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Book: The remix

What do people think of this?

Helene Hegemann, a seventeen-year-old German writer, has “mixed” (her word) together a best-selling novel titled “Axolotl Roadkill.” According to an article in the Times, Hegemann lifted entire pages from a novel by a lesser known writer, and she doesn’t seem at all apologetic about doing so. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said Hegemann in response to accusations of plagiarism. The judges of the Leipzig Book Fair seem to agree with her, at least in principle: even after the author admitted to copying another writer’s work, “Axolotl Roadkill” remains a finalist for the Fair’s $20,000 prize in fiction.

The Leipzig committee’s decision not to strike the book from their finalist’s list, effectively endorsing, or at least approving, Hegemann’s actions, is either an alarming or a progressive response. The cultural-relativist argument is that Germany, specifically Berlin, is a hotbed of artistic mixing and mashing, sampling and re-sampling, and that Hegemann is simply employing these same tactics in her writing. If a d.j. can thread together twenty different songs and package the end product as her own, why can’t a writer? This seems to be the question Hegemann is using as a defense. Original content, then, becomes subordinate to context, meaning that as long as a newer, larger work is being created, portions of prior works are fair game.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 19, 2010; 10:49 AM ET
Categories:  Books  
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I don't have a moral problem with rearranging the work of others, but this work shouldn't be competing for a prize with original work. Its mission is completely different, and it required much less time and originality to achieve.

If she wants to start a contest for remixed books, she should go for it.

Posted by: dal20402 | February 19, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Whole pages? Theft, pure and simple. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity"? Garbage, pure and simple.

But then I'm old fashioned that way.

Posted by: bcamarda2 | February 19, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

It's fine, just so long as the original author is credited and compensated, which is what happens when DJs mash-up other artists works and release it commercially. And as long as she has permission--there are no shortage of a rap albums that reportedly took a month or less to record, and a year to work out the licensing for the samples and lifts. This is even more common now, as one album may lift from an earlier album by another artist that was actually a lift from two other previous copyrighted works . . . and the lawyers go through it, bit by bit, and make sure everybody (and by everybody I mean ASCAP, BMI or the RIAA) gets paid.

If the original writer whose work was sampled will be duly compensated--say 5% of the prize money, and due credit, then I think it's fine. If there is no legal obligation or enforcement structure to make that happen (like there is for music), then the plagiarizing author should make sure she does it herself, or all her talk about "authenticity" is bs. It's just a novel excuse for getting caught plagiarizing.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 19, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

"Every artist is a cannibal..."

Posted by: theorajones1 | February 19, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

This was the "old" (and in my opinion, better) way copyright worked: after a set period of time, a work became public domain and could be embedded into another newer work. The time frame has changed from a fixed seven years to a flexible seventy years beyond the death of the rightsholder, making public domain a thing of the past: some rightsholders (like WaPo, who now owns this comment) live forever, so the span becomes "never".

Posted by: rmgregory | February 19, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

I have to admit, I've never really understood any of the recent (and not so recent) blowups over plagiarism. As a reader, whether the work is original or not doesn't matter at all to me, all that matters is the quality of the work. Plagiarism a legal issue concerning who gets paid and a moral issue concerning honesty: the quality of the work is irrelevant to authorship.

It's either a good novel or not, authorship and payment is an issue for the lawyers, not the literary critics.

Posted by: WoofWoof2 | February 19, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

I think the importanat question is, "Is it essentially the same work?" If I publish "Angels & Demons" but I change the font, or if I sew up a bag that's identical to some famous designer's bag with some insignificant change in the stitching, then the original creator has been harmed. No one is going to confuse this book with whatever book that page came out of. No one is going to confuse "Ice Ice Baby" with "Under Pressure".

We also just have to accept that in a world with an explosion of information, individual ideas or pieces of information have less value than they used to.

Posted by: MosBen | February 19, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

Kevin Willis, it's not actually true that DJs always pay when they sample other music. Girl Talk famously released a whole album composed exclusively of samples of other music last year (might have been '08) and didn't pay anyone a dime for it. Now granted, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of samples on that album and most people won't recognize or be able to identify most of them. Still, you can definitely tell a Police song comes in. He argues that he's using them under fair use and basically daring people to sue him. There's really not a lot of law on the issue, and it's quite possible that the industry could get a bad ruling if it went to court.

Posted by: MosBen | February 19, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

I understand the (widely shared) skepticism toward "originality". How is it possible, though, to combine that with a serious belief in "authenticity"?

Posted by: vancemaverick | February 19, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

I think it's a legitimate outcome not only of the hip-hop culture but, in more classical literary terms, of Roland Barthes's ideas about the "Death of the Author." As long as it's an acknowledged aesthetic stance, it has a legitimate place in the experimental canon. Whether this young writer is indeed making this her artistic vision or is just being, well, hip-hoppy, remains to be seen.

Many modernist artistic movements rejected authorship to varying degrees in their efforts to rid the art object of its fetishistic, commodified nature. Dada and, later, Fluxus come to mind. I once encountered a "score" by Nam June Paik that had been wholly appropriated as a section of Dick Higgins's Danger Music. When I contacted the latter about the correct attribution of the piece, he said, "Did Nam June really write that? Well, then, we can say it is definitely mine!"

Posted by: JJenkins2 | February 19, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

very complicated from many perspectives.

did helene hegemann not give acknowledgement or credit to the original author of the book?

in a sense, a writer should be "able" to own his writings, just as a farmer can "own" the crops he has planted and has nurtured into something tangible.
if one's work is being created as a commodity, it is important to try to protect it, in order to eat.
are ideas, "things?"
all knowledge seems to flow together like oral storytelling, and yet, it seems somehow important to know the origin of a creation.
(i was thinking of shakespeare...but that also could be somewhat spurious.)
would i love the poetry of walt whitman less, if it appeared anonymously in an old book on a shelf?
probably not....and yet, i am glad that i know that monet painted the waterlilies, and picasso painted guernica...that john keats wrote his poems, even though their styles have been adapted and copied seamlessly.
when i go to museums and look at illuminated manuscripts or fragments of weavings from ancient garments, or intricately hammered gold pieces of jewelry that have survived for centuries, i lament that i dont know anything about the devoted artisans who labored meticulously and lovingly over those magnificent works.
i often lament that the life that created the work of art...and the hands and imaginal consciousness that created something so timeless and magnificentthat have vanished from the earth.
and yet, they are not gone, as long as the intention took form and shape.
something of that person lives on.

can we really "own" an idea?
yet, our "styles" and thoughts that take shape in the material world, in some sense, are uniquely our own...
everytime we create something, i think we "channel" it from an imaginal world and bring it to life. it doesnt belong to the artist or writer or passes through them, somehow.
just as we dont know who conceived of the great gothic cathedrals...they are just there for everyone to enjoy.
i was an artist for most of my life.
in my later years, i decided to stop signing the things i painted.
but i no longer was trying to make a living with my work.
when artists depend on their original creations for a living, and their work is not just being created for its highest spiritual value, that becomes another consideration.
the spiritual aspects of creating something are very separate from the practical aspects of creating something.

Posted by: jkaren | February 19, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Who wrote this post—Ezra Klein, or Lee Ellis of the New Yorker?

Posted by: tbomb | February 19, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

it is the best of crimes, it is the worst of crimes.

Posted by: bdballard | February 19, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

thinking about it....

it is hard enough to make a living as a writer or an artist.
but if one cant protect a novel that took ten years to write, what then?
it seems fair and beautiful that after an artist passes away, what came from their mind, hearts and hands passes entirely from them, to the universe.
but before that time, how will they eat?
arent they also entitled to reap the rewards of their hard work and craft?

Posted by: jkaren | February 19, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

The novel's approach is not unprecedented. Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus adapted considerable materials in a kind of montage of scientific, historical and other sources, in addition to Mann's own writing. A whole book exists on the topic by Gunilla Bergsten, "Thomas Mann's 'Doctor Faustus': The Sources & Structure of the Novel". If I may stealing from Lloyd Bentsen, I didn't know Thomas Mann, but I think Ms Hegemann is no Thomas Mann.

Posted by: jkadvany | February 19, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

"The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot is one big "mix" - complete with footnotes. The difference between that and simply copying and pasting stuff from an anthology of poetry is that Eliot, as an artist, was assembling similar and dissimilar, ancient and modern, poetic and non-poetic elements into a new poetic expression. Rather than use individual words, he used strings of words (sentences) pre-assembled by other poets, then took those strings and wove them into a unique work of his own.

Posted by: tnoord | February 19, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

I would need to know more (but whole pages?), however is this different than the Gysin/Burroughs notion of the cut-up novel?

Posted by: thescuspeaks | February 19, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

tnoord, you considerably overstate Eliot's reuse of material. There are a lot of borrowings -- only some of them footnoted -- but the majority of the text is original.

Another point of reference might be Joyce; in _Portrait of the Artist_, for example, the whole sermon, which goes on for pages, was taken from some pamphlet.

Posted by: vancemaverick | February 19, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

jkaren, I'm onboard with making it so that more works pass into the public domain. On the other hand, what we're talking about here isn't going to make it easier or harder for a writer to make a liver other than that we live in an age with a glut of works. Nobody's going to buy the novel we're talking about here *rather than* the novel that that one page originally came from. No one is going to buy "Ice Ice Baby" rather than "Under Pressure" because they only care about that guitar sample.

Posted by: MosBen | February 19, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

"The primary purpose of copyright law is not so much to protect the interests of the authors/creators, but rather to promote the progress of science and the useful arts—that is—knowledge. To accomplish this purpose, copyright ownership encourages authors/creators in their efforts by granting them a temporary monopoly, or ownership of exclusive rights for a specified length of time."

Posted by: kingstu01 | February 19, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

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