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.


Self-plagiarism: mortal sin, venial sin, or huh?–who cares?

Jonah Lehrer of the New Yorker has been caught recycling old material for his new blog Frontal Cortex. The New Yorker has had to add editor’s notes to all the blog entries in which they “regret the duplication of material.”

I haven’t read Lehrer’s books, but his blog shows him to be a fine writer working the Malcolm Gladwell vein — giving an entertaining layman’s spin on findings from social psychology, neuroscience, and the like.  Good stuff!

The Slate writer seems to have put his finger on at least part of Lehrer’s problem: it’s just to hard to keep coming up with new material.

Given that continuous cycle of creation and reuse, blogging seems to have been a bad idea for Jonah Lehrer. A blog is merciless, requiring constant bursts of insight. In populating his New Yorker blog with large swaths of his old work, Lehrer didn’t just break a rule of journalism. By repurposing an old post on why we don’t believe in science, he also unscrewed the cap on his brain, revealing that it’s currently running on the fumes emitted by back issues of Wired. For Lehrer and The New Yorker, the best prescription is to shut down Frontal Cortex and give him some time to come up with some fresh ideas. The man’s brain clearly needs a break.

That sounds about right.  Between June 5 (when the blog apparently started) and June 13, Lehrer put up five blog posts — each of which was the equivalent of a nicely crafted magazine-quality column.  It’s not surprising that he cut some corners.

Part of the problem has to be that Lehrer is trying to make a living from his blog (among other things).  Blogs have no deadlines (unless the New Yorker imposes them), but there are expectations associated with them.  There are plenty of blogs that I don’t frequent any more because the author updates them too infrequently.  If you want traffic, you need content.  Lehrer was trying to feed the beast and decided he needed to use leftovers.

And what kind of sin has Lehrer committed?  Mostly a sin of stupidity, I’d say.  You can’t expect to get away with self-plagiarism on the Internet, and you can’t expect some people not to gloat at a misstep from a young hotshot.  A little note at the end of each post saying what the editor’s note now says at the top of the post would have sufficed, I think.

But wait!  This blog is about me, not Jonah Lehrer!  Please note that today is my six-month blogging anniversary, and I haven’t been caught self-plagiarizing once! (I’ve quoted extensively from my novels, but I believe blogging etiquette allows this.)  I’ve tried to follow my own writerly advice and make blogging a habit, so I’ve averaged about a post a day — although, granted, some of them consisted mainly of YouTube videos.  I guess I cut corners, too.

Anyway, advice about how to improve the blog would be gratefully received.