Issue 2/2018 - originalcopy

Giving and Taking

Renegotiating Literary Citation Culture

Annette Gilbert

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a “citation” has three different meanings: “1. A quotation from or reference to a book, paper, or author, especially in a scholarly work. 2. A mention of a praiseworthy act in an official report [...]. 3. A summons to appear in court.”1 The latter definition has taken on a surprising significance: There is a growing number of cases in which authors are actually being cited to appear in court for their citations, for quoting from a foreign source, and being admonished in public—and not just in the strictly regulated scientific or journalistic fields but also in the literary realm, where freer rules apply to the practice of citation. To date, literature had neither a codification nor a systematic burden of proof for quotes.
But things are changing. The citation, the unreferenced citation, in particular—a customary and widespread aesthetic strategy up to a few decades ago, especially in postmodern narratives—has almost become the epitome of ill repute in the meanwhile. Public disputes evidence that we find ourselves in the midst of a process of renegotiating giving and taking in literature and the formation of a new citation ethos. The trigger in all of the three “court cases” from the year 2010, which will be introduced here, was not the act of citing itself but the lack of disclosure: The criticized citations were neither identified as such nor were their sources documented. Is there now an obligation to provide sources in literature as well? When someone quotes a citation must the source also be quoted along with it?

Artistic Freedom

In 2010 David Shields published his manifesto Reality Hunger, which was conceived as an “ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists in a multitude of forms and media […] who are breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work.”2 The motto by Picasso that prefixes the book already makes clear: “Art is theft.” Accordingly, Shields’ manifesto consists of 618 aperçus that make no secret of the fact they are largely taken from the works of others and thereby propagate plagiarism and appropriation as a contemporary aesthetic strategy.
Random House found it too daring and urged Shields to include an appendix listing all of his sources. Shields fulfilled this demand, however he preceded the appendix with a statement condemning it as an illegitimate intervention into his artistic freedom which contradicts the intention: He consciously omitted the references “to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted and that we have lost.” (p. 207) Unsettling the reader by not knowing “whose words you’ve just read is not a bug but a feature.” (ibid.) In interviews Shields was even clearer, voicing that the burden of proof for the use of intellectual property, as known in the sciences, has no place in literature: “The citation of sources belongs to the realms of journalism and scholarship, not art. Citation domesticates the work, flattens it, denudes it, robs it of its excitement, risk, danger.”3 To salvage his artistic approach, he subverted the usual standards of citation by leaving the extent of the quote open, not identifying modifications, and providing imprecise bibliographical information, explaining that there were a number of sources he “couldn’t find or forgot along the way.” (p. 207) Furthermore, he asked the readers to ignore the appendix when not totally remove it from the book. He even added helpful cutting lines with a scissors symbol.

Moral Obligations

Whereas the publishing house demanded the references from Shields, in the case of Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Map and the Territory it was the public who denounced the author’s citing practice. Once again, it is about unreferenced citations. In the author’s defense, the publisher contended that the incriminating passages from Wikipedia were extremely short and edited quotations. Apart from that, Wikipedia itself also would not provide any authors’ names for the texts. This argument revealed a misunderstanding: With its innovative production method and its principle of collective authorship, Wikipedia abandons established copyright law, but through its usage of the Creative Commons License (CC BY-SA) it attempts to institutionalize more contemporary copyright provisions. Hence, Wikipedia texts are nowhere near a common good. They, too, are subject to terms of use, albeit not legally codified rather ethically justified and developed in democratic decision-making processes: Free usage is only permitted with proper identification of the quote and naming the source including URL and the version date.
After numerous turbulences—while Houellebecq’s novel was placed on the Internet for free by disgruntled activists—and drawn-out negotiations with Wikipedia, the publishing house and the author settled on a note of acknowledgment, which can be found on the last page of the book since the paperback edition, ending with the line: "I also thank Wikipedia ( and its contributors, whose entries I have occasionally used as a source of inspiration, notably those concerning the housefly, the town of Beauvais, and Frédéric Nihous".4

The confession of a guilty sinner sounds different, not to mention the fact that the citations in the text are still not marked and the exact URLs still missing. Nevertheless, the president of Wikipedia France, Adrienne Alix, was satisfied, for the acknowledgment was halfway an admission that “Wikipedia authors are not ‘nothing’ and that their work and their contributions must be recognized”.5
Here, an argument surfaces in the discussion that seriously counters artistic freedom: It is also about recognizing the efforts of those who made a contribution to one’s own work to a certain extent. Insofar, the acknowledgment that Houellebecq chose as an apology also proves to be an adequate place as it reveals precisely the moral obligation that characterizes the giving and taking in literature and from which a real obligation to pay dues can be derived. The transparency attained with the acknowledgment implies a recognition of this obligation and reveals “the limits to the sovereignty available to the author for his/her work (as property)”,6 so that Wikipedia can generously overlook that the half-hearted formulation Houellebecq eventually chose raises doubts about the sincerity of his gratefulness.

Double Standards

In the case of Helene Hegemann’s debut novel Axolotl Roadkill (2010) it is also the paratexts which document the process of renegotiating literary citation practice. Celebrated as an authentic voice of the noughties generation, Hegemann was literally cited in front of the court when it was discovered that she let the texts of others flow into her novel. Like Shields, she also finds her approach “totally legitimate”7 as it “follows the aesthetic principle of intertextuality”.8
Attentive readers didn’t need quotation marks as a warning: The novel is full of references to the predefined nature of language—for instance, when a “or whatever you call it” or a “I think that’s what they call it” is squeezed in and breaks the illusion of authentic speech. Also the foreign aspect of one’s own thinking and speaking is frequently stated: “because there are so many thoughts that you can’t distinguish your own from other people’s” and “[t]hey’ve imbued me with a language that is not my own.” The novel celebrates the reproducing, citational character and uncertain origin of one’s own language, which Hegemann also mentions in her press statement with a touch of defiance: “Absolutely nothing comes from me, even I am not from me (this line is stolen from Sophie Rois, by the way)”.9

The recourse to foreign text material per se is not reprehensible. The ideologeme of intertextual theory that we only speak in citations and that there is no private ownership in language and literature is largely accepted; the foreign in the own is deemed an ineluctable conditio moderna.10 What discredited Hegemann in the eyes of the public was the missing reference to the sources, which was interpreted as misleading her readers, a lack of respect toward the cited authors, and a breach of fairness. One part in her novel caused particular outrage and clearly articulates this nonchalant treatment of sources: When the main character Mifti asks her brother whether he made up the saying “Berlin is here to mix everything with everything”, he replies: “I steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels my imagination […] It’s not where I take things from – it’s where I take them to.” The fact that this attitude is one and the same as the author’s is illustrated in Hegemann’s nearly word-for-word repetition in her defense in front of the press, where she put the same words in her mouth when she argued: "I come from a field where writing a novel is more like being a director, taking things wherever one finds inspiration. [...] And it totally doesn’t matter to me at all where people take the elements for all their experiments from, the main thing is where they take them to."11

The irreverence toward the sources is not only aptly described with the words “totally doesn’t matter” but also practiced as this passage also consists of unmarked quotes from Jim Jarmusch and Jean-Luc Godard. In this light, it is not exactly convincing when Hegemann praises the blogger Airen—from whom she “downright copied an entire page without making many changes”—as a “great writer” whom she “tries to communicate with a bit through the book”.12 This invitation to communicate is anyhow poisoned when the dialogue between Mifti and her brother continues: When Mifti asks again, “So you didn’t make it up?” he answers “No, it’s from some blogger.” The namelessness which the cited blogger is now damned to robs him of every chance of recognition and attaining symbolic capital, and once again reflects the lack of fairness. One is tempted to transfer the novel character’s disregard for the unknown blogger to Hegemann’s relationship with the blogger Airen, for he remained nameless in the first edition as well. His name only appears in the “Thanks to:” of later German editions.

Between the lines, this acknowledgment says as much as that by Houellebecq. It reveals that it does “matter” to Hegemann where the texts she used originate—a “particular thanks” indeed goes to Kathy Acker, the Queen of Punk and grandmaster of collage and plagiarism, which likely serves less as a source reference but as a token of her own gain in authority. And that’s not all. While “some blogger” like Airen vanishes into anonymity and Acker should enhance the novel’s reputation with her symbolic capital, David Foster Wallace’s contribution is explicitly honored, not only by listing his name under the corresponding quote in the first German edition but also by providing the source prominently in the imprint in the prelims of the book. The copyright symbol tells us that the publishers of the German original, the Ullstein Verlag, acquired the rights to print and potentially paid for them. David Foster Wallace is thus awarded a form of recognition that transcends mere acknowledgment. The copyright symbol illustrates that moral obligations can also be legally codified and economically founded in the realm of the fine arts.

The differentiation applied to the use of foreign texts in Axolotl Roadkill undermines Hegemann’s defense strategy. At the same time, it reflects power structures. Because, as in the case of Houellebecq, one gets the impression that the standards for dealing with the intellectual property of others—especially those of weaker author positions, such as the Wikipedia authors collective and bloggers—can be annulled with the greatest of ease. It can be presumed here that the sharing culture of the Generation Internet is being misunderstood. It fights for the free use of resources but is still rooted in rules of respect and recognition, which inherently include the imperatives of fairness and reciprocity when dealing with sources.

As a result of the public debates around these novels, it becomes apparent, according to the general sense of rights and morality, that the use of foreign text sources should also be transparent in literary works and at least be compensated with clear crediting and reference to their origins. While Hegemann initially called her method “totally legitimate”, she later acknowledged that “the people’s entitlement to be named in the book is legitimate”, that indicating the source of the citations “is right for ethical reasons”,13 even though she still finds this a problem aesthetically. A year later in 2011, the German paperback edition was accompanied with an appendix including an almost exemplary list of references.

It is followed by a slightly modified “thanks to:” and a note about the “aesthetic principle of intertextuality” which the novel is built upon. With this conclusion the publishers aim to protect themselves against any subsequent discoveries of unreferenced citations and address the realm of the unconscious in literature. In the end, not all citations are conscious or intentional decisions. Moreover, the publishers use this approach to respond to the new detectability of smaller and smaller traces of elements of a text in another text. As quick as it is to copy and paste something in the digital age, a citation can be traced back equally so effortlessly, whereby such research of sources, when taken to the extreme, can lead to dubious results, as documented by Stéphanie Vilayphiou in La Carte ou le Territoire (2013) and John Cayley and Daniel C. Howe in How It Is in Common Tongues (2012).

Excesses of Detectability

The projects trace all of the words used in the eponymous novels by Michel Houellebecq and Samuel Beckett back to pre-existing texts. To this end, they systematically trawled through the inventory of Google Books and other Internet sources for sentence fragments from the novels and presented them as a patchwork of thousands of quotes.14 Vilayphiou connects snippets of the findings together and marks the (purportedly) cited fragments in them. If you follow the yellow threads, you read Houellebecq’s novel; click on the snippet and you arrive at the “source text” that Houellebecq supposedly took his words from. Cayley and Howe, on the other hand, permeate the novel text with footnotes, each citing a URL to the location of the corresponding text. In brackets there is a note about how often the passage can be found on the Internet. With passages like “say it as I hear it” it can quickly number in the millions (2,620,000 results).

The arbitrariness of this form of evidence, which has less to do with proof and the interpretation of a literary mesh of relationships than the trivial display of a superficial coincidence of certain word sequences, is quite obvious. It produces equally as absurd results as amateur philologist and anti-Semite Paul Albrecht’s twelve-volume, self-financed and published curious indictment Leszing’s Plagiate (Lessing’s Plagiarism) from 1888 in which he tries to prove, in the framework of a “post-mortem criminal trial” on nearly 2500 pages, that “all of [Gotthold Ephraim] Lessing’s work was stolen from A to Z” and that “own thoughts don’t even come up in Lessing, everything we like about him is a product of foreign minds.”15

Nevertheless, the citation of all of these sources in potentialis practiced here does have a persuasive power, for the wording is veritably the same. It is questionable, however, what is actually achieved with this purely positivist “source research”. First off, it only corroborates the principal iterability of language and literature. In their artistic projects both Vilayphiou as well as Cayley and Howe demonstrate the easy detectability of sources as the flip-side to the pervasive copy-and-paste practice, whose undesired side effects are just now starting to be discussed. However, there might reside an opportunity precisely within this omnipresent availability and the increasingly observed excessiveness of this form of “detection”, as it ultimately fosters a more conscious, transparent, and fair approach to dealing with sources.



[1] Oxford University Press, Oxford Dictionaries, (accessed on Feb. 23, 2018).
[2] David Shields, Reality Hunger. A Manifesto (New York: Penguin Random House, 2011), No. 1, 9 [all following page numbers refer to this edition.].
[3] Sonya Chung, The Millions Interview: David Shields, The Millions (Feb. 11, 2010), (accessed on Feb. 23, 2018).
[4] Michel Houellebecq, The Map and The Territory, trans. Gavin Bowd (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 717.
[5] Original press text no longer available online. Translated for this publication.
[6] Natalie Binczek et al., “Eine delikate Materie. Einleitende Bemerkungen,” in Dank sagen. Politik, Semantik und Poetik der Verbindlichkeit, eds. Natalie Binczek et al. (Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink, 2013), 7–17, here 11.
[7] Press statement by Helene Hegemann: "‘Axolotl Roadkill’: Helene Hegemann und Ullstein Verlegerin Dr. Siv Bublitz antworten auf Plagiatsvorwurf,” BuchMarkt (Feb. 7, 2010), (accessed on Feb. 23, 2018). Translated for this publication.
[8] Helene Hegemann, Axolotl Roadkill, trans. Katy Derbyshire (London: Cosair, 2012), e-book [all following quotations from the novel refer to this edition].
[9] Press statement.
[10] Cf. Philipp Theisohn, Plagiat. Eine unoriginelle Literaturgeschichte (Stuttgart: Kröner, 2009), 469.
[11] Press statement.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Both quotes from: Cosima Lutz, “Ich beraube schonungslos meine Freunde und mich selbst.” (Interview with Helene Hegemann), Die Welt (Feb. 9, 2010), (accessed on Feb. 23, 2018). Translated for this publication.
[14] Cf. “Blind Carbon Copy: La Carte Ou Le Territoire,” and “How It Is in Common Tongues,” (accessed on Feb. 23, 2018).
[15] All quotes from: Paul Albrecht, Leszing’s Plagiate, vol. 1 (Hamburg: self-published, 1888), 4, 73, and 3. Translated for this publication.