Sunday, March 28, 2010

German bookfans are still locked in furious debate over a new best-seller by a 17-year-old high school drop-out who was nominated for the Leipzig Book Prize this month. Helene Hegemann’s Axolotl Roadkill has sold over 100,000 copies, and since this kind of fame is forbidden to ordinary mortals, let alone to crabby middle-aged writers trying against great odds to scarf a living from their work, literary detectives descended upon the book like flies on cow-plop, and they quickly discovered it contained—quelle horreur! —a variety of passages lifted (actually lightly re-written) from online German blogs.

Helene, who considers San Francisco writer Kathy Acker one of her influences, defended her obviously successful methods, asserting that cut-ups, collage, sampling of existing texts are interesting and legitimate artistic and literary techniques. Her publisher agreed and the book was duly entered in the Leipzig competition.

Critics meanwhile cried plagiarism, and a veritable shitstorm of commentary has thundered through the press, at least in Germany and England, with allegations of literary shoplifting flying around like ninja throwing-stars. If I view matters correctly, the debate has proved to be of more interest than the book which started it. (German pet-shop owners have also profited: the sale of axolotls—a Mexican species of chameleon—have reportedly skyrocketed this winter.)

One of Helene Hegemann’s defenders argues that if the repeated processing of standard melodies by jazz musicians were subject to the same scrutiny, there would be no jazz. Most agree that plagiarism is odious, but the problem is that given the incredible rate of information-exchange on the Internet, how could writers possibly hope to avoid plagiarizing someone, let alone being plagiarized themselves?

If you read a half-dozen blogs a day, aren’t some of those thoughts and formulations going to become a part of your own, and how could one formally credit their original appearance to begin with? If you rip off a blogger’s ideas or language, how do you know they weren’t ripped off from someone else? After all, nobody owns language, and if you spread your ideas and self-projected memes among the digitized public, how can you expect to control them?

A larger theoretical issue is that of intertextuality, a term created by Julia Kristeva in 1966 alluding to the ways in which a given text necessarily references others. Enlarged upon by pomo critics in various contexts, the concept is rather spongy, but it does generally argue that texts do not emanate in 19th-century authorial  fashion from the mind of some hyper-talented genius. Instead they emerge from other texts that precede, and mix it up with whatever texts have influenced the perception of the reader. In other words, texts do not exist independently, and authorship is a complicated structure to say the least.

Helene should have credited her Internet sources, at least generally if not specifically, but the suspicion arises that her publisher forbade that for marketing reasons. The ensuing controversy now propels book sales to record levels. Despite the fortune she has accumulated, it appears to many that she has fallen victim to capitalism, rather than to have made any progress in opposing it, if that was her intention.

What makes this something of a cause célèbre is that a young author has blundered into the world of professional book publishing with the experience, modus operandi  and predelictions gained from the blogosphere. The result is a confrontation involving opposing ethical standards for writers, and indeed the practical course of their careers.

The simple fact is that people who write on the Internet need to embrace the idea that they will contribute to the information pool in which we are all swimming for the good of the community, while those writers scheming for fame and fortune should get themselves selected by a mainstream publishing house who make bucks off someone’s talent and who, like Disney Corporation or the music industry, have a team of lawyers at their disposal to save every dime that might get lost from copyright infringement.

Meanwhile, as we wait patiently for a mainstream U.S. publisher to cough up a translation of Axolotl Roadkill and market it in our nicht-Deutsch-sprechen (but nonethless recently health-reformed) republic, you can get an impression of our teen-aged punkgirl author from her MySpace page at,
from which I have borrowed her photos. Personally I wish her every success and thank her for touching off the fascinating debate which revolves around her, but which clearly affects writers everywhere.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for another thoughtful column. I am concerned about plagiarism in myself. I read a lot and have a magpie memory and I know that I've inadvertently parroted somebody's much more profound thoughts on many an occasion. Currently, a Miami journalist is being rebuked for plagiarism and yet, he was simply writing a standard article about drug dealing and corruption. How many ways can you write about Mr. X and the amount of money he laundered and still be original?