This year’s plagiarism scandal–they average about one a year–involves a 17-year-old German girl named Helene Hegemann, who wrote, more or less, a novel called Axolotl Roadkill. She lifted whole passages from various obscure sources and refused to apologize, or notify anyone beforehand that she did so. Hegemann played the generation card, claiming that the Internet generation fully accepts “remixes,” to which Salon’s Laura Miller responds,
Kids these days, this Cassandra-ish line of reasoning goes, have unfathomably different values, and their elders had better come to terms with this because children are, after all, the future. You can’t tell them anything! It’s as if people under 25 have become the equivalent of an isolated Amazonian tribe who can’t justly be expected to grasp our first-world prohibitions against polygamy or cannibalism — despite the fact that they’ve grown up in our very midst (emphasis in original).
Plagiarism is a complex issue, but Miller is right to denounce Hegemann for blowing smoke. Plagiarism isn’t an accepted value in any generation. It’s a big business on the web, as many exasperated teachers know. When high school kids lift entire passages from online sources, they’re not remixing, nor are they practicing intertextuality. They’re taking short cuts–and they know it.
To my mind, the issue isn’t generational. It involves an ethics of reading. If Axolotl Roadkill continues to sell and garner critical praise, as it has so far, the question becomes, have we given up? Is there so much content out there that no one cares anymore where it comes from?
How far we’ve come from the Kaavya Viswanathan scandal in 2006, when another schoolgirl novelist was widely denounced–and tossed out of Harvard–for plagiarizing her novel.