Art, Information, Theft, and Confusion


A seventeen-year-old German woman named Hegeman recently published a novel called Axolotl Roadkill amidst a flurry of publicity. People promptly pointed out that many passages in it were plagiarised from another fairly recent novel, Strobo, whose author uses the pen name Airen. Nevertheless, the book was announced as a finalist for the $20,000 prize of the Leipzig Book Fair.

If Airen had turned out to be Helene Hegeman, this story would be funny, but no such luck. Volker Weidermann, a member of the prize jury and a book critic for the Frankfurter Allgemeine, not only admits that the jury knew about the plagiarism when they nominated the book, but that he considers plagiarism to be “part of the concept of the book.” As for Hegeman, she allows as how she could have said thank you or something to the other author, but she clearly feels that making a fuss about stealing text is just incredibly twentieth-century. In a statement released by her publisher, she said “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”

I don’t know what Airen has said about it, but it may be hunkydory with him, since he had previously written in his blog that “Berlin is here to mix everything with everything” -- a line duly put into the mouth of a character in Hegeman’s book.

The New York Times report on this story was sent me by my friend Robin Morgan, who was having a bit of déjà vu. Her book The Demon Lover was plagiarised some years ago by a young woman whose novel won first prize from an Australian literary committee. Though it was proved that she had stolen not only from The Demon Lover but also, Robin says, “large chunks of Graham Green,” the prize committee refused to dethrone her, asserting that “extensive sampling and mixing” is a form of “hommage.” It evidently didn’t seem odd to them to do homage without saying who you’re doing homage to. The publisher, however, pulled the book out of publication.

The Times article refers to “artists that sample freely and thereby breathe creativity into old forms,” and to a literary generation “that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of information across new and old media, to create something new.”

I’m interested that both the Times article and the Australian prize-givers use the terms “sampling” and “mixing,” which come from the world of recorded music. These words have no background in literature. In fact I don’t know anything in writing they could refer to except such dreary minor forms as the “cento,” a poem made of lines from other poems.

Of course, in one sense, writers take from one another all the time. Learning a craft or art is in large part learning to use and recombine the forms, techniques, and ideas of other artists. But (except occasionally in a painter’s training) that doesn’t mean literal copying. In the case of writing, it doesn’t mean quoting, and has little if anything in common with sampling and mixing recorded music. Writers don’t take little bits of each other’s work and put them in the blender and come out with a brave new smoothie. Writers don’t knowingly use another writer’s sentence at all, except in quotation marks, citing the author’s name. Literature doesn't work like music. The rules are different, the content is different. A writer that “mixes” and “matches” somebody else’s copied sentences “creates” something highly derivative, but “new” only in a very limited sense. In what way can mere theft “breathe creativity into old forms,” and how can “originality” or “authenticity” or be invoked to justify the result? Writers who copy sentences and present them as their own work have done nothing but what the fifth-grader who copies from the next-desk exam paper does: They’ve cheated.

Since it’s so easy to copy information from the Internet, teachers from grade school through college now must endlessly repeat explanations of why copying text is not only cheating, but entirely pointless, since the information has merely been repeated, not learned; the student has in fact said nothing, original, authentic, or otherwise.

The Times and the prize-givers in Australia appear not to have heard these explanations, or have listened only to the deconstructionists denying the existence of authors, or the choruses on the Internet hopefully chanting the mantra “Information wants to be free.”

Wasn’t there was a second half of Stewart Brand’s sentence, something like “information also wants to get paid”? Gotta watch it with those mantras.

In any case, if we’re talking about literature, we aren’t talking about information.

The Odyssey is not information. Neither is Axolotl Roadkill. They’re art. Good art, bad art, it don’t make no nevermind.

We have created immense confusion by calling whatever appears on the Internet “information.”

Information is essentally content. Content does not, or should not, belong to anybody. It may take Einstein to think it up in the first place, this little equation, this bit of information, but once he’s published it, once you’ve learned it, it’s yours. And you can do whatever you like with it. No question about that.

This lack of ownership is of course anathema to capitalism. The corporations would like to keep all their scientific and techological information secret forever. An individual’s right to profit from discovery of information is more defensible; a chemical formula for making a useful or salable substance, for instance, is information of immediate money value, and it doesn’t seem unfair for it to be kept secret for a while so the originator can profit from it. Inventors can patent an invention (on the same principle as copyright). But information in the sense of knowledge rightly belongs to anyone who will learn it. You cannot patent the knowledge of how to perform a mastectomy. You cannot copyright a mathematical equation.

If you suppress information so that only you can profit from it, it’s very likely to get away from you. And it’s extremely difficult to keep information secret. As all governments know, the more you classify, the greater the leakage. As a general rule, the best thing to do with information is release it, set it free. It is in this sense that information really does want to be free.

Content flourishes when it is allowed to be common knowledge, or at least available knowledge.

But art is not essentially content. Art is essentially form. Art is object, not subject.

You learn a subject. Surgery, or math. History, or philosophy.

You don’t learn an object.

You can study it, sure. You can observe an object, you can look at it, listen to it, read it. You can learn how it was made. You can buy it, or ask permission to borrow it or use it or copy it. You can steal it.

And these days, if the art object is an object made of words — a poem, a novel — and you want to steal it, you refer to it as “information.”

And that’s supposed to legitimise the thievery. To glamorise it, even. To postmodernise it. To make it authentic...

Part Two

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