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.