|Oh hey, my bad.|
What is it with these kids making up shit for their books these days? As I’m sure you’re now aware (since no one gets their news from the Book Catapult) Jonah Lehrer, author of the bestselling Imagine: How Creativity Works, was forced to resign from his post at the New Yorker after he confessed to making up quotes from Bob Dylan (first reported on by Michael Moynihan at Tablet) and including them in his book. (His publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is reportedly going to be recalling all unsold copies – a hugely expensive undertaking. In fact, Imagine doesn’t even exist on their website anymore.) All of this is coming on the heels of last month’s mildly scandalous reveal that he recycled his own work in the New Yorker for inclusion in Imagine. Oh, and he also reportedly plagiarized Malcolm Gladwell. I mean, who’s gonna notice that?
“The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position.”
C’mon dude, really? You want to know how you ended up down this rabbit hole? You jumped into it with both feet because you thought there was a pile of cash at the bottom. You got cocky, your publisher got lazy, and here we are. This is all indicative of a larger problem, of course – that of fact-checking on the part of publishers. Yes, I blame Lehrer for almost all of this, of course, but I do wonder how a quote from one of the most famous people in the world managed to slip by the fact-checkers at HMH. The same way I wondered how James Frey managed to make up things like 87-day prison terms and train accidents and get that by the editors at Riverhead in 2003. And then when Riverhead again had Margaret Seltzer make up her (aptly named) memoir of gangland violence, Love and Consequences in 2008. And the Three Cups of Tea thing from 2011. And the fake Holocaust memoir that Berkley was going to print in 2009. And Stephen Glass making up just about everything he wrote for the New Republic in the late 90’s. And Jayson Blair, formerly of the New York Times, both making things up and stealing from other reporters in 2003. And Mike Daisey’s Apple embellishments on This American Life just a few months ago.
Sadly, I’m sure there are plenty that I’ve forgotten about. But you see where I’m going here. Which begs the question: “What the fuck?”
Is it a pathological sort of thing? Where is this insane need for embellishment coming from? In the case of Lehrer, was there even a reason for embellishment? If that’s even what this is? What is this, anyway? Why would making up quotes from Bob Dylan make your book better? If anything, wouldn’t you be constantly worried that someone would discover the fallacy of it? Hell, weren’t there enough quotes from Dylan from the last 50 years to suit your purposes? But maybe that’s where the pathological thing comes in. In the cases of Lehrer, Glass, and Blair, it even could be perceived as a form of psychosis, or, at the very least sociopathic behavior. I can see recycling your work in some way, as Lehrer confessed to doing last week – as there’s certainly a lot of pressure on writers producing content for the web (one of his frequent outlets) to keep churning out the goods – but the flat-out making things up? What’re you kidding me, buddy?
But, like I said, I think a large portion of the blame needs to be placed at the feet of Lehrer’s publisher. And no, this is not because of their deal to distribute Amazon titles, although it did harden my resolve, thank you. I think an argument can be made to defend the publishers of James Frey, after all, his was a memoir and maybe not everything can or needs to be fact-checked in one of those. (I happen to believe that the “memoir” as a writing form almost begs for embellishment.) But this is a different case. Is there not a department at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt that is tasked with checking the validity of, say, quotes from Bob Dylan for inclusion in one of their books? Under the assumption that there is such a department and the department is filled with people who can read, I again ask the question, “What the fuck?”
Lehrer is more in the vein of Jayson Blair (certainly a pathological liar) and Stephen Glass – dudes who just kept on writing fabricated material or stuff they stole from someone else, because they were too arrogant to think that someone would be smart enough to notice. The problem here is that the people who should have noticed, didn’t. And now all hell has broken loose. I don’t have an answer as to what should be done with those who missed checking the facts on Lehrer, but I do think heads should roll somewhere. Don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for all the people I’ve dealt with at HMH over the years, but someone should go down for this one. There’s simply no reason that things like this should slip by.
And it’s like Bob Dylan always says, “Everything that Seth Marko writes on his blog is both awesome and true.”