This might bear watching:
T. S. Eliot once said that “good writers borrow, great writers steal.” Apparently taking this advice to heart, Helene Hegemann, a seventeen-year-old German writer, has “mixed” (her word) together a best-selling novel titled “Axolotl Roadkill.” According to an article in the Times, Hegemann lifted entire pages from a novel by a lesser known writer, and she doesn’t seem at all apologetic about doing so. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said Hegemann in response to accusations of plagiarism. The judges of the Leipzig Book Fair seem to agree with her, at least in principle: even after the author admitted to copying another writer’s work, “Axolotl Roadkill” remains a finalist for the Fair’s $20,000 prize in fiction.
The Leipzig committee’s decision not to strike the book from their finalist’s list, effectively endorsing, or at least approving, Hegemann’s actions, is either an alarming or a progressive response. The cultural-relativist argument is that Germany, specifically Berlin, is a hotbed of artistic mixing and mashing, sampling and re-sampling, and that Hegemann is simply employing these same tactics in her writing. If a d.j. can thread together twenty different songs and package the end product as her own, why can’t a writer? This seems to be the question Hegemann is using as a defense. Original content, then, becomes subordinate to context, meaning that as long as a newer, larger work is being created, portions of prior works are fair game.
First, just to be clear — are we using periods and lower-case for “d.j.” now? What’s wrong with DJ? Goes well with MC, doesn’t it? Or is it “m.c.” or “emcee”?
It probably doesn’t matter, because we don’t need the disc jockey remix paradigm to try to understand what might be called “synthetic literature.” Lee Ellis looks back at T.S. Eliot, but in a skewed way:
Perhaps looking at the meaning behind T. S. Eliot’s quote can help clear up this situation. I interpret “steal” to mean, in this context, the act of taking from other texts themes, ideas, rhythms, structures, but not the sentences themselves.
No. I mean, Ellis can interpret Eliot’s sentence this way, divorced from his practice, but it doesn’t change that Eliot the artist stole. Not just the themes, ideas, rhythms, or structures, but the exact sentences.
In fact, you could say that by stealing the sentences, he emptied them of themes or ideas; a line lifted from Baudelaire (about a “hypocrite lecteur,” no less — “a hypocrite reader, my double, my brother”) and repurposed for “The Waste Land” comes to mean, by way of that refraction, something quite different. Like Borges’s “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote,” a word-for-word recreation of a text arguably becomes a profound transformation of that text.
On the other hand, you can’t just translate someone’s ideas, themes, or structures into superficially new sentences and act like everything is cool. If I rip off your movie idea — plot, themes, characters — but switch some of the words around, I’ve done something much more dangerous than quote a line from your screenplay (especially if it’s relatively well-known).
You could contest Old Possum’s claim that this theft was a sign of “maturity,” but you can’t just act like he isn’t doing it. Nor was his theft all that novel — the pastiche has been a literary game for a long time, and it was particularly popular in the early 20th century, from Pound to Proust.
But calling something unoriginal isn’t identical with calling it plagiarism. Without being entirely arbitrary, let me posit a few things:
- Plagiarism really only makes sense in a scholarly or journalistic context. It’s a mistake in the handling of sources, and can be malicious or nonmalicious, and can completely damage a work or be relatively incidental to it;
- In art or fiction, assuming that there is a distinction, you need a completely different set of criteria. Hegemann’s shift to “authenticity” is probably not so far off;
- Ultimately, judging acts of egregious theft in fiction is going to have to be like judging pornography — you know it when you see it.
So what do we have left? If we’re starting off with the assumption that artistic creation is and should always be ex nihilo — sadly, not much. Maybe instead we need to distinguish between works that are synthetic and analytic — works that combine something to produce something new, versus works that only contain what they borrow (and in some cases, contain LESS than what’s borrowed).