on life, ambitions, and dreams

Chew On This: What is Authorship?

Yesterday morning a friend clued me in to this article from the great Laura Miller at Salon.com: Plagiarism: The next generation: A 17-year-old novelist defends herself in the latest copycat scandal. Are we just too old to understand?

[cue Star Trek: The Next Generation theme song]

That’s right, kids, these are the voyages of an ever evolving enterprise known as artistic inspiration, authorship, taking creative license into your own hands, and, well, owning it. I come from the school of thought that every story has been told before and there are no new stories. I think this skepticism was instilled on me from my first creative writing professor (thanks, GVB) and it’s why I had a hard time appreciating “Avatar” as a stand alone-movie and not as a rehashing of “Pocahontas.”

In literature and in life, “you are not a beautiful or unique snowflake.” Everything that you have ever thought of, want to do, and will do has been done before. The difference is in the details―the how and the way you tell your story.

I believe that I have become the person I am in life because of the people I met along the way. If we have had a conversation or shared an idea or worked on a project together, chances are it left an impression on me. I have incorporated your influence into the make up of who I am and who I will become next. I believe that inspiration is everywhere and everyone has the opportunity to be my muse. At our core, we are all “intertextual.”

Going back to Ms. Miller’s article, here’s what lit my fire:


Wikipedia puts it simply:

Intertextuality is the shaping of texts’ meanings by other texts. It can refer to an author’s borrowing and transformation of a prior text or to a reader’s referencing of one text in reading another.

The author, Helene Hegemann, who’s under scrutiny, is quoted as defending her use of the stolen text:

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.

I do appreciate the fact that Hegemann is owning up to the fact that she took the work of another author (a German blogger named Arien). However you spin it, that’s something to admire, or at least I’m trying to. And according to the poststructuralist definition and the art of literature itself, she was in her right to take “inspiration” from another author’s work. What has me bent out of shape, however, is that she cut-and-pasted an entire page. Where do you draw the line?

She’s Been Nominated for a Literary Prize & the Judges Know about the ‘Borrowed’ Text

One jury member of the prize said:

Obviously, it isn’t completely clean but, for me, it doesn’t change my appraisal of the text […] I believe it’s part of the concept of the book.

Wait a minute, what? I understand that it was one-page and maybe some ideas, but really? Maybe I should be admiring the judge for being able to separate their own views of authorship and are viewing the novel as a stand-alone piece of work, because obviously I am unable to separate the two.

I am a fan of footnotes and giving credit where credit is due. I actually just bought The Annotated Lolita so I can fully understand the text and Nabokov’s intentions. I only read T.S. Eliot if there are footnotes. When I published my graduate portfolio I included a “Publisher’s Bookshelf” in the back matter listing all of the books I read throughout the publishing program, more for my reference than for anyone else.

One article did mention that Hegemann didn’t understand “the process for acknowledging borrowed material and this [has] been changed for the second edition.” I guess a group hug is in order?

I think Miller sums the controversy up best:

If Hegemann intended to enter into a dialogue with Airen, she took pains to make it look like a monologue. If she viewed the writing itself as collaborative, she suppressed any urge to share those handsome royalty checks.

Ideas are one thing. You cannot copyright ideas, but you can copyright words. Intellectual property is a beast and as a writer, it’s in your best interest to credit your fellow writers and support your community. As expected, this whole escapade is working in a bizarre way for Hegemann and book sales are on fire. Publicity is publicity. And who can show me a book publisher in the digital age who doesn’t appreciate book sales?

What is your stance on this? When are you just inspired and when should you give your muses credit?

More to Chew On

  • If you’re interested in the concept of authorship, you could indulge yourself this heavy read: Authorship: From Plato to the Postmodern, A Reader, edited by Seán Burke.
  • Or, for fun, Meg Wolitzer does it brilliantly in her book, The Wife (it’s fiction, baby).
  • Who’d like to collaborate on a book proposal with me where we create a story from other great works of literature? I think it’d be fun and we could get shortlisted, too. We’ll include a page of rights that say “inspired by…”
  • Shout out: Does anyone knows of an IP lawyer who enjoys these kind of topics? I’d love to connect with them!

Full disclosure: I have not read Hegemann or Airen’s books. The ideas I’m trying to digest are coming from second hand sources (intertextuality at it’s best!). I’m just chewing on the concept of authorship, ownership, and what it all means. (Woah, is my English lit degree showing?)


5 Responses

  1. I can’t believe you posted this! I was JUST going to start reflecting on plagiarism after I read about the NYTimes journalist who resigned after he was found to have pulled too much from previously written articles in other publications.


    And it reminded me of how frustrated I felt when I was in grad school researching and writing, that someone had already said or argued what I was thinking. Writing seems so delicate now. You’re right – virtually everything you could want to say or do has be done before. And while it’s the HOW that makes it different, it’s not always different enough. Which is why I don’t think I could ever be a writer or a journalist. I’m inspired by words and images, things that could have a subconscious impact on my writing.

    I admire original and inventive writers in a time where everything has been said, and it’s hard to do better than the person before.

  2. It’s interesting how the judge said he thinks the “borrowed work” was part of the concept of the book. Perhaps, and if so, it’s a cool concept. But credit should have been given where credit was due. To me, that would say “this was part of the concept.”

    For myself, a lot of my ideas are inspired by others.

    Somebody writes something or says something I find interesting and I tend to look into it in my own way.

    I like the way you said it, “inspiration is everywhere and everyone has the opportunity to be my muse.”

  3. @Lindsey, I love it! And you should write about your reflections on plagiarism–I cannot wait to read them!

    I am fascinated by the concept of authorship. As I was writing this post I remembered that I took a class on this topic in college and actually started fanning through my text again. These are huge ideas and very daunting ones. The key is walking the fine line between having a new idea and thinking about an old idea in a new way (as you probably did in grad school).

    @Noah, I’m still on the about the judge’s comment. And, honestly, the only way to understand how the “borrowed” work is part of the concept is to read both texts and compare. It just seems like a stretch to me.

  4. As a recent college grad, I can understand the struggle of trying to reflect an already established idea into your own words. I normally got by pretty well by simply talking out loud the concept of what I just read and it was normally translated into something unique. 99% of the time, it carried the same message. Not too hard to do.

    Now, there are cases where the established work carries the perfect message, or the impact carries more weight because of the relevance of who wrote it. However, in those cases the work ALWAYS needs to be acknowledged to the credit who inspired you to use the work. Again, not that hard. You could even just make a Acknowledgments page at the end of you book explaining whose work you referenced too.

    Otherwise you’re just being lazy/greedy, because you want credit for work you didn’t do. That method doesn’t hold up in the sciences or in other forms of the arts, so it shouldn’t hold up in literature.

    Plagiarism is mostly just akin to laziness, in my opinion.

  5. @Davin, Thank you for stopping by. I agree that a page of acknowledgments or even an “inspired by” page would have really helped out the situation. It’s funny, as I was writing this post and linking to the various articles, I was “haunted” by all of my college professors and trying to make sure I cited my sources correctly. Though, that’s a skill I *learned* in college. Maybe the author just didn’t know that she was supposed to cite? It’s possible. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *