Tuesday, August 7, 2012

On Jonah Lehrer: I Could Never Have Imagined That

I looked at the Amazon web site and found that Jonah Lehrer's best seller, "Imagine: How Creativity Works," is no longer available. I was shocked to then discover that the book had been withdrawn from the market because the author fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan. At least, that seemed to be the initial problem. 

How sad and perplexing. How can a young wunderkind who becomes a sensation almost overnight just as quickly meet his downfall? This scenario and Lehrer's fate seemed to reflect the myth of Daedalus and Icarus: Daedalus had warned his son not to soar too high, only to have Icarus disobey and have his wax wings melt and fall from the sky.

Lehrer first caught my attention when I heard him interviewed about "Imagine" on NPR. The author sounded so confident and well-spoken;  his insights on the link between neuroscience and creativity, so relevant.  Yet as I look back, his comments seem overly simplistic or even glib. I am always interested in creativity, particularly in conjunction with the writing process. I even got a review copy of the book. His take on a complex scientific topic was broken down for the layman to sound like basic common sense: for example, when one is "stuck," one takes a break. Many a writer will tell you that it is exactly when he or she is not obsessing about the problem at hand that the solution or the flash of insight comes. So I was thinking about writing a review of the book for a literary web site, and suddenly… my little project fell apart over the disturbing news.

It soon began to look like there were other problems in Lehrer's work, as more issues started coming to light. He had copied from previous articles -- or plagiarized himself -- for his articles as a new writer for The New Yorker. I also hear that there are now more matters of "fact" in his book that are being scrutinized. The truth is that it rarely happens that one is found to be dishonest on only one occasion. Such carelessness tends to be a pervasive pattern that runs through other parts of one's work, as it does in Lehrer's.

Lehrer had all the advantages. A degree from Columbia. Another degree from Oxford. He was a Rhodes scholar. He published his first book at 26. He had talent and credentials and connections. There was just one major and key ingredient that he lacked in his work -- integrity.

But why such sloppiness? Perhaps to give his work more drama....  Why his use of a made-up example? Perhaps to give his writing more literary flair.... Yes, in the process of such self-aggrandizement, even the facts themselves become irrelevant.

One can ascribe his actions to a amazing sense of hubris. Or to an arrogance that one need not play by the rules but do whatever is convenient in the interest of success.  There is also that sense of entitlement. It seems to me that the literary world all too readily gives the laurels to writers who tend to be young and male and come from similar privileged backgrounds. Perhaps such young men are raised to think of literary jobs as their due, and an audience, as their fealty. The truth is that the rarefied  Manhattan world of publishing does not as easily grant internships and access to writers of more varied backgrounds. Or to gifted writers of more modest means. As a result, we do not hear a a panoply of literary voices. And those neglected voices are also the ones that we need to hear.

So, it seems to me, in Lehrer’s case, we all too easily fell for his playing fast and loose with the facts. Certainly, we over-rated him. His easy breezy self-confidence no longer comes across not as precocious but as immature. To presume that he could get away with what he did was very naive. 

In the end, what he overlooked was what should have been a writer’s first prerogative – to carefully state the truth.

copyright by Olya Thompson


  1. I agree with you that a non-fiction writer should stick with the truth. Unfortunately, ours is a culture of bending and embellishing the truth for the sake of flashy success. "Reality shows" are far from real, and memoirs often as much fantasy as reality. I once heard a consultant say to a bunch of scientists (no less) who were trying to learn the art of grant writing: "Truth is what you can persuade other people to believe."

    1. Yes, sadly in our society, honesty is all too often sacrificed in the interest of expediency.