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Call the spade a spade

Helene Hegemann's novel "Axolotl Roadkill": an intertextual masterpiece or a case of plain old plagiarism? By Philipp Theisohn

In the run-up to its launch Helene Hegemann's "Axolotl Roadkill" was heavily hyped by the critics as the work of a teenage genius. After publication, however, it emerged that numerous passages had been copied directly from other writers without them being credited. A debate ensued with one camp describing the incident as a huge embarrassment and the other, arguing that its intertextuality only made the book stronger.

One week ago, after controversy exploded over Helene Hegemann's novel "Axolotl Roadkill", Ullstein Verlag published the book's literary sources. In an attempt to preempt a second round of accusations it then added the following sentence: "This novel contains passages that follow the principle of intertextuality and may therefore contain further quotations."

An announcement like this is likely to make literary criticism feel a little green about the gills. After all, intertextuality once enjoyed a fairly healthy reputation; people warmed to it in Julia Kristeva's day, and it has certainly carried more than a few dissertations on its back. Now, however, it is being asked to serve as some sort of all-purpose weapon for a critical establishment that is trying to ensure that literature should only be explained within the context of literature, and that anyone who comes at it with more worldly claims should expect to have their shortcomings in all things postmodern rubbed repeatedly into their faces by some much cleverer person. And when it comes down to it, even the weakest principles suffice for such exercitation: "Passages adress the concept of collating the voices and writings of others"(1), "signals" which the novel uses to demonstrate "that it is woven together from bits of other people's writing that it has incorporated"(2) – according to the defence.

Well we have all read the signals now and they are nothing more than signals. In fact this is probably the aesthetic concept of "Axolotl Roadkill": not to reflect the texts which one appropriates but simply the fact that one is appropriating them; it is not about a dialogue with the voices that one names (from Eusebius to Agamben), nor with those that one does not name (Airen - more here). On one level this is disarmingly honest. (Peter Kümmel talked in Die Zeit of Hegemann using "nakedness as armour", which just about hits the nail on the head.) But is this enough to make us forget what we know of how this text has been written? This is the question that needs thinking about – and which can only be answered by resorting to the word that the poet Dürs Grünbein brought up in his article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. It's a word that has been hovering in the air all along but no one was willing to acknowledge it. That word is plagiarism.

Grünbein's experiment, which he conducted "in the lunacy of a criteria-free literary debate", is particularly valuable on two accounts. First of all, it demonstrated clearly that plagiarism is a matter of perception and is therefore a contourless creature. Anyone who is particularly well versed in the literature of the 1920s would have seen through Grünbein's article on "Plagiarism" as a defence - published under the same title by Gottfried Benn - of the young writer Rahel Sanzara, while the average reader would have mistaken it for a defence of Helene Hegemann by Durs Grünbein. Secondly, however, Grünbein's plagiarism of "Plagiarism" revealed the historical continuities that stretch from Benn's metaphysics of art to the cultural editorials of the 21st century, and which really are pretty shocking.

For Benn, plagiarism still stemmed from quarters "with no space or breath", and the only thing which could stand against them was "the creative sphere, art". On one side we had "the question of allegiance or law" and on the other, "the issue of literary judgement". This polarity was adopted by many in the recent discussion. The message was clear: anyone who comes along with accusations of plagiarism or even entertains thoughts of copyright, anyone, in other words, who brings in legal or economic criteria, does not represent a position worth mentioning and must be actively hostile towards literature per se. This assessment was accompanied by a list of illustrious forbears from Goethe and Büchner to Thomas Mann and Elfriede Jelinek, and eventually culminating in Helene Hegemann. So obviously we should expect to have to battle it out with that lot first, if we obdurately refuse to abandon our notions about plagiarism instead of leaving law to the law and art to art.

The charge of plagiarism in connection with copyright as the natural enemy of world literature – this attitude, as Grünbein's Benn joke demonstrated so brilliantly, certainly does have a long tradition and a list of respectable advocates. It's just this also has very little in common with today's reality. First of all, copyright is not nearly as anti-art as those who love to defend literary autonomy like to pretend. It is quite open to accept arguments for the "free use" of other texts. The fact that large numbers of literary critics deliberately ignore this, however, is just a side effect of the deep-rooted snobbery towards any real knowledge on issues relating to intellectual property, and the apparatus which converts literature into social context. That – and only that – is the function of the concept of plagiarism. It turns art into law, work, money and as such, reminds the literary business of its business side, which is somehow part of it all, but which no one much wants to see in the writing itself. To talk of plagiarism is to profane art – whether in words that are sober or vulgar, in an attempt to score points or voice a genuine grievance/paranoid psychosis. Or you could look at it another way and say that plagiarism is a deeply democratic category.

This is why, naturally, it is so open to abuse, because you can spot plagiarism anywhere, especially in those places where you want it to be. Yet no one uses the term as loosely as its detractors who, due to the fact that the history of plagiarism has had its fair share of absurdities and intrigues, deduce that even thinking about plagiarism is linked to a culture of denunciation. It is possible, however, to believe in the existence of plagiarism and yet still recognise that the campaign against Paul Celan, which was based on fabrications by Ivan Goll's widow and which was peppered with anti-Semitic undertones, has nothing in common with the controversy surrounding "Axolotl Roadkill". No one with a serious interest in the category of plagiarism would come up with the infamous idea of comparing the two cases and their related constellations. Yet precisely this was happening in the feuilletons last week.(3)

It is not beyond readers to make situational or historical differentiations. They stopped being shy about intertextual processes long ago and have read their Foucault, Barthes and Derrida - and yet they are still talking about plagiarism. So instead of patronisingly telling them to please keep their hands well away from this expression, we should start by asking ourselves why, in fact, they are using it in the case of "Axolotl Roadkill". The reason is obvious. Seldom has the literary business made such a fuss in the run-up to a book launch than in the case of Hegemann; seldom has a book been so sidelined by the focus on its author. And then a few weeks later, the novel suddenly has nothing to do with all of this any more, its primary importance being - to quote the chairman of the jury of the Leipzig Book Prize – to kick off "a discussion about copyright in the times of circulation on the Web", in other words, to put the economic basis of the literary business up for negotiation. Can you blame anyone for not wanting to let this discrepancy disappear in a bubble of talk, and instead seek out their own story that will make some sense of this spectacular self-disembowelment by the literary industry?

You might complain that such stories are often subjective, libellous or indiscrete, that now we are talking more about the writer Maxim Biller's Facebook friends (4), Amazon orders, old men, young women and publishers readers in techno clubs. It didn't need to be like this. The most simple - and, strategically-speaking probably most shrewd and therefore most boring – story would have been this: that here we have a book which contains bits copied directly from other writers with no thought for poetology. No intertext, no material aesthetics, just plain plagiarism.


(1) In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Volker Weidermann wrote: "The book, by the way is full of passages that address the concept of collating the voices and texts of others. Which explain the idea of joint writing as a consitutive moment of this book. As a consitutive element in the voice of the impossibly sad, desperate, deeply uncertain first-person narrator Mifti."

(2) In Die Zeit, Jürgen Graf wrote that "Axoltl Roadkill" is "permanently declaring itself a montage, it is constantly sending out signals that it is a text that has been woven together from integrated passages of other people's writing."

(3) In his article in Die Zeit, the literary scholar Jürgen Graf refers vaguely to "a major 20th century plagiarism scandal" which Paul Celan had to struggle with, without mentioning than the accusations were levelled at Celan without any justification by the poet Ivan Goll's widow, Claire.

(4) The writer Maxim Biller was accused of not mentioning, in his enthusiastic review of the book, that he was in contact on Facebook with Helene Hegemann's father, the dramaturge Carl Hegemann.


Philipp Theisohn is a professor of literature at the ETH Zürich. Last year he published his book "Plagiat" (Plagiarism. An unoriginal story)

This article originally appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 25 February 2010

Translation: lp

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