I can’t understand what all the fuss is about…

The latest German literary sensation is 17-year-old Helene Hegemann, whose debut novel, Axolotl Roadkill, has sold more than 100,000 copies in just two weeks and is nominated for a major literary award.  Hegemann’s novel is a chronicle of Berlin’s sex-and-drug-fueled techno scene and according to Der Spiegel, “many consider it to be a generation-defining novel.”

Unfortunately for Hegemann, she now finds herself at the center of a growing literary scandal, accused of plagiarism by a writer who claims she lifted whole passages from his techno blog and his novel, Strobo. She has been accused of plagiarizing from other sources as well. What is Hegemann’s response to these serious charges? She says: “I can’t understand what all the fuss is about.”

From the Independent:

In an artful attempt to steal their critics’ thunder Ms Hegemann and her publishers have gone on the offensive. They have managed, in part, to turn what at face value appeared to be a clearcut case of stealing somebody else’s words into a wide-ranging debate about the meaning of plagiarism in the online era. They argue that Axolotl Roadkill is merely an example of modern “intertextual mixing”.

[…]

While she acknowledges that she used numerous “sources” for her book, she also claims that she is a member of a different generation of writers which is used to adapting and using the abundance of information available online for its own creative purposes…[Hegemann says] “There is no such thing as originality anyway, there is just authenticity”.

Now, however, Hegemann and her representatives may be backing away from this position.  Again from the Independent:

Yesterday, however, Ms Hegemann’s and her publishers clearly thought it was time to modify their stance. Ullstein published a statement admitting that Ms Hegemann had lifted some 20 excerpts from Strobo virtually word for word. It acknowledged that a further 20 passages came from other texts or were inspired by them. A list of Ms Hegemann’s “sources” will be published in the fourth edition of her book. However the plagiarism question was neatly side-stepped: “This novel follows the aesthetic principle of intertextuality and may contain further excerpts,” the statement concluded. Whether the reading public will accept that explanation remains to be seen.

It’s unclear whether Hegemann actually has personal experience of the techno scene she writes about in her novel or whether she relied solely on other first-hand accounts, which is perhaps how she got herself into trouble.

In discussing Hegemann on the Guardian’s Books Blog, Robert McCrum writes, “When everything is available free online, what is the meaning of copyright?” He closes with this: “…plagiarism is just one part of the literary contract that may now be up for renegotiation in Google-world. Some will say, with Cavafy, that ‘The barbarians are coming.’ I don’t take that line, but I think the renegotiation is increasingly urgent.”

Is the controversy surrounding Axolotl Roadkill a sign of things to come?   [SW]

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5 responses to “I can’t understand what all the fuss is about…

  1. Doug Cowie

    I haven’t read this novel, and frankly, sex-and-drug-fueled techno Berlin isn’t really all that interesting a subject to me, but anyway:

    “There is no such thing as originality anyway, there is just authenticity.”

    Sounds like so much horsecrap to me. I’m not 100% sure I understand what Frl. Hegemann means, but if I take it that she sees her work as “authentic” or real in some way even if parts of it have been borrowed/stolen, isn’t it kind of a problem that her own authenticity, or her expression of her authenticity such as it might be, depends on passing off representations ripped off from others as her own? Furthermore, presumably if she had found some way to build the fact that some stuff was lifted from elsewhere into her narrative/structure, then this question wouldn’t really be that big of a deal. In other words: perhaps the artistic merit of the work is really what’s at stake here; maybe the book is just bad, and if Ullstein hadn’t been so keen to whip out and hype a novel that they undoubtedly see as the next Wetlands, maybe they would’ve noticed.

    And by the way, this “my generation” stuff about using and adapting is also a total load of crap: writers have been shaping and adapting other material since pretty much forever. The internet doesn’t make that any different, it just means you have more resources… and, because of the way this particular medium works, it also means you’re more likely to get caught when someone googles the phrase, sentence or paragraph on which you did a ctrl-c ctrl-v number.

    “Poetic license” is not an excuse for “artistic laziness”.

  2. Sarai W.

    They probably did think they had the next ‘Wetlands’ on their hands. The awfulness of ‘Wetlands’ will prevent me from ever picking up the lastest ‘German literary sensation’ again, including this one.

    This situation is similar to the scandal a few years ago when a young Harvard undergraduate received a massive advance from Little, Brown to write two ‘chick lit’ novels. She caved under the pressure and plagiarised from many different sources, including Salman Rushdie, though she would never admit what she’d done.

    On this particular story, NY Magazine wrote: “Plagiarists almost never simply confess. There are always mitigating circumstances…The ultimate act of chutzpah for a Harvard English major would have been to say that the similarities were part of a deliberate postmodern intertextual take on ‘real’ genre novels.”

    Four years later, this is the route that Hegemann has decided to take. It’ll be interesting to find out what the lawyers for the plagiarised authors make of the ‘intertextual mixing’ defense.

    NY Magazine link:
    http://nymag.com/news/imperialcity/16935/

  3. Dan Rebellato

    It’s interesting though that there’s some ambiguity in the defence and the attacks. Is the concern purely about plagiarism, i.e. theft? While plagiarism is, of course, wrong, interpolating other people’s work in to your own is hardly new and exists in some well-regarded books. Definitions of plagiarism have changed over time of course; most ‘new’ folk songs between the 20s and 50s would probably be considered plagiarism by modern standards.

    Or is the real accusation that the book’s value rested on its authenticity and that, if she didn’t have those experiences, the book is less valuable? In which case, the critics would have been equally annoyed if she’d actually made it all up. This raises rather more interesting questions about the relationship between authenticity and creativity. I’m thinking also of cases like JT LeRoy, James Frey, Rahila Khan and Anthony Godby Johnson, and, most extraordinary of all, Ern Malley, which raise questions both about the requirements we make on authors and over-eager dismissals of authorial intention.

  4. Haha, I saw this last week. My favourite part:

    “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.”

    Isn’t it brilliant how he’s failng to rescue his integrity? If her court case succeeds, I know what I’m going to be doing for my coming novel!

  5. Doug Cowie

    So, since Dan mentioned James Frey, below, a world-record-length comment. This is a piece I wrote a few years ago for Prospect magazine, although they never used it.

    James Frey’s 2003 memoir of addiction and recovery, A Million Little Pieces , sold millions of copies and spent more than fifteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list after American talk show host Oprah Winfrey trumpeted its merits on her all-powerful television book club. After issuing several denials and threatening lawsuits against those who called him a liar, following an “outing” at the hands of the Smoking Gun webpage, the author has now admitted that he exaggerated and fabricated many of the central scenes in the book. Weblogs and newspaper columnists have heaped opprobrium on the author, and his agent dumped him. Oprah invited Frey and his U.S. publisher Nan Talese onto her live chat show and allowed him to play the nasty criminal turned contrite victim of his own dirty deeds (again—because that’s more or less what his book is about) while she vilified Nan Talese for not identifying in the manuscript the (in hindsight) “obvious red flags” that waved warnings of inauthenticity. Frey has written in a statement released on his publisher’s webpage, and to be included with all future editions of the book, that his “mistake, and it is one that I deeply regret, is writing about the person that I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience.” He states further that his book is a “subjective truth,” a phrase that in this context sounds less like an attempt to say something meaningful and more like a Rumsfeldian handwashing. That Frey hoodwinked his readers is cynical and wrong, and it does matter, as a statement released by Frey’s publisher clearly and correctly states. But when the anger and furore dissipate, when Oprah picks a new book to recommend and Frey turns his attention back to writing the screenplay based on the book based (loosely) on his life, a rather more complicated question about the value of creating and reading literature emerges.
    Frey writes in his apology that “I wanted to use my experiences to tell my story about addiction and alcoholism, about recovery, about family and friends and faith and love, about redemption and hope. I wanted to write, in the best-case scenario, a book that would change lives, would help people who were struggling, would inspire them in some way.” The cult that popped up in the wake of the book’s publication suggests that this is indeed how many readers approached A Million Little Pieces. Fans went out and got tattoos and t-shirts of Frey’s “hold on” catchphrase, people claimed that his book inspired them to sort out their own addictions, on Oprah Frey offered a message of support for a young addict in the same Minnesota rehab clinic in which he cleaned up—the book became some kind of literary rehabilitation program based on the idea that If Jim Could Do It, So Can You! There’s nothing in particular wrong with that, except that the book turned out to be a lie. People were moved by the book because it actually happened. Its shitstorm of vomit and drugs and brutality, centered on a nasty protagonist who would—we knew because of the picture on the dustjacket—come good gave, in Frey’s words, the hope of redemption, that, again, if Jim could do it, so can you, because you’re not nearly as depraved as he brags he was.
    Stripped of its badge of authenticity, an insulted Oprah and her sea of acolytes howl in its wake that “what kept them going” was that it was true, as unbelievable as the events were, they really happened. Now they don’t want to know anything about it. According to The Smoking Gun, the New York Observer reported in 2003 that Nan Talese had “declined to publish it” when A Million Little Pieces was presented as a work of fiction. It isn’t difficult to see why. At its best this is a mediocre book, and at its worst it is cliché or secondhand, the kind of creative writing program prose that uses colors as nouns: “I watch the red drift from my skin.” It is rhythmically dull, and even most of the long sentences are really just simple declaratives strung together without punctuation. The narrative relies on an abundance of vomit and swearing for its effect, and many of the scenes are already familiar from other books and films, so that like Otto Pivner’s play in the William Gaddis novel The Recognitions, while it certainly isn’t plagiarized and there’s nothing particularly wrong with it, one has the impression that one has read this book before, and possibly seen the film of it already. It becomes not much more than sub-Chuck Palahniuk, sub-Denis Johnson, sub-Ken Kesey, sub-a lot of things.
    What readers responded to, and what they seem to want to respond to, is not the writing itself, a story, told with texture, character, excitement, imagery and metaphor, but the simple idea that what they are reading is verifiably true, and that they can watch its author, the erstwhile outlaw turned humble, bearded, button-down shirt and khaki trouser-wearing member of society, retell his tale of fucked-up druggie to successful homeowner on television. As fiction, it fails. And so, as literature it fails. It becomes nothing more than the embellished, empty boasts of an old soak at the end of the bar, the bookworld equivalent of the photographs of trucks in the Iraqi desert: superficially correct but lacking the crucial substance on the inside. Frey writes in his apology that “I didn’t initially think of what I was writing as nonfiction or fiction, memoir or autobiography.” He thought rather of how to talk about himself, of portraying himself “in ways that made me tougher and more daring and more aggressive than in reality I was, or I am.” And that is his problem. The best of all writing—fiction or nonfiction—concerns itself not with telling a story or making its author look clever or tough, but with how the story is told. This means not only imagining and developing characters and plotting events, but also using language that rises above the dull and everyday, that strives to convey, through image and metaphor, ideas and emotions that mere relation of facts or statements of authenticity cannot. And it also means making difficult decisions, as a writer, about point-of-view, and about fiction and nonfiction. Frey wanted to make things up while simultaneously proclaiming their veracity in order to lend them and himself authenticity—not realizing that literary authenticity and quality have very little to do with whether something happened or not. In fact, when the primary value of a work is based on the ability to verify that it happened, literature is lost.
    Frey’s mistake is not, as he says in his statement, that he wrote about the person he created in his mind; it is that he wrote about that person without acknowledging—neither to himself nor to his readers—that that is what he was doing. By calling that fictional person himself, by not writing about a fiction as a fiction, he wrote dishonestly, both to himself and to his readers. And that dishonesty is literature’s loss. Primacy was placed on asserting a nonexistent truth in the service of a particular message, rather than delving beneath the facts—whether in a work of fiction, or indeed a memoir about a fiction—to discover the truth that lies buried beneath them. The most pertinent comparison to make is to David Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, in which the author admits from the outset that while his story is largely true, it should not be construed as straight memoir or autobiography. The purposes of the literary work are not served by the relation of simple fact. Instead, Eggers writes a story that relies on facts as its basis, but employs his talent and literary techniques to create a moving story the effectivity of which arises from a subtlety of thought and creation, rather than the basic proclamation of a True-to-Life stamp of approval.
    But the failure is not restricted to James Frey. This insistence on verifying the truth, and the tendency of Anglo-American culture generally to value the spectacle of the “true” (ghostwritten celebrity autobiographies, films based however vaguely on a true story, reality television in all its various guises) above all else is a dangerous failure of imagination. To insist, both as writers and readers, only on a book’s truthfulness—from demanding that everything is fact or beg that a novelist confirm which parts of his/her novel are autobiographical—is to obfuscate what is important. Literature is not about facts, it is about thinking complexly through the medium of the written word and through the sharing of a story. By proclaiming only that his book really happened, and by demanding only that his book only be something that really happened, Frey as author and we as readers reduce literature to nothing more than a presentation or performance that will inevitably lead us to disappointment or anger (that it isn’t the Gospel we were led to believe in), rather than to learning, to the opening of new avenues of thinking. It becomes Colin Powell and the pictures of mobile chemical weapons units: a demonstration of something one-dimensional, a deliberately bogus true/false choice. It matters that there were no weapons of mass destruction, and it should. It matters that James Frey lied, but it shouldn’t. Were his book something more than several hundred pages of body fluids and a simple message (“I was bad—really bad—but now I’m good”) it wouldn’t matter. But when writers, publishers and readers collude to insist that what makes the most important reading is the simplistic and/or affirmative messages they can deliver, then those people collude also in the gradual stupefication of a society to the point that it accepts dangerous fictions as truths as long as they are asserted authoritatively, regardless of the bad faith in which they are written, or how badly they are written. Belief in James Frey’s story keeps us rocketing along a road to redemption, to believing that all bad things are curable, and all that matters is that bad things are curable. Belief in Colin Powell’s story keeps us rocketing along a road to war, to believing that all bad countries are curable, and that all that matters is that they are curable. Our approval of the story only because it seems true and tells us about a pot of gold in which we might like to believe preempts the opportunity for development of critical thought. Literature exists to explore and question truth in the hope that in this exploration, writer and reader begin to think more complexly about the world outside the pages of books. To value literature only for the “message”, to take interest only in the sensationalism of superficial facts and details is to remove a vital cognitive tool from a culture that desperately needs it.

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