus on things other than the lowest common denominator of life.

    In the EU in general, it’s a little depressing as to the moribundity of their culture. They got decades of mileage out of ripping off American culture and then making fun of it, while selectively embracing various icons and rejecting others. I think no matter what the culture, it’s good to have one’s own favorites & icons. It’s depressing that the German critics so-embraced this, and are so blindly ignorant about the misuse of Jim Jarmusch’s very famous quote that meant take inspiration from others – don’t COPY IT word for word.

    Chris Meadows at Teleread covered this

  9. “In the EU in general, it’s a little depressing as to the moribundity of their culture. They got decades of mileage out of ripping off American culture and then making fun of it, while selectively embracing various icons and rejecting others.”

    Oh dear. At least I said that I personally found American culture a little over sweetened sometimes. Could you please state this as a personal view and not a universal truth?

  10. Damon, it’s not hard for YOU to say that you disagree and give examples. People have complained for years about the pervasiveness of American culture, including food, music, clothing, and storytelling in book and movie form. The thing is – all people need to do is create their own. And that heretofore has not happened to the extent it needs to in the EU. I can back it up by saying simply that people in America, including myself, appreciate the opportunity to sell our work in Europe. I don’t have any German counterparts, even at the extensive crappiness of my writing “career.” In comparison to Hollywood movie releases, and in syndicated television shows, the same is true. While there are US television channels and networks devoted to other countries’ culture, news and entertainment, these are primarily from the Latin world, including South and Central America, or from Eastern Europe (only recently joining the EU) and Asia. There is no French, German, Austrian, Belgian, or even Spanish-as-in-Spain network. We do have BBC America and a lot of people love it. As to the English-speaking world, that has a lot of interchange, and has launched a number of authors and franchises popular worldwide.

    There are vibrant literatures and art communities throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean. Although we do not see as much of it as we would like, Asian cinema, art and literature is also vibrant – and can you say anime and manga? Bollywood is now recognized worldwide.

    These are just a few examples of the concept that the problem is not the pervasiveness of American culture, by now, it must be viewed as a lack within various European countries themselves. I said what I said because this book by Helene Hegemann is disturbing in so many ways. I’m not fluent enough in German to be certain of the impression I got when I read a couple chapters. I felt that it wasn’t just the plagiarism issue, but the nature of the writing and “story” itself. It was dreadful. The language was mannered and forced and I could find no real story – just a series of depressing events and people acting like assholes. Put that together with the whole situation and this girl seems like the female German Danny Bonaduce allowed to say she wrote something she didn’t, an editor fool enough to buy it, critics fool enough to praise it, and its true nature identified by readers who are universally slagging it and saying they want their money back.

    This is not to say this doesn’t happen in America: of course it does. But there isn’t as much going on in Germany otherwise, and it is not just the different population size and market that is the difference.

  11. “Making art out of ugliness is a German tradition, and it is much less-embraced in America.”

    I would say that depends on how you define ugliness. I’m also not sure if other European countries didn’t have non-conventionally pretty art, especially during the 30s and 40s, often as a reaction to the body cult of art in Nazi culture: but I’m sure the German artists who dared to commit “degenerate art” did it with the clearest vision of the consequences of doing that style of art at the time.

    “Our most popular artists, filmmakers and authors focus on things other than the lowest common denominator of life.”

    Hmm, not sure considering the movie blockbusters that get imported over here, I am however not qualified to judge the pictorial arts, or even the literary US arts, since I mostly read genre (sf, fantasy, romance) and no other literary fiction.

    “They got decades of mileage out of ripping off American culture and then making fun of it, while selectively embracing various icons and rejecting others.”

    Actually I agree with that. The thing is, I think the US did it with European culture, too – considering that the average German in a movie is a Nazi, or a Bavarian in Lederhosen, and what most US Americans I met during my exchange trip associated with Germany (except for Nazis) was Oktoberfest and Hofbräuhaus and Neuschwanstein. And your average Brit in a US movie has British humor and is called English, even when they’re from Wales or Scotland. Not to mention that it’s only slowly reflected in US movies (but at least it’s starting to be reflected) that lots of immigrants live in the UK (like Lenny Henry said in his 2005 stand-up concert: “Do you know the film Noting Hill? Harsden is the part where they put all the black people living in Notting Hill while making the film.”).

    “In the EU in general, it’s a little depressing as to the moribundity of their culture. ”

    You know, you quote a lot of good links for the plagiarism case that you’re post is on, but never do you give factual evidence for these generalisations you keep adding.

    I will believe that your personal experience of European culture has been like that, but I am European, too, and still – and my experience hasn’t been like that. I’d really, like Damon Shaw above me, would appreciate less general dissing.

  12. I suspect it depends on what you’re looking at in any culture whether you think it’s “moribund” or “over sweetened” or otherwise failing in one place or another. I may question the wisdom of the prize judges in Germany who think this particular book ought to be considered for a prize, but I certainly also question (and have on this blog) the wisdom of the Publisher’s Weekly editors who couldn’t find any books by women to put on their top ten list of US books. Literary idiocy is not confined to any one continent.

    As someone who is a big fan of several UK SF writers, was highly influenced by both German and French work when I was in school, has spent more than a quarter of a century studying a Japanese martial art, adores the culture of Mexico, is thrilled to be published along with Argentinian surrealists, and constantly finds something fascinating from other places on this Earth from the southernmost tip of Africa to outer Siberia, I love how we are all exposed to so many different cultures and ideas these days. I don’t like everything I see — Sturgeon was right — but I don’t find that any one country or culture is the only source of value.

  13. I’ve been mulling how to respond to this post–thanks, Amy, for bringing out many points of view and sparking discussion.

    My own thought about the seventeen-year-old artist is about the same as I felt about some of Warhol’s work, and Yoko Ono’s–gimmick. It flashes across the sky, it vanishes. She might retire on her fifteen minutes of fame, or she might have an eye for what is currently stylish, and launch an interesting career, mirroring back at people what is best, and worst, in culture. It causes dialogue!

    Where I profoundly disagree is with the unsupported statements about German culture. (If you can point to any one thing going on in Germany or Austria, now or historically, and say it exemplifies ‘German culture’ any more than someone can point to the Puritans at the time of the witch hunts and say they exemplified American culture, or the hill-hiding survivalists now.) Even with a degree in German Literature, I don’t pretend to be familiar with the vast spectrum of German literature, but I will state this with confidence: never, at any time, have I gained the impression that Germans during any period, even the dark years of last century, delved any more into death, degeneracy, and grossness than any other culture on Earth, during any time. In fact, the Germans have often led Western European thought in philosophy, religious freedoms, romanticism, and the pursuit of beauty, from Wolfram von Eschenbach to the poet Klopstock, to the thoughts of Kuhn, and up through modern times. I’ve seen some riveting work from Germans unflinchingly examining what happened to their culture during the 20th century–check out the poetry of Mascha Kaleko, just for example.

  14. Well, I’m the one who wrote the story about an idiot redeeming himself in a postapocalyptic world by absorbing Rilke.

    I think Nancy Jane is right – this situation, especially with the prize nominations and coverage that seeks to make excuses for the product and producer, is very similar to the top prize lists where they couldn’t find a single female author or book about any diverse subject written by any even vaguely diverse writer.

    We would be commenting in a very different way here in America if this had been an American teen and she had basically done a Tucker Max:

    I’ve got a right to my opinion, guys. I think it’s a big problem that this book was promoted so heavily, that it’s just bad reading it and it speaks to BAD TASTE and NOTHING TO SAY, as opposed to “smart commentary on mashup kultur,” whether or not one knows it is plagiarized or not.

    The thing is, Tucker Max got a book deal, not THE BIG BOOK DEAL. His movie was produced, but did not make much money, and a much funnier, more clever, entertaining movie that was somewhat similar, “The Hangover,” became a very big hit. Tucker Max is still being the giant douchebag asshat that he is, nobody thinks he’s anything other than a douchebag asshat, and even his adherents are starting to realize that he’s an empty container.

    Have your Germans back, the karmic kultur center of the Universe. Wo bist meine Mints?

  15. And as to “lowest common denominator,” this speaks to my own aesthetic, and I do have one, and it is thought-out.

    To me, “lowest common denominator” means several things, but most of all, it means lazy and grabby, in it for the very short term, easy, quick score. It’s very easy to grab attention and make a “quick buck” whether discussing the sale of artistic product/writing, or actual marketable products.

    Tucker Max: smart enough to find a way to make money off being the world’s biggest douchebag. Is this guy going to be remembered for anything favorable, and will his marketing concept be worth anything even five years from now, much less ten, twenty, or more years? Of course not. The Tucker Maxes of the 90’s, 80’s, and their more timid counterparts of prior decades are probably more forgotten and of less worth than such in-their-day maligned products as thrift store art.

    People talk about whether or not any cultural product will last, and engage in endless debates.

    One of my basic rules for determining whether or not a product is a good long-term or even medium-term investment is its intrinsic adherence to basic qualities and principles that are connected to worth. As to communication via writing and fiction, what possibly persuades anybody involved with the Helene Hegemann project, including even herself at only age 17, that ten years from now, when she is 27, this book will still be selling and drawing attention? This book is not Berlin Alexanderplatz, and it is not Christopher Isherwood. Above all, whether or not one knows that parts are lifted directly from someone else’s original work, what’s actually on the page is nothing like the hype – it’s overwrought, repetitive, exploitive, and above all – boring. My students even hearing about it were like, “yawn.”

    People are just in general sick of being asked to pay for the privilege of looking into someone else’s dirty laundry. Maybe they’ll look for free – but I think the whole gossip culture as well as wallowing in jackass stuff people do to each other because they’re too bored and unchallenged enough to do anything else – is a done deal. That’s the lowest common denominator, and below that is Tiger Woods, who expects us all to wait breathlessly for his undying wisdom in less than 20 hours . . . However, I do think he could have a membership-based subscription service along with John Edwards –

  16. I also do not accept that I am “stupid,” untalented or uncultured because I have standards and an aesthetic for what I do – with my writing time, with my artistic time, and day to day – with my life.

    When are we going to apply principles of sustainability to creative work? There’s a novel concept. I am sure some man will blast it out and take credit for having thought of it.

  17. Considering this quote in its entirety:

    “Making art out of ugliness is a German tradition, and it is much less-embraced in America. Our most popular artists, filmmakers and authors focus on things other than the lowest common denominator of life.”

    and this quote:
    “To me, “lowest common denominator” means several things, but most of all, it means lazy and grabby, in it for the very short term, easy, quick score.”

    I conclude that you see German tradition as ugly, lazy and grabby.

    Since I’m not willing to start calling names and – as a matter of fact – don’t believe either US or German art is ugly, lazy and grabby (solely), I don’t think there’s any way of making clear to you that I can see (and I’m sure other Germans can, too) that this girl has committed plagiarism but I don’t believe that means German tradition is ugly, lazy and grabby. I also personally don’t see enough evidence for your view of German tradition, therefore I’ll just take your opinions with a personal grain of salt from now on.