I have to admit, when the news broke a few weeks ago, that New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer (of the now removed-from-sale Imagine) had plagiarized himself--i.e. he'd recycled some of his words and ideas from previous articles or posts published under his name--I breathed a big sigh of "So What?" Haven't we all done this, at one point or another? Especially lately, as the mantra is to Tweet and Facebook and publish, publish, publish, some self-repetition seems inevitable. And yet, Lehrer was called out for this, and while he was allowed to keep his prestigious job at The New Yorker, editor David Remnick was "reluctant" about it, according to the New York Times.
But, now--or actually at least a year ago, the publishing cycle being what it is--Lehrer has really done himself in by making up quotes he then attributed to Bob Dylan. That's a particularly stupid idea, and not only because it violates journalism's rule #1, the one that says you can't make stuff up. But misquoting Bob Dylan, of all people? Not only are there, to estimate conservatively, at least 47 million Dylanologists out there (I have several amateur versions in my own family); not only is Dylan still very much alive and sometimes even talking, mostly in his own memoir; but even a casual observer could see, if he looked, that Lehrer's quote--"It’s a hard thing to describe. It’s just this sense that you got something to say"--couldn’t possibly have come from Dylan: IT WAS WAY TOO COHERENT. (A friend remarked that a more believable quote would have gone something like this: Mumble, Mumble, Mumble [harmonica chord] Mumble.)
So why did Lehrer do this? Because he was in a hurry and, after all, it wasn't such an earth-shattering statement he attributed to Dylan? Because he was lazy or overwhelmed by pressure to succeed? (That's often the excuse: Remember Jayson Blair from the New York Times, or Stephen Glass from The New Republic?) Or maybe, just maybe, we're going to find out that the self-plagiarism and the Dylanism were Jonah Lehrer's gateway drugs, the first steps on a slippery slope of lies that lead we know not yet where?
Years ago, I wrote about the now famous James Frey scandal, which involved the author allegedly fictionalizing key aspects of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces. (Question: Is it self-plagiarism if I tell you I'm doing it while I’m doing it?) There was also the case of Norma Khouri, whose Honor Lost was found by an enterprising Australian reporter to be a hoax. I could go on... but I won't, because I don't want to keep on promoting books that ripped readers off. But I do notice that with Lehrer, as with Frey and Glass, there's an element of self-destructiveness in these acts. I mean, if you really want to get away with something like this, wouldn't you pick a much more obscure plaigeree than the Bard of his Generation? And wouldn't you bury your deed a bit, instead of putting it in the very first pages of your book?
I'm not saying that Lehrer is conscious of this, of course--and let me say clearly that I have never met the man, and have only skimmed his book. Still, even an amateur psychotherapist--I've got several of those in my household, too--can see that this wasn't an accident. "The lies are over now," Lehrer said to the New York Times. "I will do my best to correct the record." Let's hope so.