Am I the only one who found this story inadvertently amusing? It’s about a 17-year-old German girl whose best-selling, literary-prize-nominated novel is in part plagiarized from another novel.
Partly what’s amusing is the defense. I can’t tell if it’s the journalist of the novelist who’s confused about terminology here.
Best-selling teenage novelist Helene Hegemann rejected accusations of plagiarism in her debut novel “Axolotl Roadkill” on Tuesday, after it emerged she had taken slabs of text from an anonymous author and blogger.
The 17-year-old shooting star of the German literary scene admitted she had taken “in total, about a page” from the underground authorAiren’s novel ”Strobo,” but insisted she had not stolen the material but rather simply neglected to properly acknowledge it.
The journalist says she rejects accusations of plagiarism, but what she seems to reject is the accusation of theft. She’s guilty of both, though it’s not clear to me she’s really done anything wrong. Using the material and not properly acknowledging it are by definition plagiarism. Theft is a different thing. There are many variations on the idea that bad writers imitate while good writers steal. It’s just that good writers usually don’t steal so blatantly.
However, this part of the defense is just as amusing:
Although Ms. Hegemann has apologized for not being more open about her sources, she has also defended herself as the representative of a different generation, one that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of information across new and old media, to create something new. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said Ms.Hegemann in a statement released by her publisher after the scandal broke.
I’m sure which statement is more wrongheaded and pretentious. If she really thinks she’s part of a "different generation" because she "freely mixes and matches" information to create something new, she knows even less about the history of art or literature than she does about plagiarism.
Even if we exclude the obvious borrowings and reiterations throughout the history of art and literature, at the very least such a technique goes back a hundred years or more. It’s called collage. When you say it like that, it doesn’t sound very new, does it? The technique isn’t just used in art, either. Check out John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. Trilogy for a literary example
This statement puzzles me even more: "There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity." What does that mean? When used of art, authenticity has two meanings, one clear and one gobbledygook. The clear meaning is something like "not fake," as in, "That’s an authentic Rembrandt." Then there’s the less clear one, meaning something like "true to oneself" or to some primal creed. This is the sense embraced by thoroughly imitative poseurs.
The writer in question doesn’t seem like a thoroughly imitative poseur, so I can’t make any sense of her statement. Maybe, as with the definition of plagiarism, she’s just confused.
Finally, I find it amusing that literary plagiarism, especially of so little material, would cause an uproar among anyone for moral reasons. Literary stealing is an issue for publishers and writers if it reduces their profits somehow, which explains some copyright laws. But copyright laws were designed not to stop someone from copying a page or so from a novel, but to prevent publishers from republishing entire books without paying authors anything. It was about stopping piracy, not art.
In non-fiction and especially in academic work, outrage over plagiarism makes more sense. A work of history plagiarizing its sources has ignored the rule of scholarship that readers should be able to return to the sources the scholar used. But what reader would want to return to the sources of a novel?
Even acknowledging sources in a novel would seem strange. Many novels are heavily researched, but they rarely have bibliographies. These scandals erupt because of word-for-word borrowings, but that’s not the limit. If a historian writes a book about the French Revolution without citing any sources, it’s plagiarized because it hasn’t attributed its sources. If a novelist writes a historically detailed but fictional story about a romance during the French Revolution without citing sources that were undoubtedly used in researching the novel, then it’s not plagiarized.
How could reading 25 books on the French Revolution and using that information to imbue your novel with detail and atmosphere be a good thing, while borrowing a page or so from another novel be a bad thing? The outrage in alleged scandals like this aren’t based on any consistent notion of plagiarism or theft, which makes them very hard to take seriously.