Here at the EZED, we’re probably not as familiar with emerging literary trends as we should be. As much as we try to stay current with this year’s faked memoirs, collaborative “open source” novels, and posthumous novels assembled from dead Nobel Prize-winning authors’ index cards, we still often find ourselves behind the curve. So imagine our surprise and delight as we discovered this week that plagiarism, once widely denigrated, has now been rehabilitated and repositioned as a genuine literary art form.
Seventeen-year-old German author Helene Hegemann has been earning a lot of praise lately for her novel “Axolotl Roadkill,” a tale of a pretty young German girl’s scandalous adventures on the Berlin nightclub scene. What’s that you say? Standard sex-and-drugs nihilist confessional fare, thinly veiled as fiction and sold on the basis of the comely author’s jacket photo?
Shortly after the book entered the fiction bestseller lists in Germany, it was revealed by bloggers that substantial portions of the already slim (208 pages) book had been lifted without alterations from a lesser known novel entitled “Strobo,” published by a German writer named Airen. In the past, this sort of disclosure used to be bad news all around. The publisher and editor (whose fact-checking related to the book might have been limited to exulting, “Hey! Sexy kid said she honked up some blow, had casual sex, and wrote about it! Let’s get it on the shelves before she turns 18!”) express outrage at having been “fooled.” Then they run another printing to take advantage of the publicity. The author apologizes profusely and moves on to her next scam. End of story.
Ah, but no more. That predictable outcome is so 2006. From the New York Times (2/11/10):
“On Thursday, Ms. Hegemann’s book was announced as one of the finalists for the $20,000 prize of the Leipzig Book Fair in the fiction category. And a member of the jury said Thursday that the panel had been aware of the plagiarism charges before they made their final selection. ‘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.’”
This, obviously, is jackassery expressed by a careerist whose ardor for the killer marketing hook is only exceeded by his contempt for actual books in all their messy, time-consuming reality. Hegemann, the author, is eager to concur with Weidermann.
“If my novel is interpreted as representing our time,” she said to the German publication Die Welt, “then it has to be recognized that the novel was created in accord with what we saw in the last decade—that is, with the rejection of all of these copyright excesses and the embrace of a right to copy and to transform.”
Yes, transform. See, we’re supposed to understand that the plagiarism in question was done in the spirit of “mash-up” Berlin DJ culture, which regularly appropriates material from outside sources, often illegally. Hey, it’s subtext! It’s representative of the milieu! Sounds reasonable, right? Never mind that Hegemann didn’t cite any of her artistic (i.e. plagiaristic) choices in her manuscript and only admitted their existence once she was caught out. (Her publisher only now is revising a second edition of “Axolotl Roadkill” that will cite Airen’s original text.) And never mind that the DJ culture Hegemann refers to takes its artistic license in order to shake booties, not share insight or wisdom. But let’s be charitable and ignore critic Weidermann and author Hegemann entirely and recognize that the implications for the literature of the future are immense.
First of all, this new trend is going to help considerably in the area of “author branding.” Every agent and editor in the business is always looking for that unique authorial presence. “Give me somebody I can sell!” The problem is, cheeky fourteen-year-olds, reality TV celebrities, White House pets, and Macauley Culkin write terribly, if at all. So you have to pay a ghostwriter to do the work. No more! Just set Socks the Cat or Kim Kardashian in front of a PC for a few hours to do some cutting and pasting and you’re good to go! The “words” may not be theirs, but the “vision” certainly is!
Now that literature is interchangeable with DJ culture, the possibilities are endless. Who will come out with the first all cut-and-paste novel? Who will be the first to market an original volume of Catch-22 with the words Joseph Heller haphazardly scratched out and some other name scrawled onto the cover?
It’s an exciting time to be a reader.