Let’s raise a glass to Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize lecture

Even though (maybe especially because) he apparently plagiarized parts of it from SparkNotes, of all places. Thus saith Slate:

In Dylan’s recounting, a “Quaker pacifist priest” tells Flask, the third mate, “Some men who receive injuries are led to God, others are led to bitterness” (my emphasis). No such line appears anywhere in Herman Melville’s novel. However, SparkNotes’ character list describes the preacher using similar phrasing, as “someone whose trials have led him toward God rather than bitterness” (again, emphasis mine).

And so on. For Dylan, plagiarism is beside the point. He isn’t just another songwriter; he is a force of nature. Here he is singing “North Country Blues” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, when he was all of 22 years old. He tells us all we need to know about offshoring and alternative energy sources and the working stiff:

Jonah Lehrer: My high IQ made me do it

Jonah Lehrer — he of the self-plagiarism and fabricated Dylan quotes — tried to start rehabilitating himself last week, and it didn’t go well. He gave a speech and Q&A session at a seminar hosted by the Knight Foundation (which says “it supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism”).  In it he laid out what he perceived were the causes of his misdeeds and how he intends to make sure they don’t happen again.

As a journalist, the author of this entertaining Forbes article was not impressed.  This paragraph caught my eye:

The oddness of Lehrer’s thinking came into focus when he allowed himself to consider some of the factors that may have eased his way down the path of iniquity. One, he said, is his high intelligence. “For some cognitive biases, being smart, having a high IQ, can make you more vulnerable to them,” he said.

That’s really going to cause make Lehrer’s public feel sorry for him.

As a scientist, Jerry Coyne was not impressed.

When I was interviewed by Lehrer for his New Yorker story on E. O. Wilson, and saw the result, I sensed something amiss.  There was such a disconnect between the science I taught him and what came out on the page that I suspected Lehrer was more interested in making a big splash than in the scientific truth.  And, sure enough, truth has always taken a back seat to Lehrer’s self-promotion and desire to make a big splash at a young age.

In truth, and given the content of this speech, I sense that Lehrer is a bit of a sociopath.  Yes, shows of contrition are often phony, meant to convince a gullible public (as in Lance Armstrong’s case) that they’re good to go again. But Lehrer can’t even be bothered to fake an apology that sounds meaningful.  Call me uncharitable, but if I were a magazine editor, I’d never hire him; and we shouldn’t trust anything by him that’s not fact-checked by a legion of factotums. This is what happens when careerism trumps truth.

As a virtually unpaid fiction writer, though, I have to say I was impressed that Lehrer managed to get himself paid $20,000 for his little speech.

This whole thing makes it into my “Life is stupider than fiction” category–first, because Lehrer actually thinks he can rehabilitate his career by opining that his high intelligence was a cause of his problems.  And second, because he got some charitable journalism foundation to pay him twenty grand for his deep thoughts on his malfeasance.

Upon sober reflection, the Knight Foundation realizes it may have made a bit of a mistake here.

Controversial speakers should have platforms, but Knight Foundation should not have put itself into a position tantamount to rewarding people who have violated the basic tenets of journalism. We regret our mistake.

The comments below their apology are not kind.

Should we be worried that Jonah Lehrer’s ebook has melted into air, into thin air?

. . . and leaves not a rack behind?

Jonah Lehrer, you may recall, is the young author who made up some Dylan quotes in his book Imagine and was caught self-plagiarizing on his New Yorker blog and elsewhere.  See here and here.  It’s not a good time to be Jonah Lehrer.

Imagine, not surprisingly, has been withdrawn from the market, without any online explanation of what happened.  Now an Atlantic writer worries that the disappearance of the ebook from ebook shelves is a bad thing.

There are now links to used copies on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble; original links to the items are still inactive, and at the original time of writing, there were no links at all, used or no. Lehrer’s author site on Amazon still does not link to any of the marketplace vendors.

She connects this situation to the time Amazon disappeared copies of some editions of Orwell novels from readers’ Kindles because of copyright violations.

When Orwell pulled a Kindle disappearing act, David Pogue called Amazon’s actions, “ugly for all kinds of reasons.” Even though (as far as I know) no purchased copies of Imagine have disappeared off of electronic readers, the ugliness is just as strong in the current reaction to Lehrer’s missteps. It is worrisome that the book has virtually disappeared from the most prominent online retailers—and the publisher itself. A simple note saying that sales have been halted pending further verification, or something to that effect, would have been a much more honest, transparent solution. When contacted for comment on the specifics of the decision, Amazon stated simply that, “At Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s request, we halted sales of ‘Imagine’ in all formats.” No reply was made to the specific issue of how the request was handled. HMH did not provide a response, nor did Barnes and Noble.

To me, this seems like much ado about nothing (to bring Shakespeare into the post again).  Imagine is still easily available as a used hardcover on the Internet.  No one has removed the existing ebooks from peoples e-devices.  So Imagine is certainly leaving a rack behind. (In this sense a rack, the Internet tells me, is a fast-moving cloud, a vapor.)

I suppose in some ways it’s easier to disappear ebooks than to destroy physical books, but as readers at Andrew Sullivan’s site point out, in other ways it’s much easier to save an ebook, if you think it’s worth saving:

Jonah Lehrer’s book was bought and downloaded by thousands of readers before it was recalled. The tools to remove an e-book’s DRM encryption are freely available and trivial to use, even for a low-tech buyer with a cheap PC. Once the book is decrypted, it’s just another file on a computer, as easy to copy and send around as any photo or Microsoft Word document. E-book files are tiny compared to other commonly-pirated media like movies and music; most are under 10 megabytes, which is small enough to send as an email attachment. And if they’re stripped of their fancy formatting and converted into plain text, they get even smaller. Project Gutenberg’s entire collection of over 40,000 public-domain titles would fit comfortably on an average iPod.

And then there are the increasing numbers of ebooks (like mine) that don’t even have DRM.  I’m basically trusting that most people aren’t jerks.

And here’s another angle: I wonder if Lehrer would have any difficulty getting the rights to Imagine back from the publisher.  If he did that, he could get rid of the made-up stuff, write a new introduction explaining that the devil made him do it, mistakes were made, or whatever, and sell the ebook for $2.98 or some other fraction of the publisher’s original ebook price.  I’m sure he’d sell a bunch of copies!  Step 1 in his rehabilitation.

When I started my ebook venture, I went looking for an unpublished novel of mine that I thought might be worth self-publishing as an ebook.  Couldn’t find the hardcopy.  Could only find softcopy of the first draft.  Yikes!  I vaguely remembered sending a copy to my friend Jeff, so I dashed off a desperate email.  Twenty minutes later I had my novel back.

Computers are our friends.

Answering readers’ questions about fake ebook reviews

Actually, more like the questions I imagine readers asking . . .

You titled your post yesterday “Fake ebook reviews: Worse than plagiarism?” But you never answered your own question.  What’s up with that?

I got sleepy.  Here’s a writing rule: Avoid blogging when you’re sleepy.  Bad things are bound to happen.

Are you sleepy now?  Will you answer your question?

No. Yes. Writing (or obtaining) fake reviews for your ebook is obviously not as bad as plagiarizing your ebook.  Don’t be an idiot.  But it has the potential to do much more harm.  I can’t imagine that many writers plagiarize to any great extent.  But faking ebook reviews is easy to do, could have a major upside for the individual writer, and has a huge downside for the whole ebook enterprise.  If readers start questioning the validity of those customer reviews, it will become a lot harder for good writers to get their attention.

What does the blog “Lawyers, Guns, & Money” have to say about this?

Oh, do you read Lawyers, Guns, & Money too? They ponder the larger issue of whether this is a part of the breakdown of our faith in the crowd, and may lead us back to a reliance on expertise:

For that matter, is there any reason to believe any kind of customer review online? This Times piece on professional “reviewers” being paid by self-published authors to give positive reviews, a process that seems to lead to increased sales for many, suggests to me that we, even the most supposedly savvy of us, are as manipulated now as ever. The crowd and the empowered individual does not protect us in any way, in fact, it may make us more vulnerable as our confidence lets our guard down.

On Twitter, Matt Zeitlin (@MattZeitlin) said about the Times article, “Possible future scenario: online customer reviews are ruined, publishers become more authoritative.” I thought that was interesting. Does the fact that anyone can say anything mean that all statements become equally worthless without some kind of expertise to back it up? For that matter, could we see a future where, as a broader society, we see the pendulum swing back toward expertise and institutionalized leadership in books, politics, or all the other ways in which we distrust expertise today?

Doesn’t xkcd have a funny strip about online ratings?

Yes, it does.  And here it is:

Are there any good fake ebook reviews?

Well, it depends on what you mean by good.  Have you seen the reviews for the pink “BIC for her” pen on Amazon UK?  I guess they’re not fake, but they aren’t exactly “real.”  And they’re awfully funny:

I bought this pen (in error, evidently) to write my reports of each day’s tree felling activities in my job as a lumberjack. It is no good. It slips from between my calloused, gnarly fingers like a gossamer thread gently descending to earth between two giant redwood trunks.

If I get (or think up) more questions, I’ll be happy to answer them.

Sam Harris is opposed to lying — go read his free ebook about it

I find that Sam Harris is always interesting, even when I disagree with him (and lots of people disagree with him about lots of things).  He has a post up on his site about Jonah Lehrer. In response to the Lehrer scandal, he has made his short ebook Lying available for free as a PDF for the rest of the week.  You’ll find a link to it in the Lehrer post.  I have started reading it, and his position on lying is pretty clear — he’s agin it.  My sense is that Harris is not an especially deep thinker, but he is a clear and graceful writer, so you may want to check out his book — it’s only about 60 pages.

I also have Harris’s book Free Will on my e-queue. He’s not necessarily agin free will, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t think it exists.


What it’s like to be a young writer

Yesterday I mentioned the young Harvard writer, Kaavya Viswanathan, who apparently stole material for a YA novel she wrote in the summer after high school.  Here’s what she said in an interview on NBC:

All I can say is that I’ve read both of Megan McCafferty’s books, “Sloppy Firsts” and “Second Helpings” when I was in high school.  I think the first one came out when I was about 14, and I read both those books three or four times each.  I completely see the similarities, I’m not denying that those are there, but I can honestly say that any of those similarities were completely unconscious and unintentional, that while I was reading Megan McCafferty’s books, I must have just internalized her words.  I never, ever intended to deliberately take any of her words.

The Wikipedia article about her novel points out other similarities to other books from other writers.  They’re pretty obvious.  I don’t want to litigate this.  It could be that this was all a calculated attempt to craft a novel that would get her into Harvard and make a name for herself.  Her parents had hired some consulting agency to help with the college admissions process, and it sounds like she had a good bit of assistance, from them and others, in writing, packaging, and marketing the novel.  But I’d like to assume it was something entirely different — that this was a girl who was desperate to become a writer, and was just too young to pull it off by herself.

I’d like to think that because it feels awfully familiar to me.  Like a lot of would-be writers, I suspect, I wanted to become a writer from a very early age.  And, again, like a lot of those would-be writers, I had two major problems:

  • I didn’t know how to write.
  • I didn’t have anything to write about.

As a result, I had to live in other people’s imaginations.  And what a wonderful place that was!  I remember when I was about eleven years old reading a science fiction novel that I couldn’t get out of my head.  So I decided to write my own science fiction novel — in pencil, with my own hand-drawn illustrations.  The plot, as I recall it, was pretty much the same as that of the novel I had read, except that I was the hero.  I don’t think I got more than a few pages into the thing before I abandoned it.  It’s much easier to read than to write.

I got better at writing as I got older, but it was always hard to escape other people’s imaginations — they lived more interesting lives, thought more interesting thoughts, and could express themselves in more interesting ways.  I couldn’t compete.  So when I wrote a short story, it would come out sounding like an adolescent imitation of a Graham Greene short story, or an Isaac Asimov short story, or a Ray Bradbury short story.  What I wrote didn’t sound like me, because I didn’t yet have a sound.

So I can imagine an 18-year-old girl from India desperately wanting to write a novel about her life in America, but I can’t imagine her pulling it off.  Not without channeling all the authors she had read who had helped her make sense of her experiences, who had helped form her imagination.  And maybe what she wrote with the help (conscious or unconscious) of those authors was pretty good: it got her parents excited, it got her college admissions consultants excited, it got her an agent and some assistance in fleshing out her ideas, and before long everything spiraled out of control.  She was no longer just a kid dreaming of becoming a writer; she was a professional.  And that’s when her problems started.

That’s what I’d like to think.

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.