Not Novel

There is a major schism that exists in the writing world. The two sides are usually called “literature” and “genre”. Literature is usually that which gets taught in English classes and genre usually means any important genre, ie. western, romance, fantasy, science fiction or mystery.

Literature pushers have snubbed all the genres for years and years. That’s why there are separate awards in each genre for writing excellence. Before the genre awards, literature would not exalt any genre piece to even be in long lists for awards.

So you end up with people like me, being reverse snobs, liking genre and ignoring literature.

It’s true that some books are not obviously genre or literature. Occasionally I read these. But listed for the literature awards? Ha, ha, ha, ha. Awards sometimes have the opposite result of their intent.

It was with great shock that I heard of a literary neophyte that had plagiarized many of the passages in her new book. That’s right Helene Hegemann, 17, of Germany copied and plagiarized passages as long as a page with just a few words changed.

Instead of being completely demonized, after the scandal she was listed for a German award. Her defence? “there’s no such thing as originality anyway, there’s only authenticity.”

First of all the word is novel. If she can’t think of new things to write about, perhaps she shouldn’t be writing.

Secondly, perhaps over here closer to genre, especially near science fiction and its love affair with tech, we can see more clearly.

Isn’t a new thing in technology original? There are new things all the time. I come from the regime of the cathode ray tube. Now we have plasma or LCD screens everywhere. Something changed. Want to say “I’ve been in space”? Used to cost you 20 million dollars. Virgin Galactic is set to change this to a few hundred grand and soon. Instead of buying a house, you can buy a space trip. Something the common person may soon enjoy. Original things are coming down the pipe every day.

Indeed, engineering and science students are the most worried about their education becoming outdated. Because they see the changes coming and they’re fast, too.

So if you’re writing about the future, and most science fiction authors are, you at least have to keep up with tech, even be a bit ahead of it. So original things get said in many sf stories.

There is novelty in the other genres, too, for instance, mysteries will sometimes have new ways to do a heist or catch a murderer, sometimes even both in the same story.

If you are wondering, my nose was planted firmly up in the air for the writing of this piece. Thank you for the feeling of superiority, Helene Hegemann. Go genre, go!

About Larry Russwurm

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6 Responses to Not Novel

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  2. Helene Hegemann, the seventeen-year-old you bizarrely thank for helping you feel superior, has indeed been accused of everything from plagiarism to genius for her novel “Axolotl Roadkill.” As an aside: she has already had a movie shown in theaters and play staged in addition to her book. That’s certainly more accomplished than most kids I know. But her claim is that the book in question is a mash-up and that would be a fairly novel thing to do in fiction, something along the lines of samples used in hip-hop and electronic music or collage in art.

    Surely a similar argument could have been made against Marcel Duchamps’ “Fountain,” which is nothing more than the relabeling of a urinal placed in a museum rather than where it is customarily found. The maker of the Bedfordshire toilet used in the piece could have accused Duchamps of plagiarism, however ridiculous it may have seemed. Duchamps would insist his placement of the so-called found object was art because of the reaction people had to it. In fact, that was the whole point of the exercise, to prove that art does not live in any particular object but in us.

    Personally, I think Hegemann’s case lies somewhere in between true art and the toilet. It is apparent from the text that she was aware of this “borrowing” and using it deliberately to some extent, however doing so without attribution is well… flush-worthy. They’ll be wiped off of her record soon enough when she is no longer a minor.

    Nevertheless the lone instance of a seventeen-year-old who, at worst, plagiarized some of her first novel is hardly an argument against all of literary fiction. Even if it were, I think you’re still missing the point. “Literary Fiction” and “Genre Writing” aren’t locked in a death struggle where only one can survive. That sounds like a trope from a bad thriller.

    Good writing is good writing, and good books can be read and appreciated by all. There’s plenty of genre fiction that transcends the standard private dick and dame setups and predictable twist endings. Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell and Cormac McCarthy are some of my favorites. Denis Johnson recently pulled off a tightly paced thriller called “Nobody Move.” What makes for good writing isn’t increasingly elaborate death scenes, see “American Ninja VII” for example… Or maybe don’t, ever.

    What makes for good writing is authenticity. A scene could be set on the bridge of an intergalactic battle cruiser or a dingy kitchen across the street, whichever one grabs the reader and holds his or her attention, that’s art.

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  4. Larry says:

    Since Hegemann’s work was nominated for an award, I think I can say literary fiction is partially responsible and must take any resultant blow to its credibility.

    You may call it mashups, sampling or collage, but I call her work unattributed fan fiction.

    Your examples of art will provide a nice segue into next Saturday’s topic of the fine art schism.

  5. I’m a firm believer in the idea that everything is connected, and everything is a remix.

    But there is a big difference between revisiting or developing someone else’s idea into something– dare I say — novel, and cut and pasting someone else’s writing verbatim without attribution. Mash-ups, remix, etc is NOT simple plagiarism.

    Since Hegemann is a teen, it is reasonable for her to be testing the boundaries of acceptable. Being outed for plagiarism ought to result in an apology.

    It is the grown-ups giving her the award who need censure; they are the ones giving the arts a bad name.

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