Self-plagiarism is one thing; making stuff up is something else entirely

The last time we encountered Jonah Lehrer, he had been caught committing the odd crime of self-plagiarism.  Things have now taken a turn for the worse. In fact, his meteoric career has crashed and burned, as meteors tend to do, with the revelation that he fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works.  This time he ran afoul of the relentless reporting of a journalist and Dylan freak named Michael Moynihan, writing for Tablet magazine.  (Tablet‘s website has apparently also crashed and burned, and I can’t link to the article.)  Here is a report that quotes Moynihan:

I’m something of the Dylan obsessive — piles of live bootlegs, outtakes, books — and I read the first chapter of Imagine with keen interest. But when I looked for sources to a handful of Dylan quotations offered by Lehrer — the chapter is sparsely and erratically footnoted — I came up empty, and in one case found two fragments of quotes, from different years and on different topics, welded together to create something that happily complimented Lehrer’s argument. Other quotes I couldn’t locate at all.

He finally got Lehrer to confess.  The result: his book has been recalled, and he has had to resign from the New Yorker.

I imagine that Lehrer thought he could get away with his fabrications because book publishers don’t do the kind of obsessive fact-checking that the New Yorker is famous for.  But it’s a terrible risk to take, especially when you’re fabricating Bob Dylan quotes for a public with any number of Dylan obsessives in it.  As with the self-plagiarism, it seems to be a case of cutting corners.  At least he came up with what sounds like a sincere apology:

The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan. I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed.

That’s pretty classy in a world of mealy-mouthed passive-voice pseudo-apologies. The classic in this genre is Newt Gingrich blaming his love of country for his adulteries:

“There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”

Things happened–lovely.  Anyway, this blog is primarily about fiction, and in fiction you don’t have to apologize for making stuff up.  On the other hand, you do have to apologize for stealing stuff.  Don’t steal stuff. It’s not worth the risk of getting caught, and the more successful you are, the more likely you are to get caught.  Here is the sad story of an overachieving Harvard student who plagiarized passages in a big-time young-adult chick-lit novel she wrote.  Wikipedia tells you much more than you want to know, comparing passages from her novel with similar passages from half a dozen others.  The really sad part of the story is that a few years after the plagiarism controversy her parents died in a plane crash.

I hope she gets over it.  I hope Lehrer gets over it, although I doubt he will.  From the New Yorker blog posts I read, I’d say the guy knows how to write.  He just lost sight of the rules.

8 thoughts on “Self-plagiarism is one thing; making stuff up is something else entirely

  1. But wait! WAIT! I’m reading Imagine right now. You’re telling me it’s been recalled? Disavowed? The guy made stuff up? That’s so…disillusioning. I wonder if they’ll issue a corrected ebook. Are the Dylan quotes the only thing we know of, or has he admitted to making up other stuff as well?


    • First of all, you should only be reading books recommended by this blog. This’ll teach you. Any minute now the publisher’s goons will break down your door and ransack your house looking for that contraband copy of Imagine you’re hiding under your bed. Find a better hiding place!

      Second, I think only the Dylan quotes are in question. But once the hunt has been crowdsourced, I’m sure more will pop up. The Wikipedia article about the Harvard kid’s plagiarized book shows what happens. First they spot some similarities to the books of some other YA author, and before they’re done they have her stealing from Salman frickin’ Rushdie. Ouch!


  2. It’s a shame that good writers like this one are going behind the rules and trying to cheat a bit. I can bet that he was probably just ‘toying’ with it, until it went too far. Just as you said, he knows how to write, but seems like at some point it’s not enough.


  3. Pingback: What it’s like to be a young writer | richard bowker

  4. “I want to apologize to everyone I’ve let down, especially my editors and readers…”

    Maybe he includes Dylan himself among the “everyone”, but wouldn’t it be appropriate to issue an apology specifically addressed to Dylan — because, among other issues, it’s never a good idea to stuff your version into a poet’s mouth?


  5. Pingback: Should we be worried that Jonah Lehrer’s ebook has melted into air, into thin air? | richard bowker

  6. Pingback: Jonah Lehrer: My high IQ made me do it | richard bowker

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