Not even the Olympics are a sufficient distraction from the scandal of Jonah Lehrer. He’s the 31-year-old who rose to prominence writing such bestselling books as “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” and “How We Decide,” and delivering lucrative corporate lectures to go along with them.
On Monday Lehrer admitted to fabrications and “improper combinations” of quotes in his latest book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works” — specifically, material he’d attributed to Bob Dylan but in fact simply invented. As he announced his resignation from the New Yorker (he’d been there less than two months), his publisher announced that it had removed access to the electronic version of “Imagine” and recalled all copies of the printed version.
Lehrer was already slightly tarnished. In June, he admitted to self-plagiarizing, recycling previously published work , sometimes word for word, in his blog on the New Yorker’s website. Though he avoided widespread excoriation for that, this latest revelation has the publishing world choking on its own special blend of schadenfreude and sanctimony, blaming Lehrer’s fall on the arrogance of stardom or the scrutiny afforded by the Internet.
Whenever a saga like this erupts, we journalists tend to wag our fingers the hardest. And for good reason. These cases erode the already tenuous contract between reader (or listener or viewer) and reporter. They take the axiom “don’t believe everything you read” and give the public an excuse to twist it into “don’t believe anything you read.”
What Lehrer did was plainly wrong. Still, it would be naive to think that quotes are never massaged. Though making up words and thoughts is obviously unacceptable, “cleaning up” a quote is something of a tradition.
If someone speaks in awkward stops and starts, repetitively, ungrammatically or otherwise in a way not conducive to a verbatim appearance on the page, there is no hard-and-fast rule for making those words more reader friendly. Ellipsis points and brackets? Indirect quotes? Taking out only the “ums” and “you knows”? It all requires having enough trust in ourselves that we can also ask our readers (and those we quote) to have that trust too.
That’s a lot to ask. And in this era, frankly, it may be too much.
It’s worth noting that Lehrer’s impulse to come up with tidy quotations that seamlessly fit into his theme happened in the context of a culture in which the concepts of “documenting” and “manipulating” are no longer always at odds. Indeed, they often cannot afford to be because ideas expressed in anything but the most succinct and entertaining terms run the risk of losing the ratings wars. That is, audiences are inclined to not only prefer cleaned-up quotes, they’re likely to favor a more staged version of events over the more banal, factual version.
Reality TV shows, which now often fall unapologetically under the rubric of “documentary television,” are known to be staged for greater dramatic effect. Even some of the most acclaimed traditional documentary films can push the limits. Lauren Greenfield, director of the new release “The Queen of Versailles,” admitted in a recent interview to playing around with the order of a few scenes for the sake of a narrative arc.
Once in a while, journalists get handed something that is so juicy and so neatly presented that we need only slap it on the page and we’ve got a sexy story. But real life is complicated and generally unsexy, which means that, most of the time, the sentences and paragraphs we use to describe it will be too. Jonah Lehrer was rewarded for making complicated ideas seem simple and appealing, for making people feel smarter than they are by making things like neuroscience and the works of Proust seem easier to grasp than they are.
But his downfall is not his alone. What has also collapsed is our collective tolerance for complexity, our appetite for concepts that can’t be captured in catchy book titles or appropriated for corporate mantras and self-help seminars. In the wake of all that, should we really be surprised when a writer opts for a made-up Dylan quote over the real thing?
Sadly, no. Besides, it’s always been hard to understand what Dylan was saying. It’s not for nothing that some people thought “the ants are my friends” was what was blowin’ in the wind.