Do you know those moments when you’re on the internet and reading one thing leads to another and to another? I had one of those recently when looking in to the plagiarism issue online.
The concept of remixing with text reminded me of a New York Times article I read a few years ago about a 17 year old German girl who wrote a book called Axolotl Roadkill. This book apparently liberally used lines and passages from another book without any form of attribution or permissions (including in one case an entire page). The book received numerous accolades, and yet was eventually exposed. Once caught, the author acknowledged what she had done and yet claimed that it was “mixing” not plagiarism. Her argument was that the theme of mixing was part of the concept, and that because of this, it is no longer plagiarism because she is using the text in a new and original way. Many people agreed, and gave the novel high praise in spite of the plagiarism accusations.
In Laura Miller’s article in Salon, titled “Plagiarism, The Next Generation. A 17-year-old novelist defends herself in the latest copycat scandal. Are we just too old to understand?”, she quotes the author, Helene Hegemann as saying that “I put all the material into a completely different and unique context and from the outset consistently promoted the fact that none of it is actually me.” Another quote stated: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”
Part of what makes the issue interesting is that she does have a point, up to a point. We can take what others created and make it something fresh and different, with a unique purpose all its own, and that is definitely a creative endeavor even though it may use the creativity of others as its inspiration. In addition, many stories follow very common plotlines where it is the method of storytelling that brings the author’s touch. In addition, don’t we love to read tribute stories, reimaginings of famous fairy tales and the like. Perhaps it is th authenticity that is important, rather than the so-called originality of an idea.
Still, as Laura Miller points out, Hegemann would be on firmer ground if she had made a point of acknowledging the source that she was taking from, and even better if she had bothered to ask the author for permission. This seems important not only from a legal perspective, but just from a politeness perspective, one artist to another.
Miller also mentions that she believes “most plagiarism scandals are overblown”, which was proven when I followed a trail of references from this particular scandal to an older one regarding Kaavya Viswanathan. She was also accused of plagiarism and put down on the public stage. True, her book doesn’t sound super original (How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life), but what did she do that was so terrible? Apparently there were around 24 passages that were strikingly similar to another book. What’s interesting here, as I read on one person’s blog, is that she was put through the wringer for a level of copying which would probably not even be a violation of the fair use doctrine. In addition, she only wrote these (rather short) passages in a similar style.
Her excuse, which sounded rather plausible to me, was that she has a rather photographic memory and had previously read the copied work. Her agent was quoted in a Time article as saying “Somewhere in her mind, she crossed an invisible line with this material and didn’t realize that the words so easy and available to her were not her own…”. Having read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice several times, I’ve definitely noticed an upswing in Jane-isms after a reading, meaning that certain types of expressions start to pervade my speech. I’m guessing poor Kaavya had a similar experience. Shall we punish her for that, when her book was still entertaining, and over 99% her own?
The last article that I was brought to was a review of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, a book I had recently reread. Among the many things mentioned in the article, the author talked about how many influences were apparent in the book, how many events that seemed directly attributable to something else. The point was made that perhaps in today’s day and age, the book would have been criticized for unoriginality or even plagiarism. Yet it is justly considered a classic, even if the writing can be stilted at times, due to its timely subject matter and mature style even though written for young adults.
Sorry for the on and on rambling, but I do feel that there is a line here somewhere, and that we need to help our students find it. To recognize those who have influenced us and help us, but be ready to take those ideas and tell them in our way, even if that way seems a bit reminiscent at times of others.