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This item is taken from PN Review 192, Volume 36 Number 4, March - April 2010.

Axolotl Roadkill, a novel by seventeen-year-old German writer Helene Hegemann, was shortlisted in the fiction category for this year's Leipzig Book Fair Prize. The author writes about Mifti's experience as a sixteen-year-old 'exploring Berlin's drug and club scene after the death of her mother'. The precocious writer also wrote and staged a play in Berlin, Ariel 15, and provided the screenplay for the film Torpedo released in Germany last summer.

Her recent achievement gave rise to controversy. A member of the Leipzig jury, Volker Weidermann, who reviews for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, confirmed that he and his fellow jurors were aware of plagiarism charges against Hegemann's book when they shortlisted it. Among the author's sources is the world of blogging, and it is there that the charges against her were first leveled. One of her characters, Edmond, says that Berlin exists 'to mix everything with everything', a line from a blog written by Airen, author too of a novel entitled Strobo, another of Hegemann's sources. Airen did not blow the whistle; one of her admirers did.

And yet, asked in the novel whether his line about Berlin is original, Edmond replies, 'where I find inspiration, I take what I want'. Whatever Airen's own anarchic tendencies, they do not extend to the notion of copyright as theft, and Hegemann's success with material from a blog and from Strobo galls the publisher of the reticent author. Blogs in particular are dangerously exposed to copyright violation.

Plagiarism charges, Weidermann said, did not change his judgment of the book, though they complicated it. Not allusion but actual theft was 'part of the very idea of the book'. The author insisted that, as a writer of a new generation in which the media and therefore the medium of literature were changed, the old rules of literature and the laws that in one way and another upheld them were losing traction. In this brave new world, 'there is no such thing as originality,' she said, 'only authenticity'. She apologised for breaking the law, but not before declaring, 'to me it does not matter where people take all the elements of their experimental plots from; the main thing is where they take them to'. She described her novel as 'a lie' that comes near the truth, and part of the lie was, evidently, her light-fingeredness. Airen's blog and text were constituents of her own imagination, along with 'Blanchot, Kathy Acker, Pascal Laugier, Jonas Weber Herrera and all my friends': her effort was to 'continue with their questions but provide my own answers'. She frankly laid into 'this whole copyright excess' and how it restricts the transformative freedoms that she and other writers of her generation practise. The publisher apologised more conventionally: house policy is to acknowledge sources. The author's young knuckles did not escape a rapping.

But not too painful a rapping: the book had reached number five in one German bestseller list, and most of it is, apparently, hers. Yet one stick-in-the-mud blogger declares, 'To take an entire page from an author, as Helene Hegemann admits to doing, with only slight changes and without asking the author, I consider that illegitimate.' Another called the book 'a reissue of The Emperor's New Clothes'.

Plagiarism by intent or accident has never been as well policed as it now is, with software devised to help teachers establish the 'originality' of students' essay and creative work, and with thousands of readers empowered to publish instantly real and imagined incidents of copyright theft on the web. It's worth remembering that in 2001 40% of American university students confessed to copying from the web for academic work: it was and remains an academic plague. The situation is harder today for writers like Hegemann than it was in 2006 when the Harvard sophomore Kaavya Visanathan published her highly conventional chic- lit novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, later withdrawn and pulped due to its borrowings from other books.

Hegemann's debts were different in kind from Visanathan's wholesale approach. One writer was hitching a series of lifts on successful, pre-existing texts, the other was effecting kaleidoscopic transformations. And less money was involved: in the American case the writer had received a large advance and was lifting from commercially successful books. Material concerns should not make the application of the law more harsh, but they do.

Writers have always integrated pre-existing texts into their own, sometimes as with Virgil and Milton to draw authority from them; sometimes to borrow originality via translation (Sterne's underspoken debt to Rabelais, or Coleridge's to German philosophical texts); sometimes for allusion, as in Modernist writing; sometimes by way of echo, unmistakable but sufficiently distorted so as not to be actionable. Hegemann's approach is a response to the new media: she does not appear to be cynically appropriative, if we are to believe the jurors, but rather integrative.

'Originality' in literature has worked this way in the past and will work this way, increasingly, in future, given the changes in the media and the ways in which visitors raid the imaginary museum, and also add to its incrementally indiscriminate and undiscriminated resources. For the present, it remains necessary in the print media to acknowledge quoted material, whatever use it is put to, if only so that writers like Hegemann can avoid accusations of wholesale theft. No matter how strictly we police for plagiarism in critical and academic spheres, our notions of creative originality need adjusting in relation to the imaginative nature and context of the work that stands accused.

This item is taken from PN Review 192, Volume 36 Number 4, March - April 2010.

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