Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mix This!

It seems “mixing” is the new word for plagiarism. Last month, the media had a field day when the news broke that Helene Hegemann, the 17-year-old “wunderkind” German author of the best-selling debut novel, Axolotl Roadkill, had lifted entire pages from some lesser-known writer’s blog and book.

Hegemann said she didn’t do anything wrong, she was just “mixing.” As one of her very own characters in her book asked, “Who cares where I get things from? All that matters is what I do with them.” (By the way, I got this quote from a magazine article, not from actually reading the book, if anyone cares.)

I must say I admire Hegemann’s chutzpah. I mean, it takes guts to seize someone else’s words and lay claim to them as your own. It’s kind of like literary eminent domain.

I, on the other hand, stink at mixology. I can’t even lift an adjective from another author’s book without feeling guilty. Once, when I was struggling to describe a futuristic computer in my WIP, I happened upon the perfect compound adjective in one of Eoin Colfer’s books, so I stuck it in my manuscript. But every time I reread the words “wafer-thin computer” in my own work, it dogged me. I still thought the description was perfect, but it never felt like mine, so I took it out.

In the grand scheme of mixing, it was a minor infraction. It’s not like I’d inserted, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Who would have even noticed? And even if anyone had, would it have really mattered?

I mean, maybe mixing’s not such a big deal. Let’s face it, plenty of people do it. Musicians and DJ’s remix music all the time. In literature, scenes are stolen and plots are lifted. “Thinly veiled” is nothing new. When I was a magazine editrix, the joke at planning meetings was that we’d create an upcoming issue by throwing an old issue down the stairs, shuffling the pages back together, and sticking on a new cover. (No, we never really did it; not consciously, anyway.)

As Hegemann said, “there is no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” (I lifted that quote from the NYTimes, by the way. On the other hand, since I’m revealing my source, it’s not really “lifting,” is it?)

So tell me, dear readers, what do you think about mixing? Have you ever done it in your own WIPs? How much mixing is too much? As for Hegemann, should the first edition of her book have been recalled? (In the second edition, she finally credited her source, under duress, I’d guess.) Should she pay the poor remixed blogger/author a percentage of royalties? Or, in this cut-and-paste age, is anything fair game for mixing?

Including, perhaps, this blog post.


  1. Wow! Never heard the term "mixing". But that sure is Chutzpah!

  2. Just "mixing" huh? Uh, no. Unless, of course, if I hot-wired her car and drove it to Vegas, I would simply be "borrowing".

  3. True, even Shakespeare lifted plots from other sources, but the stories, how he wove his words together, were entirely his. And it's true, there's nothing new under the sun (I lifted that old adage from the Bible) but to take pages and pages of someone else's writing and claim it as your own is just plain wrong! I definitely think the blogger should share in royalties. As for the 17 year old wonder wonders can she really write?

  4. This "mixing" goes on all the time with DJ's when they program their music - a little of this and a little of that. Are they making something new, or just stealing?

    Is this mixing a symptom of a casual attitude toward ideas? After all, we have an online encyclopedia that until recently allowed most anyone to add to articles.

  5. Oh, this is a hot topic in my household. I have this argument with my nephew who is an accomplished and well-known mashup artist.

    I think a huge difference is claiming others' work as your own and actually making money off of it. Is that when it crosses the line?

  6. I think you have to be under 30 to feel comfortable 'mixing'! They're the new generation, and they've got something to say! Only someone else already said it.
    (please excuse my Monkees reference)

  7. But in music, the original writers/artists are credited and paid royalties. Should be the same in books.

  8. This reminds me of a comment by Yann Martel, award-winning writer of Life of Pi. Martel freely admits to stealing the idea from another novelist. Martel's un-humble defense is that the other writer had a great premise but poorly executed it, so why shouldn't Martel, a superior writer, take the idea and do justice with it? It's an ethical tightrope, in my opinion.

  9. Well when I read "wafer-thin" it made me think of Monty Python, so...I think the moment you are born, absorbing all there is, you run the risk of "lifting" something subconciously.

    This is something entirely different though. I like Judy's example of just "borrowing" a car. Outright taking someone else's work and callng it your own is wrong.

  10. Yes, somehow I suspect this "mixing" is saying something about the younger zeitgeist that we need to understand. What's wrong, without question, is the lifting of passages of words verbatim. Direct theft of an idea, such as from a critique partner's WIP, is crummy, but if you steal nothing else and the theft is less personal, you're no worse than Shakespeare. Ideas not expressed in actual words are nebulous things, as copyright law acknowledges. BUT, something about this "superior writer" not working on his OWN idea suggests he's not quite as superior as he thinks. BUT, I don't know if anybody'd apply that thinking to the bard...

  11. I'm enjoying everyone's interesting comments. This subject definitely touches a nerve.

    Corey: What I called "chutzpah," you called "Chutzpah" with a capital "C." I think you're right to use the cap!

    J.A. Of course, when you "borrow" a car you can return it, but how do you return someone else's words when you're done?

    Bish: Great point. A "wunderkind" shouldn't need any help from lesser scribes.

    Gale: I think mixing is gaining greater acceptance. Case in point: When that Harvard student/author, Kaavya Viswanatha, was caught plagiarizing 60-plus paragraphs in her YA book, it was recalled by the publisher. Hegemann, on the other hand, was only required to credit her source in a subsequent printing. Her book wasn't even taken off the list as a candidate for a prestigious award.

    Meg: I agree.

    Con: Great point. Both Hegemann and Viswanatha were teens when their books were published.

    Melissa: Martel has Chutzpah too!

    Robin: You must have seen The Holy Grail. Is that the kind of wafers you mean? Hehe.

    Marcia: Well said!

  12. I guess I'm a little puzzled on how someone can claim to be "authentic", if so much of their work is someone else's.