Question: When does remixing become second-hand living?

Germany has been rocked by scandal this past week, as Helene Hegemann, the 17-year old writer of an astonishing novel called Axolotl Roadkill, has been shown up by Munich blogger Deef Pirmasens (Gefühlskonserve) to have lifted whole passages of her book from the writings of one Airen, a blogger in Berlin. Her publisher had asked her whether she’d quoted anything, and she’d said “no”. So she made a stupid mistake, and she’s being called a liar and a thief and all sorts of other nice things. The book is hot, sold out, second printing in the works. I only read the first 20 pages at my sister-in-law’s. It’s fast and savvy, a head trip full of adult experiences you’d sleep better knowing a 16 or 17 year old hasn’t had yet. So you really can’t help but be relieved that she actually did copy some of the episodes from an urbane blogger. Anyhow, she’s saying that her whole book is a remix anyway, and a totally legitimate new literary art form at that. Of course she’s right about remixing being a movement and an art form, and she can talk the talk, so she’ll be in the literary supplements for a while to come. Once the copyright issue  is settled in the second edition, a minor issue, and she shares the limelight with Airen, she’ll survive just fine as a writer.

But let’s just go back one step. So her book is pieced together almost completely from second-hand experiences. In music, remixing can create something sophisticated that reflects the artist’s skill and vision. But words are by their very nature unoriginal. Putting them together in a way that makes them your own is a helluva job. Remixing writing to make a novel? Why write one at all if you’re producing a product that just reproduces what other people have written? What’s the point?

This also makes me think of my own work as a teacher. In essay writing I preach: Put yourself into your writing. Make it real. Live, and live to talk about it. That’s especially hard to do in “English as a foreign language”, which is basically a large collection of the handiest, most frequently used phrases, so it’s full of linguistic clichés. It can drive a language lover to drink. So it’s hard enough to help language learners find their own voice. Do they plagiarize? All the time. And I give them hell for it.

Here’s what I think: Plagiarizing is not the same thing as remixing. Plagiarizing isn’t “borrowing” from others.  All it is, is stealing from yourself.

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Teaching English for business communication skills, writing online for learners, translating, sailing whenever I can, from Washington, D.C.

17 thoughts on “Question: When does remixing become second-hand living?”

  1. Hi Helburg,
    Thanks for this! He was quite nice to her, I must say. So she spent a lot of time at the Volksbühne, the theater her father is involved in as a dramatic advisor. That’s interesting. While I was writing the blogpost I kept wondering whether I can really say that you can’t remix text. Of course the theater remixes text all the time … right?
    Hmmm, I’m sitting up thinking this through some more. It seems to me I had these sorts of discussions back in the 80s. I guess you can’t really measure whether anything is “original” except in and of itself, you can’t measure it against experience. Must finish reading it.

  2. Sure you can mix anything with anything, also text. But then you can only claim doin’ the mix, not also doing the samples, unless you sampled yourself. And thats what she did, she put her name on it and sold it as her story. Normally you would use this technique to mix some none-art-ingredients to become art, like in a collage. She took Airens already-literature words, expressions, mixed that with some of her own and other stuff from the net, and then was praised for her original language and authenticity. She only came up with this DJ-intertextual-thing, after a blogger noticed it, because he knew the original, which is more a authentic report or beat literature than postmodern literature. Her father had his book sent to her half a year before she came up with hers. His book was invisible and little known. Hers was marketed big time by a big publisher. Before that, she was also able to do a movie, and write a play, her father is well connected in the culture-establishment of berlin.

  3. Very interesting Anne.
    I’m inclined to think re-mixed text is a valid art form – many ‘new’ ideas are mixes of old, after all? (A failure to attribute is a pretty big failure though. )
    And I know what you mean about EFL being about linguistic clichés. Teaching ‘creative writing’ at the same time as common collocations is a bit of a contradictory in lots of ways. And sometimes students make ‘mistakes’ we just don’t want to correct because they are so darn original/amusing/delightful.

  4. To me, remixing music can be as “stealing” as “remixing” a text. But the biggest failure, of course, is failing to attribute, I think.
    Why not writing your own novel entirely, indeed, Anne. Well to me, it’s only for commercial reasons. A *young* person who can write well will sell more. And to write well, unless you are Rimbaud, or even Sagan, you must have lived a bit, non ? hence the plagiarism.
    I would be less harsh about musical remix because some remix can really bring a new and innovative light to the original. I suppose because it’s short enough for every one to *hear* clearly where it comes from. But a whole novel ? before you’ve read the book no one can tell where it comes from.
    I agree with Vicki on the “creative writing” teaching : a pure contradiction in terms. And it’s true that I often find my students’ “mistakes” very original, lovely and imaginative. But for me to call them “imaginative” and even “creative”, they would have to be aware of them, which, most of the time, they are not.
    Ok, I’ll stop my blabla now, thank you for the thought provoking podcast and the very thoughtful island!

  5. I think Alice is spot on here.

    I’m not sure that the distinction between remixing and plagiarism is anything more than lazy and convenient excuse in ANY art form.

    If you use someone else’s work without their explicit collaboration it diminishes your own creation irrespective of the number of interviews it may harness you.

    It’s not really a thin line between ‘inspired by’ and ‘lifting whole passages’ and an artist owes it to him/her self to be aware of it and not cross it.

    Angry, France.

  6. Hi, Vicki,

    True! and the serendipity of learner “remixes” gives you great insight into what they’re doing with all that input, doesn’t it? Playful brains :)

    I guess you’re right about remixed literature. Hegemann has made something new, the baby of authentic but set phrases and scenes and her own creative spark, cutting from one to the next and blending the strangest images. Aiken, the blogger, says about his own publication, which Hegemann used, “I didn’t write a novel, I wrote about my life.” (“Das ist kein Roman, das ist mein Leben gewesen.”) She hasn’t taken anything from him, he says; it’s still “his life”. (

    I’m always pushing the young people in my life to get first-hand “real” experience, because it seems to me to be so difficult in this mediated age. And I like to see that experience go into their writing. It’s a personal preference, but maybe it’s wrong and just a bit naive and I need to rethink. I do remember great debates in the 80s about it being impossible to be “authetic”. The younger generations understand that thoroughly.

    I’m pondering this thought:
    For a novelist or any writer, personal “authentic” experience isn’t a more “valid” resource than second-hand experience. (I’m very unsure about this! I love experience. But is that my age and generation showing?)
    But personal “real” experience is the conditio sine qua non that gives the writer the ability to put the final work together.

  7. Hi Alice and Chris,
    I see we have the same personal preference for first-hand experience in our artists. I think that’s the general preference, too.

    It’s interesting you should mention Sagan. Yes, we like our artists to live and love and suffer and survive for us, don’t we? We then relive their lives vicariously. But now, along comes remix culture and every reader becomes an artist, and we relive the remixers remix. Are we being had? Or do we just need to learn to read differently?

    I just checked on Amazon to see how Hegemann’s and Aiken’s works are doing. Her book has 52 reviews, down to 2 stars. His book, “Strobo”, has three reviews and nearly 5 stars. Things are going splendidly, commercially, for both of them. ( (

  8. “Things are going splendidly, commercially, for both of them. ( (”

    Well if she had not been a 17 year old writer copying from an older one, things would not be going splendidly, they would not just go anywhere, actually.

    ” But now, along comes remix culture and every reader becomes an artist, and we relive the remixers remix. Are we being had? Or do we just need to learn to read differently?”

    I’m not sure I understand well. If you’re saying that everyone is influenced by everyone, you are right of course, and Sagan was influenced too ! but she did not just copy anyone else’s work. “Do we need to learn to read differently” ? what do you mean ? be more tolerant about plagiarism ? I’m with Chris on this : remix is just a polite word for plain laziness and a way to make easy money.

  9. Just found a good review of the case in the New York Times:
    But what is really bothering me now is this quote from Helene Hegemann:
    “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said Ms. Hegemann in a statement released by her publisher after the scandal broke.
    What gives her the certainty that what she is writing about is “authentic”? Isn’t perceived authenticity very selective and relative? How can you get at it except through experience, and the way you connect that experience to your perception of the world? It’s got to be a part of a whole, and the artist conveys that whole.

    PS: Alice, our comments overlapped – sorry!

  10. Welcome, notme,

    Sorry, I overlooked your comment! I hear you, her having Airen’s book from her father, and daddy being in with the literary establishment leaves an especially nasty aftertaste. So I totally understand the anger.

    I’m thinking about your insight into remixing. If I understand you correctly you say that you would normally remix something that isn’t art, and turn it into art. But can’t you remix finished works of art or literature or music, if you show respect to the original work? Ok, she didn’t express her respect by attributing the passages the way she should. I think she’s just too much of a spoiled child to recognize the debt she owes. But her whole work shows her intrinsic respect for the scene, the language, the everything, since she desperately wants to get it under her skin, to get inside that world. Do you see what I mean?

    Ok, ok, stealing from them is a very specific way of showing respect for someone… LOL

    (Chris and Alice are going to pound me for this comment.)

  11. “L’imitation est la plus haute forme de l’admiration” ! well not when it comes to Art with a big A.

    “since she desperately wants to get it under her skin, to get inside that world” says Anne : then she should write her OWN novel and get anything she wants under her skin !! mon Dieu ! toutes ces justifications à la copie sont vraiment incroyables ! sorry this gets me going but I’ve read too many poor excuses for plagiarism… you cannot show respect by copying and putting your own name on it, you just deceive everyone, make money, maybe, but eventually you deceive yourself.

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