Saturday, June 26, 2010

Still Not Down With It

Back in February, the press and the Internet were all abuzz with the story of Helene Hegemann's debut novel, Axolotl Roadkill, and the 17 year old author's deadpan apology for having plagiarized various sources for her book, or, as she was quoted in the Time Magazine article as saying at the time, "not having mentioned all the people right from the outset whose thoughts and texts have helped me."

I haven't had the opportunity -- let's call it that -- to read Hegemann's novel, nor am I likely to, now that the teenage "wunderkind" has been exposed as a bit of a magpie, as I can't read German. (Haven't seen any announcements of an English translation or an American edition since.) Just to be clear, according to the last few items I read about all of this, the girl didn't just quote a line or two, without acknowledgement, from various anonymous bloggers and at least one published novel, in other words, she didn't just "sample" other writers, but lifted whole pages of what she would probably, neutrally describe as 'text."

What brings me back to the clippings I saved on this story, is another quote from Hegemann, that I haven't been able to shake, this from a New York Times story:

“There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”

All these months later, I'm still pondering that statement.

One's response will be decided by that last word, won't it? I don't think anyone would argue, at this late date, at least in so far as art in general or literature in particular are concerned, that this young woman's first novel was likely to be something new under the sun. As described, Hegemann's debut would seem to be yet another underage night out: clubbing, drugging, drinking, fucking, etc., etc. So taking "originality" here to mean something truly sui generis, I think she's quite right to dismiss the possibility that anyone reading or reviewing contemporary "youth" fiction -- of say the past thirty to forty years -- wouldn't recognize the genre as, if anything, hungover by now. Yet the critical response in the girl's native Germany, at least initially, and in some cases even after the scandal broke, would seem to have been almost unanimously enthusiastic. Many of the reviews quoted in news stories here insisted the book was still a worthy contribution to German letters. It even got a nomination, well after the plagiarism was proved, "as one of the finalists for the $20,000 prize of the Leipzig Book Fair in the fiction category." I can't resist quoting this in full from the Times story:

“Obviously, it isn’t completely clean but, for me, it doesn’t change my appraisal of the text,” said Volker Weidermann, the jury member and a book critic for the Sunday edition of the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, a strong supporter. “I believe it’s part of the concept of the book.”

I've just looked the critic up, and in addition to editing that Sunday book review, himself has written Light Years: A Brief History of German Literature from 1945 to Today. At forty-one, with a title like that to his credit, while hardly a grand old man of German literary criticism, he's not exactly a club kid either, is he? So it isn't just a few other youngsters with what might be a healthy disregard for authority piling on, it's what might be described as the new establishment who've taken up the cause Heggemann's novel. Taking not only what the young novelist has said in her own defense seriously then, but considering what Weidermann has said of the book as well, that one word, "authenticity," would seem to decide the matter, so...

At least part of the controversy in recent years with memoirs that have proved to be more fiction than not, and with various literary prodigies being exposed as a little too light-fingered in the library, has been answered by that word, "authenticity." Just how authentic then can a lie or a theft be? Remembering that a case is being made, by no less an authority than the author of a book-length history of post-war German literature, among others, that this sort of thing can be defended so long as we accept the premise that the plagiarism was intentional and, presumably, that the borrowed glad-rags proved to be most becoming, it would seem "authenticity," or rather it's near relative in English vocabularies, "genuine," may need defining before any argument is to be made.

First, to dispense with the factual. If one says, as the middle-aged fat lady did when she invented the abused teenaged boy whore, J. T. Leroy -- perhaps my favorite case of literary/critical gullibility in recent years -- that "this happened to me," when it didn't, then that's a lie. Likewise, if a doughy fratboy claims, as the unlamented James Frey did, to be one badass junky jailbird after less than one night in the drunk-tank, that too is just a lie. The "authenticity" put in question by the acceptance of such obvious, easily disproved frauds is not literary, but actual. Not who they said they were. Since who they said they were is the only reason they were published, read and critically acclaimed, they're done, right?

The word then is disingenuous.

Let's be honest now, and see if what everyone was on about here, is really plagiarism, or something else. Seems to me, it's only when, as was the case apparently with Heggemann, what was published as fiction receives great critical attention because of who the author is, in this case a seventeen year old girl, that the issue of "authenticity" comes into question because of her admitted plagiarism, no? As any number of commentators were quick to point out, the history of literature, and the novel specially, has ready examples of borrowing, and even outright theft, by perfectly respectable names like John Dos Passos, in his USA Trilogy, and Burroughs' various cut-ups. The collage techniques used in either example do not include any indexed acknowledgements, so far as I remember, and no one seems to fault either gentleman for what therefor was, legally speaking I suppose, a kind of plagiarism. So why pick on this little German girl?

When Jack London, or Garth Stein for that matter, spoke as dogs, there wasn't much said to suggest that the enterprise was inherently fraudulent. Or to bring the thing into a higher species of imitation, when Joyce Carol Oates, not very successfully, it must be admitted, wrote a novel entirely in the voice of a teenaged gang-banger girl, no one seems to have suggested she ought not to have done so just because she's a remarkably unlike little white woman. What is at issue then isn't the right of novelists to imagine themselves as something or someone other, but how well or badly, and by what means, the imitation came off.

So when a seventeen year old girl, already established as a prodigy, having had her first play produced at fifteen, publishes her first novel, about the adventures of a sixteen year old girl in the Berlin club scene, surely her older fans may be forgiven for accepting her portrait of such a girl as "authentic," no? Seems likely enough. And even when some of the girl's novel turns out to have been lifted directly from someone else's novel, and from various other sources including the blogs of actual club goers, that plagiarism doesn't quite explain the level of outrage, or it's absence, by itself, now does it?

No. The whole business is embarrassing because this kid, having played her elders with the usual juvenile pastiche of other people's fiction, other people's drugs, other people's abuse, other people's bullshit, sees no reason now, considering how easy it is to face down her critics, to knock it off.

What I suspect goes on here is a rather desperate and unseemly desire to not be thought old. I would guess that among the reviewers, academics and critics dependent on keeping abreast of trends and the like, unless one is willing to be pegged as a reactionary, one presumably wants to be thought down with the young people. Stands to reason. So if, rather than confessing her rather lazy appropriation of other people's writing as just a youthful error of judgement, the seventeen year old novelist shrugs, those who might be expected to know better are quick to shrug too. Here then, Ms. Heggemann offers the first shrug:

"I think there are good ethical grounds for giving sources for a book - and the fact that I neglected to do so reflects my thoughtlessness and my narcissism," Hegemann said in an interview with Die Welt, adding, "But for me personally, it doesn’t matter at all where people get their material - what matters is what they do with it."

And here, in an unattributed quote from another online story, presumably from her forty-one year old friend at the newspaper, first the endorsement:

“This is a book everyone over 30 should watch out for,” wrote the sober Frankfurter Allgemeine.

And then, again from the same source presumably, comes the shrug, when Hegemann's book is described, with a straight face, as a paramount example of:

“modern web-based intertextuality.”


If this sounds familiar, sadly, it is. It is the sound of middle-aged critics talking like teenagers. The source of one's discomfort, both with the teenager and her defender then, is the inauthenticity of their bullshit.

What did this chick really know about the wild doin's in late-night Berlin dives? Well, it seems, just what she'd read online. How convincing was her sexually-abused, drug-addled heroine? Convincing enough... for the middle-aged editor of the Sunday paper and his fellow jurors at the Leipzig Book Fair, eager to discover fresh, seventeen year old novelists with whom they might frighten the middle-aged, middle classes.

Which begs the question, would anybody really be discussing any of this if this girl wasn't seventeen years old?

Well, did the Sunday edition of the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine review Strobo, the novel by the twenty-nine year old blogger Airen, from which Hegemann stole so many telling lines, set-ups and whole scenes?

What's kept me thinking about this story all these months later then is not authenticity or inauthenticity of this little girl's novel, but the disingenuousness with which she, and those who ought to know better, set about defending her hacky dishonesty as somehow innovative, hip and, well... defensible.

No one capable of referencing Burroughs and Dos Passos' USA can honestly suggest that Axolotl Roadkill was just such a considered, intentional, public experiment in form. And how does one defend the book's seventeen year old author, once she was caught cutting and pasting, and exposed, when the best she can do to defend herself, having admitted her own "thoughtlessness" and "narcissism," is to suggest that what she did with what she stole was better than the sources from which she stole it?

And yet...

Closer to home, when a fifty-four year old professor declares the novel dead, dude, and comes out for Hip Hop sampling as the future of literature, our collective embarrassment isn't so much at his refusal to acknowledge the sources from which he's collected the borrowed bling in which he's decided to decked himself -- though that's bad enough -- as it is the sight of such a bald old bean declaring himself King Wigga. It's his never quite convincing adoption of low-riding, and his assumption that he can either fully assimilate, or translate such fashions to his own purposes as a novelist no longer interested in writing novels, that brings a blush when he takes to floor and starts clownin' like... well, like a bald, fifty-four year old professor.

Inauthenticity is not something, evidently, one necessarily ever outgrows.

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