Everybody’s piling on Jonah Lehrer right now. The thrice-published boy wonder first faced scrutiny for his rather unethical habit of self-plagiarism. And yesterday he pooped his pants on the national stage, copping to some using some combination of “unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes” attributed to part-time homeless man Bob Dylan in the first chapter of his latest, Imagine: How Creativity Works.
The piling on is totally appropriate, and really should have happened weeks ago when he was first found out for recycling so much content. Some defended him then, blaming the fact that the current journalistic world favors quantity over quality. I agree that this shift in priority is ultimately harmful and results in a lot of shoddy pieces, but disagree that this had much or anything to do with Lehrer. I don’t view him as a journalist—though he did write some not-that-bad pieces for The New Yorker earlier this year—so much as someone who poses (or posed, now that his career is effectively over) counter-intuitive questions, half-answered them, asked some more questions, cited someone from Princeton, and cashed a decent-sized check. (I’m kicking myself over failing to remember who had a great line—Josh Levin at Slate?—about the fact that Lehrer’s fall from grace is welcome to many because, well, he’s kind of a hack, and the comparisons to Malcom Gladwell were decidedly not flattering.)
And now after David Moynihan’s great investigation into a totally banal Bob Dylan quote in Imagine revealed that Lehrer is nothing short of a total hack, everyone’s reveling in his downfall. I am too. Cutting corners—as Moynihan told The New York Observer—is antithetic to writers who take writing seriously, who don’t view it as an obligation between lunch and intramural kickball.
But I’m transfixed by Lehrer’s stupidity here. Whhhhhhhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyyyy?
Having not read Imagine, I am actually surprised that Bob Dylan’s creative mind, or what’s left of it, is studied here. Dylan was a spastic creative force from 1961-1978 before releasing a decent album once every decade on—hardly a test case for a self-help book on creativity published in 2012. But beyond just some subjective view of Dylan’s career, why the hell would you fabricate quotes from Bob Dylan? Surely Lehrer met eight or nine dozen Dylan fanatics at Columbia. How he thought he wouldn’t get caught by one of those people is just mind-boggling.
Until you consider the possibility that Lehrer’s this once-in-a-lifetime blend of sloth (doesn’t interview subject himself + fuses together various weird quotes), ineptitude (copy + paste + neuroscience pith = article!), and dullness (even his up-in-flames moment is totally boring, relative to Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass) who won’t really serve as a lesson to aspiring nonfiction writers or journalists, but rather will be forgotten altogether, due in large part to how uninteresting he was in the first place.
Also, let this be a lesson to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: If you’re not going to employ fact-checkers or make use of your copy-editors, just quit. Lehrer’s junior high English department probably had a more sophisticated system of sleuthing out the lazy cheaters.