helene hegemann: a fascinating case of plagiarism

I was reading the newspaper today when I came across an article about Helene Hegemann, a 17-year old German author who recently released her debut novel, Axolotl Roadkill. Hegemann (pictured at right) has been garnering major acclaim, and her novel is selling extremely well, at No. 5 on Spiegel’s hardcover best-seller list. Only thing is, she's been accused of plagiarism.

My initial reaction went a bit like this:

1) Hooray! A successful teen author!

I have read very few books by a published teen author that are actually up to par. A lot of teens can write well for their age, but a very small percentage are actually writing at a level that merits publication. I'm lucky enough to know some of them, but truthfully--most books by teen authors aren't very good. I'm aware this is a generalization, but great teen authors are an exception to the rule. This is just my opinion, and feel free to disagree. But I do believe that teen authors that are actually ready for publication will be featured in bookstores in the years to come. This is why I was excited by Hegemann; she's written a book that people are praising.

2) Oh no, not again...

I was immediately reminded of the controversy surrounding Kaavya Viswanathan, a 19-year old debut novelist from Harvard who wrote a similarly acclaimed novel: How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. Unfortunately, this book was plagiarized and the whole situation turned into a big, but very fascinating train wreck. In this situation, the accusations were spot-on: wikipedia has the instances of plagiarism clearly documented, and the publisher was forced to destroy all copies of the book and break off Viswanathan's publishing contract.

3) What the heck?

Unlike Viswanathan, Hegemann isn't trying to hide anything. Once the accusations that she plagiarized a whole page, phrases, and ideas from the little-known Strobo by Airen surfaced, Hememann owned up to it . Only, she didn't.

And this is the truly fascinating part...

According to her, she's remixing literature. Wow, Hegemann, you genius! You pioneer of remixing!

Hegemann is so clearly not plagiarizing when she's lifting whole pages from another book without without crediting the original author, and taking lines from blog posts on the internet without crediting the author. Of course this isn't plagiarism.

I haven't read the book, but excuse when when I say OH YES YOU DID in response to her OH NO I DIDN'T.

To me, this "literary remixing" thing sounds like the perfect excuse. Under this oh-so-handy idea, Hegemann isn't copying and pasting into her writing, it's what she intended to do. Hegemann herself said, “I myself don’t feel it is stealing, because I put all the material into a completely different and unique context and from the outset consistently promoted the fact that none of that is actually by me,” according to the daily Berliner Morgenpost.

I wouldn't call not crediting your sources "promoting the fact the none of it is actually by me." To be fair, Hegemann's whole premise rests on the idea of remixing; the story revolves around Berlin teens who see remixing art as a way of expression. It's not the concept of remixing that bothers me; it does sound different in a interesting way--sort of like how authors include quotes at the beginning of chapters, poems from poets, etc to reinforce their own writings. Remixing sounds like several steps further than that, and don't get me wrong--I'm all for experimental literature. The only thing is, when you try to pass off other people's work for your own, it's plagiarism, pure and simple. And even the cloak of innovation isn't enough to make up for it.

Hegemann, didn't really apologize, either. I don't think she really thinks this whole plagiarizing thing is a problem; regarding the alleged copying, she said: "There’s no such thing as originality anyway, there’s only authenticity." Which I think is a pretty cool statement, only this seems to be inspired by her inability to face what she's done. I might give her some benefit of the doubt, only The Local has this in their article.

"For the first edition, she had not “fully understood” the process for acknowledging borrowed material and this had been changed for the second edition."

Somehow, I find it hard to believe that a published author isn't fully acquainted with the nuances of plagiarism. Or how, when her book was picked up by publishers, Hegemann didn't at least mention that some parts of her book had been remixed. I don't buy it that she didn't "fully understand", either. I think it takes the space of about one minute to explain to someone what asking permission to use a source means.

I mean, I know what plagiarizing is. Me, the 16-year-old girl who is about as far away from publishing an acclaimed, bestselling novel as it gets. The adults who are angry here are dismissing Hegemann as part of a generation where "cut-and-paste" is normal and where we just don't understand that copying without crediting is no bueno. And with this quote, Hegemann is trying to say that her failure to credit is due to her youth--due to her different view where remixing isn't anything bad.

And I say, stop making excuses and own up to it. It's not a generation thing; teens my age know copying is wrong, that plagiarizing is wrong. This fault here lies with Hegemann and nobody else--and please don't say it's because adults just don't understand your youthful artistry. I'm sorry, but plagiarizing is not art in any way or form.

And The Irish Times pretty much nailed her in their article:

"The young author admitted having glanced at the “Strobo” blog but denied having read a published volume of the texts.

Yesterday the publisher of the book based on the blog claimed it had sold Hegemann’s father a copy of the book via the internet."

Which to me, furthers my sense that Hegemann is not really pioneering anything; she's excusing herself from something she's to afraid to admit to.

And perhaps the most fascinating thing of all...

Axolotl Roadkill is in the running for a $20,000 award at the Leipzig Book Fair. The judges knew about the plagiarism controversy, and still nominated the book. So apparently, to some literary critics, this whole case of remixing is not only acceptable but worthy of acclaim as well.

And the worst part:

She's giving teen authors a bad name. So now there's Viswanathan and Hegemann, both in the spotlight. And that's what makes me angry; people aren't going to take teen authors, or teens trying to break into an adult-dominated industry seriously when instances like these are widespread.

So, what happens next?

I'll be watching out for this one to see whether the publishing deal falls through or not; somehow, I think not. And I'm curious to see if they're are other instances of plagiarism in her book as well. Read more about this brouhaha at the New York Times.

Helena Hegemann: teen plagiarist or wunderkid pioneer of literary remixing? What do you think?


Hannah said...

Remixing. Wow, she can't be serious. :(

Amna said...


She shouldn't try to cloak it with a fancy name.

Gosh, this article makes me so mad.

Lauren said...

This is fascinating. Ultimately, if you cite your sources you are quoting, and if you don't cite your sources you are plagiarising. It doesn't matter what the intention was.

I kind of like the idea of remixing though. It sounds like those mash-ups of classic literature that are being published in their droves right now. Except that those give the author of the original material their due credit. Doh.

Raven M said...

I read an article about this yesterday. She seriously is giving teen writers a bad name. I mean, it's one thing to own up to what you do, but it's a whole other thing to sit there and make up excuses. Remixing? Is she serious?

Wow. This really bothers me because there are a lot of great teen writers out there, who work hard on their novels they write and she decides that she can write a book using ideas that aren't hers.

Oh, wait, isn't that the definition of of plagiarism. Correct me if I'm wrong, but if you don't cite or put quotations in your work, then it's plagiarism.

Ugh. This just makes me so mad.

Adele said...

Wow, I kind of like the idea of taking parts of existing literature out of context and having some fun but yeah citing where they came from and in some cases gaining permission to use them is a pretty fundamental and basic part of writing anything.

Sandy said...

It feels like a repeat of the Viswanathan issue (I'm not the only person who knows about this, yay!), only that this teen author (can we even CALL her an author if she sort of admits to not being authentic??) was much more clever in how she's going about things. Her argument of remixing DOES sound fascinating-but if she's NOT giving credit to other people's works and using it as her own, that IS plagiarism. That's one of the first things we learn in school. :/

Liam said...

Great. Now it'll be years for me me to be published. I mean, in addition to the already slow publishing process.
I may have to buy a copy of her book from someone who already has it and BURN IT.
Sorry. I'm bitter.

Anonymous said...

I will never understand plagiarism. Why would you want to take credit for someone else's ideas/work? It would make me feel terribly. Not only would you be using the work of someone else who deserves full credit but people would be praising you for work that was not your own. They like it but yeah, it's not mine so it's not exciting at all because it's not really yours.

Speaking of published teen authors, I haven't read/come across many but I did read Hail Caesar by Thu Huong Ha that was pretty good and I've heard amazing things about Hannah Moskowitz's Break as well.

Emilia Plater said...

*head/desk* *head/desk* *head/desk* *head/desk* *head/desk*

Allie said...

I can't wait to see what happens.
I'm sorry, but anyone who doesn't understand that taking SOMEONE else's WORDS and mixing them with ANOTHER PERSON'S words is plagiarism, well, they're just pretending. Ridiculous. I cannot believe that people try to get away with it. I know that starting way back to 6th grade when we started writing formal papers, we were always told to credit the people we took words from. That's why I always put pages numbers in my blog of where I pulled a quote, or give reference to where I found information. It is just common sense.

One teen author I was fond of when I was younger was Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. She writes a lot of vampireish YA novels that are well done given her age.

Anonymous said...

Remixing?! I'd like to remix her... *fumes* As if we teens weren't having enough trouble being taken seriously already...

in which a girl reads said...

@Hannah: Lol. That's what I was thinking.

@Amna: You're right about the fancy-name thing. And sorry to have made you mad, lol, but I am too.

@Lauren: Exactly! It's the not citing that's the problem. But I like the remixing idea too, if the author gives credit. And I need to read one of those mashups, haha.

@Raven: You saw the article too! Awesome :) And I agree, lots of great teen writers out there (I'M LOOKING AT YOU!) that don't deserve this. And you're right about plaigarism :)

@Hagelrat: I agree, the idea of remixing is cool but when she didn't cite, she just screwed it up and it turned into plaigarism. *sigh*

@Pirate: YAY for knowing about Viswanathan too! Haha. For some reason I love reading news articles about these types of things, haha. Like you said, I think this is just a more-clever repeat. And I think she's going to get away with it.

@Liam: Don't worry; I'm sure it won't affect you if you have a great manuscript! Plus, if you're querying it shouldn't matter if you're a teen or not--agents/pubs will pick your book up if you write well. And lol about the book burning. *hugs*

@Michelle: I was thinking about that too; I don't see what people would gain from plaigarising, since especially if it's a novel. Some reader is going to catch it sooner or later. Plaigirising is just...icky.

I haven't read Hail Caesar yet, but Break by Hannah Moskowitz is the best book I've read by a teen author, period. It obviously wasn't published just because the author was young, but because it's a great book in it's own right.

@Emilia: Lol.

Simply Stacie said...

Stopping by from The Saturday Network to say hi! I am now a follower.


in which a girl reads said...

@Allie: I agree, it's ridiculous. And lol, I think I learned to credit sources in 6th grade too. And if I ever make a mistake with crediting, at least it's not a WHOLE novel that people are paying for. *sigh* I just don't buy it that it didn't cross her mind that what she was doing is plagiarism.

I'm not really a fan of Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. I haven't read her recent books (maybe I'd like them better) but I read a few from her teen years (In the Forest of the Night and another one) and...erghh. I had problems with them.

@Mae: LOL! Remix her...haha.

Amna said...

The article was thought provoking Choco! Thanks for showing it <3

Steph Su said...

I agree with you. Instances like these are so frustrating for those of us who really want to do well. Why is it always the bad ones who are successful? "Remixing." Hah! I hope no publisher ever accepts her books again for this. Behavior like this needs to be stopped; people need to realize that, while originality is an increasingly difficult endeavor and there's the theory that the world only has 7 or so truly unique stories, that's no excusing for directly copying the words of someone else. Hello?!

Becca Cooper said...

O. M. G. Remixing?! She can't be serious. It's plagiarism! PLA. GIAR. ISM!

I definitely agree about this giving teen writers a bad name. And it's really quite disheartening to see plagiarized material getting acclaim when so many teen authors - some of whom are exceptional and really do deserve to be published - are struggling to get a foot in the door.

I really have to echo Emilia's sentiment: *head/desk* *head/desk* *head/desk*

Vee said...

Okay, totally going to play devil's advocate here, but...In my studies on postmodernism this idea that nothing is unique, and therefore nothing can be plagiarised has come up before. So there are people out there who agree with Hegemann (I personally don't. Because stealing another person's words is stealing plain and simple to me. No matter how much you shout "recontextualised" at me.) But the argument goes that it's similar to appropriation in art eg artworks that are basically just slides of the mona lisa but with the colours distorted are not considered plagiarism etc.

AND...People in my class have turned in works where they use entire passages, entire sections from published novels. And they don't cite. And the teachers give them extra marks for intertextuality. SO. This might be a strange attitude that some people have taken towards literature. That "remixing" is fine.

However, I don't agree and I don't believe that this sort of behaviour is to be condoned or cultivated. The fact that she's up for a major book prize astounds me (I actually just read about this in the Guardian, lol). The fact that she's pretending she did nothing wrong astounds me (because surely she'd have mentioned it to someone in the publishing world who'd have set her straight. And the fact that she hasn't smacks of knowledgeable wrong-doing to me) and the fact that teenage authors everywhere are going to get a bad name because of this makes me mad.

Because I am a teen and I know plagiarism is wrong. And Hegemann is essentially just giving adults weapons to insult my intelligence: "See, that one teen didn't know what plagiarism was. None of them do." Add that to past scandals with Viswanathan and yes, teens are going to probably start getting given a tougher time (because no one wants to deal with a plagiarims scandal).

And, to be honest, I feel so bad for the author of Strobo. Because his work has been totally lifted. And I'm curious to see how he reacts -- because she's admitted to using it, and not citing it -- I don't think legal action would be totally amiss in this case.

in which a girl reads said...

@Amna: *hugz*

@Steph: I agree, it's so frustrating--especially given the fact that she's plagiarizing and still getting nominated for an award. *sigh* And wow, only 7 unique story ideas? I can believe it though--I don't think any ideas are original anymore. True originality is in execution. And in the case of writing, it's the actual words that are the execution and thus the original part. Which is why taking passages without credit is so terrible.

@Elu: You're one of those amazing teen authors, for sure! AND DOWN WITH DISHEARTEN-MENT! The twifties will show everyone that teens can do it right :)

@ink: Whoah. Extra points for NOT citing? I can't quite wrap my head around that one, lol.(I haven't studied postmodernism, so maybe I have no idea what I'm talking about, lol). But I don 't think the arguments for remixing in music or even art should apply to writing. For music it's quite obvious when you're incorporating someone else's song; with art, (as in the color-distorted Mona Lisa) it's also pretty clear where the artist is taking inspiration from. With literature, it's a whole another story. One sentence, a paragraph, even a whole page--it's not so easy detect plagiarism/inspiration. The author can quite easily pass off lifted passages as their own, if they don't credit. Hopefully they don't get away with it.

And I agree about the publishing world. I mean, if she'd just mentioned it to her editor/someone else that she was remixing, I'm sure they would've cleared up all the securing permission/crediting part that she didn't "fully understand" for her.

And I agree with the weapon giving--because when things like this happen, people always, always generalize (<--lol, that's a generalization). When a some teen authors get published and they aren't ready, people go, "Oh, those teens. They can't write, they just get published because they're young."

And now this. Some of the news articles I've been reading have already been generalizing our generation as a "copy-and-paste" generation that has no regard for copyright.

But actually, some of the people who are supporting Hegemann's remixing (there are some people out there) are citing how Hegemann's novel has positively affected Strobo's novel. As in, Hegemann has got him publicity, and people buying her novel on Amazon are buying his to go along with it. So I don't exactly feel that Strobo has only got heartache out of this, but I think he definitely should get a lawyer. But then again, some of the passages she lifted from his work had to do with how he believed in remixing as a way of art--so I'm doubly interested to see how he reacts.

Monster of Books said...

Wow that bad!!! That's all there is to say. And what did Christopher Paolini do?

Vee said...

Yeah, it's pretty weird. People tend to just rip off a whole bunch of stuff off and pretend it's artistic (I'm nearly 100% sure this is not really what postmodernism's about, and I'm getting pretty good marks in the course without this strange technique -- I use intertextuality, I just acknowledge the source. But a lot of kids seem to think because such-and-such film-maker recreates photographic versions of renaissance artworks they can copy word-for-word from, say, Lolita. And I totally agree with you that it's different when it comes to literature as opposed to art :D

Also, copy-paste generation, my ass. If anything it's doubly hard to plagiarise (and get away with it) in this technological age, because simply entering a couple of sentences of an essay into google would bring up the original source.

And I'd heard that too, about this being positive publicity for Strobo. But people said that about Megan McCafferty after the Viswanathan scandal (that it was great for her, cause she got publicity). It's more interesting that the author seems pro-remixing (but maybe he thinks you should have to cite it? I really hope he does, because a trend of people who believe it's totally okay to copy would be really, really creepy...Almost like the beginning of a publishing dystopia, lol).

And I shall stop leaving super-long comments now. I just can't help myself, because I find this entire thing so interesting, in a weird fascinating watching-a-trainwreck-develop sort of way.

Clitora said...

A as Inkspatters points out, remixing, sampling and collage are central to post-modern culture, whether you like that or not. There's a very good book called Reality Hunger, by David Shields, which talks about it a lot. At the end of the book the author includes a list of all the sources he's quoted from, but only because his lawyers forced him. And there's a dotted line so that if you like, you can cut those pages out.

And as it happens, I've actually read Axolotl Roadkill, and an it's a creative, innovative and inspiring work of art. I can understand why you're all angry, but the situation isn't quite as black and white as you make out.

in which a girl reads said...

@Book Monster: Lol, I prolly shouldn't have grouped Paolini in there with them--my dislike for his books wheedled itself into that sentence. He didn't plagiarize words, but the ideas in his books are so rip-offish it's close to plaigarism...ehhh.Prolly shouldn't have included him, that was bad judgment on my part. I'll go take him out of the post.

@ink: Whoah. I could see why they would want to copy from Lolita (such an AMAZING BOOK!) but...ehh. Count me in the totally-against-not-citing camp.

And lol about the plagiarism, but that's so true. It's much easier to be caught now.

And I guess the saying that "any publicity is good publicity" is true here. A lot of the books that have been under--for example,cover controversies--have gotten boosts in sales.

Aww, don't stop with the long comments! I love reading & responding to them, haha. And I'm oddly fascinated by train-wrecks like these myself :D

@Clitora: I haven't studied post-modernism, so maybe I'm overreacting here. Still, I find it hard to forgive taking someone else's words without permission, and then not owning up to it. It's Hegemann's reaction that I find the most fascinating--and like ink said, I get the sense it was knowledgeable wrongdoing. I just can't agree with her on this matter.

To me, the fact that she:
1) Said she didn't "fully understand" the process as an excuse (when it could have been easily explained)
2)denied having read the original text (when she most likely had)
3) Used a little-known book as the target for her remixing, instead of a more well-known book where it would've been obvious it wasn't her original work (and then she would have had to be honest about it from the outset)
4)Only mentioned admitted to it AFTER she got caught...

suggests to me that this is plagiarism.

I think the reason that many of us are angry is because the majority of the commenters so far are writers.So I'm not surprised that they took the most offense--plagiarism is just one of the most awful things that could happen to an author; and I'd hate to have my own words taken without permission, whether it was used as a form of art or not.

Reality Hunger sounds really interesting, and if I ever get the opportunity to read Axolotl Roadkill, I will. (I don't think it's out in English yet). I agree that perhaps the situation isn't all black and white, but I think in this case I have to side against Hegemann.But I'm glad the book has real promise! One part of me wishes I could root for an innovative and talented teen author, but unfortunately I just can't bring myself to see it that way.

Vee said...

Yeah, choco, I can totally understand their urge to grab some of Nabokov's prose. But citing is easy-peasy. Just say something like "Words from Lolita..." or just do a footnote and mention it at the end of the story.

Clitora, I'm glad someone else got the same idea as me about the general idea that postmodern culture is about: 1) originality being dead 2) meaning as created through the interplay of texts. The fact of the matter, though, is that regardless of what postmodern artists feel on this issue, copyright laws do exist...And like any other laws, they need to be abided by. Besides, I feel that while it does express the core ideas, it's an oversimplification of postmodernism to say it's all about sharing ideas -- meaning is definitely created by the correlation between texts, but it's also created by a relationship between reader and author, the truth being nonexistent, the death of the author etc -- I don't think postmodernism = an okay to "remixing" without acknowledgement.

And even in terms of remixing old content, I feel the way Hegemann has done it is somewhat underhanded. The fact of the matter is that, yes, other people have done this (integrated lines of other texts etc into their works) eg "It is a truth universally acknowledged..." First line of Pride and Prejudice, has been reused in many, many modern adaptations of that same story, which make the text recontextualised and it would have a postmodern element. However, the very POINT of this exercise is that the reader, hopefully, is familiar with the intertextual reference the writer is making. The work does not need to be cited because it's evident that it's not the author's own (and in this case, copyright has expired). Using the work of a little known author is not really what this technique is all about, imo. As in this case, the intertextual use would not add depth to the text by the connotations it brings, and would not even add to our notion of the "interplay of texts" as the reader is not AWARE of what Hegemann is doing.

Personally, the erosion of ownership of one's ideas, the loss of that into a sort of communal artistic melting pot, is not something I see as a positive. (Remixing with citation, on the otherhand, would be absolutely fascinating). It establishes a dangerous precedent. I mean, if she's allowed to copy-paste an author's work, what's to stop someone else from simply grabbing popular books like, say, Twilight and Harry Potter and fusing them into what they think is a super-bestseller (and what the majority of people will think is an absolute trainwreck, lol).

That's just my view on the matter, of course, and while I do see Hegemann's point I don't see why she didn't simply cite work she'd taken in the first place. It would not have diminished her artisty, and taking from other authors without acknowledgement and then claiming that you've done no wrong is ridiculous, in my opinion. I also don't think the quality of her work matters here. People said Kaavya Viswanathan's Opal Mehta book was great -- hell, it even got optioned for a film -- but once news of the plagiarism was out, that book was off the shelves.

Bidisha said...

Argh!! Stop with the plagiarism!
I hadn't read the Jessica Darling series when I read Vishwanathan's book (I kinda liked it). Soon after I heard about the plagiarism thing and I was like 'Holy, crap!' Freaky, but I felt betrayed for liking a book that was a work of plagiarism..ugh.
We are NOT a copy-paste generation. Those are the exceptions.

in which a girl reads said...

@ink: You make really good points and I so, so agree. Hegemann definitely should have used a more well-known work, and if she hadn't she should have cited. I think since Strobo is termed"underground" it probably came from a very small indie publisher and not many people have read the book. So the whole remixing point is moot. *huggles awesome comment* You're so knowledgeable ink! Hehe :)

@Bee: That's pretty cool that you read it :) And yay for agreeing about not being a copy-paste generation!

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