Noted: Jonah Lehrer’s downfall

Yesterday I got around to reading the New York Times Book Review’s full-page massacre of Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer, and wished I’d been even more grudging in my own piece touching on the bestseller. Then later in the day the news broke that Lehrer had invented quotes he attributed to Bob Dylan, and I wished I’d mentioned my own reservations about the Dylan material, which appears early in the book.

They were these:

• Dylan’s use seemed gratuitous in that it was poorly integrated and not very illustrative. Dylan is shorthand for creativity writ large, granted. But a better example might have been Bruce Springsteen, with his creative process recently explored in a documentary about the making of his great album Darkness on the Edge of Town. (Springsteen is the subject of an exhaustive profile by David Remnick in the current New Yorker.)

• I disagreed with Lehrer’s interpretation of Dylan’s historic “gone electric” British tour. (Of course it occurred to me, with mingled pride and mortification, that I’ve been thinking about Dylan longer than Lehrer, thirty one, has been alive.)

• The quotes were not attributed, first seeming to imply Lehrer had gotten an interview—highly unlikely—and when it was clear he hadn’t I wondered about his source. Why not give credit, if only for historical reasons, as he would have had to do for The New Yorker where he was a staff writer? A big trade-press gloss on clunky journalistic technique, I supposed.

I couldn’t check my second bullet point, by using Amazon’s “look inside feature,” to recall what Lehrer said about Dylan’s tour or the songs he performed because like any manufacturer with a defective product, Houghton Mifflin has recalled it. (I’d gotten it from the library.) The other consequence of his “piping the quotes,” as old newspapermen used to say, is that Lehrer has had to resign as a staff writer for The New Yorker.

Googling Lehrer now turns up all kinds of stuff, like the post by Josh Levin on June 19 in Slate revealing that Lehrer has been “self plagiarizing”—recycling material in his New Yorker blog that he’d written for other publications. This passage by Levin was prescient:

For a writer as prolific as Lehrer, reusing a phrase every so often may be unavoidable. But why would a writer as accomplished as Lehrer become this much of a copy/paste addict? Because he has ceased to be a writer. With the success of his recent books How We Decide and Imagine: How Creativity Works, Lehrer has moved into the idea business. This is the world of TED talks and corporate lectures, a realm in which your thoughts are your product. For the idea man, the written word is just one of many mediums for conveying your message and building your brand.

Contrast Lehrer’s busyness with elderly New Yorker staffer John McPhee, a far more conservative writer who has been faithful to the written word in two mediums, the magazine and some twenty-nine books—no blogger, he—and who has forged a style that makes a virtue of clunky transparency and self deprecation. In his current chatty piece in The New Yorker about editors he has known, McPhee works his persona: On my best day I wasn’t as smart or as colorful as these guys, my legendary editors. Kind of like Dylan’s claim that he’s just a tin pan alley song and dance man, but whatever.

Not just Lehrer but his editors seem to have been juggling too much. For a lapsed neuroscientist and Rhodes scholar, Lehrer was really dumb to pipe quotes about Dylan: there are too many Dylan fanatics to let that stand. Among a few others, John D’Agata recently has been defiant about his license to make up stuff in nonfiction. But once again, we see that readers and the publishing marketplace ultimately demand that writers try to be honest. Which resides partly in transparency—generally credit sources even if that’s clunky—and resides partly in the mythic, historic, and poetic vision of the writer as someone after truth.


Filed under honesty, journalism, NOTED, teaching, education

12 responses to “Noted: Jonah Lehrer’s downfall

  1. So well done, Richard. I regret my own early enthusiasm for Lehrer. I hang my head at me.

  2. The whole thing really annoys me. Like you, I’m a career journo/author/writing teacher and weary of tyros who blow it. I think you are far too kind to him here as well! I hope you don’t mind a link to my post about this, which also includes the Murdoch scandals.

    • Excellent post, Caitlin—love your blog. I agree Lehrer blew an opportunity he wasn’t prepared to handle. Digital media put his situation on steroids; how could anyone write major articles, assemble books, AND be an utterly brilliant blogger? He had to be running on fumes, hence the recycling.

  3. Good post on the slippery slope of being “creative” with truth–and memoir writers get in such trouble when they struggle valiantly with memory to try to create an accurate world in their book. I have not had time to research the training that current generations of journalists have, but wonder if the same rigor that the “older” generation had about facts, truth, and accuracy is stressed. Or if it’s just a narcissistic thing where “the rules don’t apply to me” that is happening. Agata sure got a lot of attention though for his “new twist” on truth, and no doubt sold a lot of books. I notice that memoir writers –at least the ones I know–struggle to get it right so much that they get stalled. Every time there is hoopla about “truth” it pinches them like a tight shoe. How to bring balance to all this seems important…

    • I agree on the “rules don’t apply to me” attitude. The students in my classes who have plagiarized I would characterize as people where everything has always been handed to them, and they haven’t had to work for anything.

  4. I teach journalism as an adjunct and it’s so hard to get some students to understand the importance of originality. Jonah Lehrer will be my next case study; unfortunately, I’ve been able to use many journalists as plagiarism case studies in the past few years. I realize that plagiarism has always occurred, but there’s something about today’s rapid-fire, highly technological society that seems to make it more common.

    • Maybe you can see where some of the confusion enters in for students of writing, if you see that some of their advisors and mentors, unlike you, are leading them wrongly. For example, though I am not in journalism, I once was in a poetry writing class which a much-respected and well-known poet headed. I very diligently supplied simple footnotes to tell my readers when I was quoting another writer or poet in a poem (almost as much to alert them to the issues that I and the other poet were airing as to credit previous inspiration). The instructor pooh-poohed this, and said, “Don’t put quotes on your poems–it looks pretentious, like T. S. Eliot in “The Waste Land.” So, I took them off, somewhat doubtfully. The next people i showed the poems to were both academics in an English Department as well, though not poets. They promptly reproached me for not crediting the borrowings! I felt betrayed into unintentional error by the first person. Needless to say, in the poems as they are published now (with the U. S. Copyright Office and on, I’ve put short referral notes to let my readers know what poet(s) I’m quoting or referring to. Which was what my instincts told me to do all along. Sorry to go on so long, but I would just like to say that in an era where so much is for free to so many on the Web, some students may honestly make mistakes (though I was writing my poems before the Internet came along), but once you warn them, I should think an instinct that warns people naturally to respect others’ property would help with any but the most recalcitrant and spoiled writers. I just wonder how many journalists that you have trouble with in this regard have been in other kinds of creative writing classes and have been told that things are up for grabs because of what is today called “intertextuality.” It goes a certain distance, but when in doubt, credit. Julia Kristeva didn’t entirely mean what U.S. and U.K. authors may mean these days when they borrow her term “intertextuality.”

      • Rachael and Victoria,

        In regard to what Lehrer did, I have thought that he’d have benefitted from a short apprenticeship in newspapers, their own flaws notwithstanding. He’d have made a few fact errors—everyone does, because we operate on assumptions—and learned the pain of writing corrections. He’d have seen the anger that relatively minor errors cause among some readers. Newspapers also tend to be maddeningly conservative, and some of that can be helpful to a writer. Of course that route may be less available because of the collapse of the newspaper industry. In any case, Lehrer was writing journalism, albeit intellectual journalism, and was bound knowingly or not by its rules.

        As for plagiarism, there’s an interesting clash between academia and its requirement for credit and the practices of some artists. I flunked a paper last term because plagiarism jumped out—the student had pasted in stuff from Internet cheating sources—and s/he admitted it, knew it was wrong, and said it was due to being in a jam. The counter strain is represented by Dylan himself, of course, who has borrowed material his whole career. The brief for this was written by Jonathan Lethem in The ecstasy of influence:A plagiarism:

        Writers take ideas and plots from each other in a way that is not countenanced in scholarship—Hemingway took the plot of A Farewell to Arms from another novel. A very interesting exploration of this issue was just made by my friend Paulette Bates Alden on her blog about a Lorrie Moore short story last May in The New Yorker that replicated one by Nabokov.

        Paulette writes: “I felt uncomfortable at some of the borrowing that Moore did. For example, here is Nabokov on the boy’s suicide attempt: “The last time the boy had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, a masterpiece of inventiveness.” Now Moore: “The last time her son had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, morbidly ingenious.” Isn’t that plagiarism? Would students get away with that?”

        I’m having trouble getting her blog to come up today but the url is:


      • Thanks much for supplying the links, Richard. These days, with scholarship and literary creation alike assuming a higher degree of what’s called, at least, professionalism, I can see that treading the correct line would be difficult, but not impossible. And I can see that traditions of literary journalism would have higher standards of avoiding plagiarism, about as strict as those of scholarship (a quote which may appeal to some people with this idea is “Copy from one, it’s plagiarism; copy from two, it’s research.”) And I know that writers are sometimes held to a looser standard. For example, T.S. Eliot (who cropped up before in this blog conversation) is reputed to have said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” I don’t myself hold with these barriers between writing disciplines, however, because not only of the experience which I told you about in my previous comment, but because I feel authors DO owe something to their intentionally copied antecedents. Maybe I can put my part of the discussion to rest, though, by saying what it is I do in my own creative writing projects (so that I’m at least not hogging all your comment space!). In novels, if I want to have recourse to a quote, I allow a character the knowledge to reproduce the info about who said it first–God knows, people do know a lot of quotes and seem to like them. In poems, I simply give a note at the bottom of the page. Neither of these, I feel, reduces my dignity as an original writer (I guess I don’t agree with T. S. Eliot: I find it perfectly fine to imitate, and due to having worn two hats myself–as both an academician and a poet/writer–I feel this is the best compromise for me). But others, I know, may feel differently. Have I responded responsibly (sorry for the length)?

  5. P.S. The “‘Copy from one…” quote is from Wilson Mizner.

    • I like your policy, Victoria, and respect how you’ve worked things out. Sometimes I wonder if this divide is about stealing specifics (largely language and stated ideas) vs. concepts like plot and salient but non-specified ideas (as in novels where the reader must discern them).

      • Re: Your second concept, stated above, the “concepts like plot and salient but non-specified ideas,” I think we should reference Cynthia Ozick’s recently published book “Foreign Bodies,” a serious borrowing from Henry James’s “The Ambassadors” (remorsefully I have to confess not having gotten around to reading the Ozick yet, which one of my exam professors referred to after my dissertation (on “The Ambassadors”) passed. I did buy it, but so far haven’t had a chance to read the gentleman’s suggestion. As to borrowed plots, what about all the movies Hollywood has cadged from better novels than the movies turned out to be (except for “Apocalyse Now,” a little before my time, but which I understand was really fine, and was based on “The Heart of Darkness”). But then, Hollywood isn’t really what we were discussiing, is it? Sorry for wandering off-topic..