Brave New (Writing) World: It’s Not Plagiarism, It’s Mixing

According to The New York Times, 17-year-old Helene Hegemann whose first novel is in contention for a $20,000 prize, defends herself from charges of plagiarism by saying, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”

I fail to see how something can be “authentic” when it’s been lifted word for word from someone else’s book, without any attribution (much less payment), but apparently my lack of understanding is because I’m too old. The Times says she defends herself by saying she’s of a new generation, one that mixes different works as a matter of course.

It appears the prize jurors — who I assume are somewhat older than 17 — agree with her, because they put her on the prize list even though they knew that she’d taken material from someone else’s novel. Maybe it’s just old fashioned of me to think that using the exact words of another writer to tell a similar story is a form of theft.  

Maybe, but I don’t think so. Mixing may be an art form these days, but that doesn’t mean using someone else’s work without permission is right. Besides if she feels so strongly that there’s no originality and everything is a mix, why didn’t she just publish the work for free and anonymously, instead of letting herself be praised as a young genius and being put in competition for a substantial prize. (I suspect she also got an advance and will earn royalties, but I’m not privy to her contract.)

The bottom line is simple: she’s getting rewarded for work done by someone else. Her remix might be better art, for all I know — more on that in a minute — but that doesn’t mean the original author doesn’t deserve some credit. After all, she couldn’t have done it without him. And he just happens to have a novel out using that same material, one that hasn’t attracted the same level of attention.

I have to say, if I found my work in something being listed for a big prize, I’d be pissed. Very, very pissed. Pissed enough to call a lawyer.

As for whether the remix is really better art, I’ll defer to Jaron Lanier, who criticizes mashups in You Are Not a Gadget:

The sort of “fresh, radical culture” you expect to see celebrated in the online world these days is a petty mashup of preweb culture. … It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump.

I don’t know that I’d go that far, but I do know that I’m really bored by movies based on old television shows, not to mention new TV shows made from old ones. (Battlestar Gallactica stands out as a rare exception — someone approaching an old idea with actual creativity.) The TV show people are getting paid, so this isn’t theft. But it isn’t art, either.

Yeah, it’s hard to do something creative and original. But I don’t think it’s impossible, especially since we’re standing on the cusp of a lot change these days.

Laura Miller on Salon (that’s attribution, folks) makes an even better point about the quality of this novel:

And — please! — how much longer can very young writers publish novels depicting anomie, drug use and casual sex among their peers and still provoke wonder among their elders?

Given that the grandparents of children like Helene laid the groundwork for this genre in the 1960s, it might be time to recognize that there’s very damn little left to say on the subject.

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The Shadow ConspiracyRocket Boy and the Geek Girls

Nancy Jane has stories in both of the anthologies recently published by Book View Press: “The Savage and the Monster” in The Shadow Conspiracy and “Blindsided by Venus in the House of Mars” in Rocket Boy and the Geek Girls.

Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies is available from PS Publishing and her novella Changeling can be ordered from Aqueduct Press. All fifty (plus one new one) of the short-short stories she posted as part of her year-long Flash Fiction Project are available for free here.

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Brave New (Writing) World: It’s Not Plagiarism, It’s Mixing — 12 Comments

  1. I completely agree with calling this plagiarism. I also want to thank you for not starting to diss general German cultural trends or criticism.

  2. I’ve never been one for dumping on a whole culture for the failings of one person. And given the number of crazy things I see every day here in Texas, not to mention the rest of this country, I’ve got my hands full commenting on the failings of my own people!

  3. Thanks for not slamdunking German culture just because this girl, and the contest, happens to be German. It could so easily have happened here–and similar tricks garner just as much attention and cash every day in the good old US of A.

    I wonder if this is going to be one of those gimmicks that everybody gets on the bandwagon (after all, how hard can it be?) and once the newness has worn off, it’s same old same old . . . same old!

    Though I can’t help but think about how originality was not admired during the Middle Ages. Human nature–she is odd!

  4. I’m not sure we value originality all that much today, but maybe that’s just my reaction to remaking bad television shows into movies that aren’t even as good as the shows, except for the special effects.

  5. How many of our colleagues in the industry have gone to pitch sessions hearing that the exex want “something like [current hot show] . . . but different?” heh.

  6. One correction: the decision to nominate her novel was already done before the plagiarism was discovered. They just failed to remove it from the short list.

  7. Thanks, Mark. The NY Times said, “And a member of the jury said Thursday that the panel had been aware of the plagiarism charges before they made their final selection,” so I took that to mean they knew before making a decision. I can see that judges might be reluctant to remove something when they’d already put it on the list, especially if they haven’t heard all the details of the plageiarism charges. It will be interesting to see if it wins!

  8. Since they didn’t publish the short list until after the plagiarism came to their attention I assume that, yes, they at least had the opportunity to remove the book, and I agree that not doing that may be a statement by itself. In the meantime I saw a comment on YouTube from a member of the jury who defended her work as a product of the new sharing culture, so I’m indeed a little worried that they may even give her the prize (disclaimer: I’m German).

  9. I think it’s reprehensible, as you said. I see it as a product of the internet, mostly, which has conditioned people raised with it in their lives that ANYTHING can be acquired for free if one looks hard enough, and that there will be no repercussions. Theft is excusable because it’s so commonplace.

  10. I was actually disappointed by the lukewarm response of the German literary establishment to the Helene Hegemann plagiarism case. There were some snarky articles, but compared to the outrage in the US over the Kaavya Viswanathan and Cassie Edwards cases, Hegemann got off lightly. Even though Hegemann’s plagiarism is more severe than Viswanathan’s.

    Though to be fair, I think Hegemann’s publisher is as much to blame for this as Hegemann herself. Even before the plagiarism allegations came to light, Hegemann struck me very much as a manufactured literary sensation. Young, reasonably attractive female author, fascinating/tragic family background, a book with lots of sex and drug content, which promises to be a scandal. Basically, this is Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands (gasp – a woman writes about sex in excruciating detail) crossed with Benjamin Lebert (teen author sensation). And the publisher was so eager to seize this new sensation that they forgot all common sense. Plagiarism isn’t that hard to detect, there usually are tell-tale style changes. All an editor or copyeditor had to do was copy and paste a suspicious passage into Google – she plagiarized from a blog for goodness sake. In short, someone could have caught this problem before the book was published and told Hegemann (who may really have no idea that copying other people’s words without attribution is wrong) to rewrite the passages.

    What annoyed me particularly was how easily critics and journalists bought the whole “remixing” explanation. I don’t doubt that Helene Hegemann believes in her remixing explanation and that she probably genuinely doesn’t see a problem with it. But I was stunned how easily critics and journalists were willing to accept that plagiarism/remixing is just the way young people do things and that it’s no big deal. Sorry, but plagiarism is a big deal. I am a teacher and if I caught a student doing what Hegemann has done, that student would be in severe trouble. And having a member of the jury of the prize of the Leipzig book fair (which is one of the three most prestigious literary awards in the country) or a prominent culture journalist or literary critic state that plagiarism is just remixing and the way things work in the digital age sends the wrong message to aspiring authors as well as to highschool and university students.

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