Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Plagiarism in Any Other Language

Yet another case of writerly plagiarism is making the headlines. This time it's a German. Actually as reported in Salon today, it's a German kid--17-year-old wunderkind novelist Helene Hegemann--who wrote an apparently best-selling tale of drugging and clubbing, "Axolotl Roadkill."

According to Salon writer, Laura Miller: What smells off in this instance is precisely Hegemann's claim to be using her borrowings to advance a cutting-edge concept of artistry. The daughter of an avant-garde dramatist, she says she practices "intertextuality" and explains, "Very many artists use this technique ... by organically including parts in my text, I am entering into a dialogue with the author."

OK, I’ll buy that to a degree. I often incorporate other writer’s words in epigraphs and sometimes directly into the body of a poem. In recent poems, I’ve riffed off words by Anne Carson, James Schuyler, Jorge Luis Borges. BUT I always credit the original writer either below the related epigraph, in notes at the bottom of the page, or sometimes in the poem itself. I mean, to some extent, we are all in dialogue with other writers, and often with other artists including painters, sculptors, musicians. More broadly, every poem has provenance, whether it is a sonnet or free verse. By writing poetry, by writing fiction, we acknowledge our writerly forefathers and mothers. Hopefully, we take those words in a new direction. What we aim for is not necessarily originality, but to quote Miller who quotes Roger McCrum from The Guardian, authenticity.

But authenticity requires at its most basic level, honesty. As Miller goes on, Hegemann has already, and rather stupidly, cut herself off from that option by declaring that she intended to write a collaboration from the very beginning, only she just forgot to mention it before this. Right.

Miller raises the question whether it is a generational issue—the ‘younger’ generation considers plagiarism OK, whether it’s in the interests of art or passing freshman English. I don’t buy that either. Seventeen is not too young to go to jail for shoplifting a pair of socks from Sears and it’s not too young to ‘get’ that lifting whole paragraphs from other works is stealing.

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