February 16, 2010

Plagiarist blames dern copyright for plagiarism

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Hegemann, accused of plagiarism, sites

Helene Hegemann

Germany‘s literary world is in a tizzy over seventeen-year-old German author Helene Hegemann’s debut novel, Axolotl Roadkill, according to this report in Deutsche Welle. The book, a novel about a sixteen year-old girl’s adventures in Berlin with drugs and sex after the death of her mother, has climbed onto bestseller lists and has been nominated for a $2,000 prize for fiction at the Leipzig Book Fair.

The novel’s heroine shares many similarities with the author. “After her mother’s death, Hegemann moved to Berlin to live with her father, an established theater director and professor. Hegemann left school early after receiving the diploma conferred for completing the tenth grade,” according to Deutsche Well. But, Hegemann told DW, the novel is not an autobiography, “‘I just find the book entertaining. In literature — and in all forms of art — it’s possible to experience things which you’d have to bear the consequences for if you were to actually live them out.’”

But now come different consequences. Hegemann has been accused of plagiarism. According to DW, “blogger Dave Pirmasens showed that multiple parts of Axolotl Roadkill are nearly identical to passages from a lesser known novel called Strobo, published by a Berlin blogger who writes under the name Airen.

Hegemann responded to the accusation, saying she did indeed use Airen’s writing. In her statements, she appears to be simultaneously contrite for the theft, angry at those who think it’s a problem, and defensive of her actions on grounds of taking creative license. “I think there are good ethical grounds for giving sources for a book – and the fact that I neglected to do so reflects my thoughtlessness and my narcissism,” she told Die Welt in an interview, according to DW, while adding, “But for me personally, it doesn’t matter at all where people get their material – what matters is what they do with it.”

She went on to say that her novel is representative of the last decade “with the rejection of all of these copyright excesses and the embrace of a right to copy and to transform.”

According to this report from The Local, she also told the Berliner Morgenpost, “I myself don’t feel it is stealing, because I put all the material into a completely different and unique context.†In the same report, she pleads ignorance, saying, “she had not ‘fully understood’ the process for acknowledging borrowed material.”

Axolotl Roadkill’s publisher, Ullstein, has said it will credit Airen for all borrowed material in the second printing of the book. Strobo‘s publisher, Berlin-based Sukultur, announced Tuesday it wanted an amicable settlement. Sukultur is researching just how much of Airen’s writing was taken. Most probably permissions will be granted, and permission fees paid. Airen appears not to want to exploit the situation, and to maintain his anonymity.

Meanwhile, though the amount of plagiarized material seems to be growing to now include the title of the book as well as a short story, Hegemann still has her supporters. DW writes that “German news magazine Die Spiegel, for example, compared Axolotl Roadkill to modernist classics like Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs and Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos. It noted the plethora of uncited sources in these works: ‘Everything from newspaper articles to ads to all kinds of other texts are embedded in these foundational works of literary modernism.’”

And Hegemann is still in the running for the Leipzig Book Fair Prize. According to DW, one of the judges of the prize, Verena Auffermann, is quoted as telling the dpa news agency after the plagiarism was uncovered, “We believe that this young woman is extremely gifted.”

But others have remained critical. According to DW, German news magazine Die Zeit wrote, “No hype in the world is going to help against the charges facing the book. The originality of the work is now completely dubious – regardless of whether Hegemann has an idiosyncratic view of authorship or whether her approach reflects the times.”

Sex, drugs, literary “sampling”, copyright infringement — this story has it all! And it remains to be seen how it will ramify for the young author and the German literary world.

Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.

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