I doubt anyone was thinking about plagiarism when the CCCC 2010 theme, “The Remix: Revisit, Rethink, Revise, Renew,” was chosen, but given recent events in Germany literary world, plagiarism clearly fits the focus.
News articles last week announced that German teen author Helene Hegemann of the highly-acclaimed debut novel Axolotl Roadkill not only lifted passages from another novel, copying as much as an entire page with only minor changes, but she also denied that such copying was plagiarism. Her explanation, described in the New York Times article “Author, 17, Says It’s ‘Mixing,’ Not Plagiarism,” is simple and straightforward:
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.
Mixing, for Hegemann, is borrowing from others and reshaping or fitting the borrowed text to create some new document. In music, mixing might involve borrowing a musical riff and then incorporating it in a new piece as a recurring theme or starting point for further variations. In literature, mixing might be taking a passage or scenario and rethinking it as part of some new text.
A blog entry on Hit & Run: Reason Magazine provides more details on Hegemanns motives:
In comments to Buchmarkt, Hegemann cops to “ruthlessly robbing my friends, filmmakers, other writers, and myself,” but only in the context of a collaborative-creation model (leaving out the vexatious details about who gets paid when the collaboration is done).1
While it feels new to many of us, this kind of artistic theft has been around for centuries. Chaucer was remixing The Decameron in his Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare borrowed from any number of Italian renaissance texts. Theres more to mixing then just copying and pasting though. To be effective, the new use should go beyond the original, perhaps commenting on it or rethinking the original piece. T.S. Eliot, surely the Grand Mix Master of Modernism, wrote:
One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. (“Philip Massinger,” The Sacred Wood: : Essays on Poetry and Criticism)
Does Hegemanns mixing pass the test? Is she simply stealing, or is she rethinking and revising the text she borrows in a way that makes it better or different? Critics are split on the issue.
The Guardian suggests that Hegemann simply does not understand what she has done—“To her, coming from the cut-and-paste world of blogs and Facebook, what she's done is no more than mixing.” Student journalists label Hegemanns copying as blatant plagiarism in the Indiana Daily Student and the Baylor Lariat Online. The comments on the New York Times Learning Network blog entry “What Are the Attitudes Toward Cheating and Plagiarism Among Your Peers?” extend the discussion.
The situation is ripe for class discussion, but ultimately there are few conclusions. Is it mixing or plagiarism? I cant be sure. I dont read German, and I dont have the two books. As a teacher, I know that simply adding a bibliographic citation doesnt make it okay to insert a full page from another text into your own draft. But what would make such borrowing okay?
I keep returning to Eliots explanation. Borrowing may be okay if one works as Eliots good, mature poet. If a writer revises a text in a way that creates “something better, or at least something different,” perhaps it truly is mixing. Anything else, for me at least, seems like pale imitation at best and, quite possibly, plagiarism at worst.
Mixing or plagiarism? The one thing we can be sure of is that there many questions to consider, at CCCC in Louisville and beyond.