Plagiarism is not Art – Q.R. Markham, Helene Hegemann and the Excuses of Cheaters

There is more information on the Q.R. Markham plagiarism case:

Thriller author Jeremy Duns, who was duped into blurbing the novel and running an interview with Q.R. Markham on his website, speaks out about discovering the plagiarism on his blog. It turns out that Jeremy Duns was actually the person who alerted the publisher to the plagiarism. He also has a follow-up post wherein he tries to explain why he did not notice the plagiarism initially, even though he had read several of the plagiarized novels years before.

It turns out that Q.R. Markham not just patched his entire novel together from various vintage spy novels, he also plagiarized the answers to the interview Jeremy Duns did with him as well as at least one article in The Huffington Post and a short story he had published in The Paris Review. In short, this guy plagiarized everything he ever published and is obviously incorrigible.

Predictably – because this happens with every plagiarist, whether they’re named Cassie Edwards or Helene Hegemann or Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg – there are also people leaping to Markham’s defense. The New Yorker wonders whether Markham was pulling a deliberate literary hoax.

Open Page, the blog of the Florida Center for the Literary Arts at Miami Dade College, also thinks that Assassin of Secrets is a hoax and a “deliberate work of literary genius” designed to demonstrate how formulaic and inferior genre fiction in general and spy fiction in particular is. Because you see, plagiarism is not fraud, it is just collage and remixing and mash-up and therefore a true twenty-first century art form. Oh yes, and the victims are obviously at fault, because all genre writing is the same anyway and genre writers are the real plagiarist here, because they are just copying other people’s writing.

The comments on the second post are well worth reading, because Jeremy Duns and Steve Hockensmith, author of some of those Jane Austen mash-ups that became popular two years ago, basically tear Chauncey Mabe a new one. Mabe responds and reveals himself to be even more of an arse than before.

The New York Daily News has a short article about Q.R. Markham and his real life identity Quentin Rowan which includes several quotes from an earlier interview with Markham/Rowan in which he displays both contempt for genre fiction and jealousy at those authors who should technically be his peers, writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, and yet are selling so much better than he is. Well, maybe that’s because Foer is a) a pretty good writer and b) actually writes his own books rather than stealing them. So it may well be that Markham/Rowan thought genre fiction would be easy pickings, because the authors are all idiots anyways.

The “But it’s collage and remixing and therefore art” arguments will be familiar from approximately two years ago, when the Helene Hegemann plagiarism scandal broke. In short, 17-year-old Helene Hegemann was built up as a new German literary sensation, a teenager who wrote explicitly about sex and drugs and the Berlin nightlife. Hegemann’s debut novel Axolotl Roadkill always struck me as a pretty obvious attempt to cash in on the inexplicable success of Charlotte Roche and her brand of confessional sex writing.

Mere days after the fawning reviews of Axolotl Roadkill were all over the media, it turned out that the new literary sensation was nothing but a plagiarist. And not even a particularly clever one, because Hegemann copied several nightclub passages from Strobo, a Berlin blogger, most likely because she was too young to actually get into the clubs she was describing. Nor did she stop there – she also plagiarized Kathy Acker and Jim Jarmush among others. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has a detailed listing.

However, the scandal did not end there, because Helene Hegemann was absolutely unapologetic, even when called out. She claimed that plagiarism was an old-fashioned notion anyway and that remixing was perfectly normal in her generation and anyway, she had just copied a page from some blogger. And as often happens in such cases, lots of people who should know better sided with her and the Award of the Leipzig Book Fair refused to withdraw Axolotl Roadkill from the shortlist even after the plagiarism allegations came to light.

Spiegel Online has a summary of the case. Helene Hegemann has not been heard from since, by the way, and her case was quickly displaced by the plague of plagiarizing politicians.

Though the Hegemann case did bring another literary plagiarism case back into the spotlight, namely that of the 2001 novel Harmonia Celestis by Austrian writer Peter Esterhazy which turned out to be a collage of the works of other writers and included a whole chapter from another author’s book as well as a complete novella by a third author. Unlike Hegemann and Markham, Esterhazy did list his sources, though he neither asked for permission nor gave detailed information which section was taken from where. Kulturzeit has a write-up of the case, again largely defending Esterhazy, since the resulting novel was apparently “a masterpiece”.

There are certain parallels between the Markham and Hegemann cases, even though the extent of Markham’s plagiarism suggests Guttenberg rather than Hegemann. Both come from a similar background, a self-consciously “arty” metropolitan neighbourhood (Park Slope/Williamsburg in Brooklyn and Berlin Prenzlauer Berg respectively) infested with cliché hipsters. Both displayed utter contempt for the works of other writers. Both apparently failed to see that what they were doing was wrong (Hegemann literally did not understand what the big deal was, while Markham seems to have vanished). Finally, both found defenders in a literary establishment that should really know better who tried to pass off blatant plagiarism as remixing, collage or mash-ups.

Markham’s defenders often refer to this essay by Jonathan Lethem in Harper’s Magazine, which was cobbled together entirely from other writers’ works. Well sorry, but the essay is a completely different case. For starters, Jonathan Lethem wasn’t trying to pass off others’ work as his own. Instead he meticulously lists his sources at the end of the essay and presumably got permission from those writers still living. Jonathan Lethem’s essay can be called an experiment in collage writing in good faith. Ditto for Walter Kempowski‘s mammoth Echolot cycle which is a collective diary of World War II assembled from dozens of private letters and diaries. Even David Shields – whose “reality hunger” philosophy I dislike intensely – is honest about the fact that he collages and cuts and pastes the work of others, even though he only listed his sources in Reality Hunger at the insistence of the publisher.

Q.R. Markham, on the other hand, is just a plagiarist and a cheat. So is Helene Hegemann.

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18 Responses to Plagiarism is not Art – Q.R. Markham, Helene Hegemann and the Excuses of Cheaters

  1. Jeremy Duns says:

    Some very good sense on this silly idea that plagiarism is art:

  2. Some very good sense on this silly idea that plagiarism is art:

  3. Some very good sense on this silly idea that plagiarism is art:

  4. Some very good sense on this silly idea that plagiarism is art:

  5. Some very good sense on this silly idea that plagiarism is art:

  6. Some very good sense on this silly idea that plagiarism is art:

  7. Some very good sense on this silly idea that plagiarism is art:

  8. Nice article on plagiarism, snobbery and genre fiction:

  9. Edmund McCoy says:

    Interesting posts from Cora Buhlert:

  10. Lisa Gold says:

    Some very good sense on this silly idea that plagiarism is art:

  11. Right on, Cora! Even if Quentin Rowan has been clever in his “mash-up,” Assassin of Secrets still arrogates the rights of legitimate writers. As an author myself, who, like Rowan, publishes under a pen name (Lior Samson) and who, like Rowan, publishes genre fiction (contemporary thrillers), I take exception to the apologists who would condone his actions as art. A generation of cynically self-serving opportunists now decry copyright law and proclaim that information wants to be free–a new paradigm that conveniently supports their expropriation of the work of others.

    –Larry Constantine (Lior Samson)

    • Cora says:

      I was also annoyed at the contempt for the writers Rowan/Markham plagiarized that his defenders displayed. But it’s just genre fiction, it’s just a blogger (in the case of Helene Hegemann), it’s just an out of print reference book (Cassie Edwards), it’s just a few missing footnotes (Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg) and so on. A lot of people have problems recognizing that plagiarism is wrong and this sadly includes a lot of critics and journalists who should know better.

  12. Dana says:

    The worst thing that could happen to publishing is for people to lose interest. In the long run, it’s good to have people like QR showing people how satisfying it is to get down and boogie with books.

    Obviously it’s important for us to regulate each other so our social structures work and so we can make money, but there is a downside to restrictive laws and social norms. One of the problems with the regulation of the imagination is it threatens to take the life out of books for the few readers who like to experience them with the deepest sense of empathy. Some artists are drawn to appropriation as a technique, and that will never stop being true. It is because copying and mimicry are basic drives, without which we would have no language, no relationships, and no society. Some artists are driven to explore such an important instinctual drive, and we should maintain some space to allow that to happen. I don’t think QR went about it correctly, but it is a fascinating topic to discuss.

    • Cora says:

      IMO there is a difference between copying and mimicry as well as collage techniques, all of which are acceptable literary and artistic techniques, and downright plagiarism. QR did not just write a spy thriller pastiche or even acknowledged the fact that his novel was a collage of several different spy novels. Instead he assembled his novel from the works of others and passed their words as his own, which is plagiarism and a quick way to get yourself thrown out of university, lose your doctoral degree or your publishing contract, if you are found out. Which makes this case different from the Jonathan Lethem essay or the Esterházy novel and to some degree even the Hegemann case, because all of them listed their sources and influences (Hegemann after she was pressured by her publisher), while QR copies without attribution.

  13. Nim says:

    Thanks for the post! One little correction: Peter Esterhazy (Esterházy Péter) is a hungarian writer.

  14. Pingback: And yet another plagiarism case | Cora Buhlert

  15. Pingback: Kristine hegemann | Entrenandoatup

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