It’s like déjà vu all over again. Another bright young writer. Another esteemed publication. Another rapid ascent to the pinnacles of the literary world. Another chance discovery of some missteps, followed by a deeper investigation, followed by a devastating admission of fabrication, and a humiliating resignation from said esteemed publication.
And now Jonah Lehrer. The 31-year-old bestselling author, popular speaker, and staff writer for The New Yorker resigned from the prestigious publication Monday after admitting to fabricating quotes in his most recent bestselling book “Imagine: How Creativity Works.”
It was, as the New York Times put it, “one of the most bewildering recent journalistic frauds,” in which Lehrer fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan, one of the most reclusive and closely studied musicians in history – not to mention one who is still alive. (What’s more, a good portion of “Imagine” relies on Dylan’s approach to creativity. The first chapter of the first section is titled “Bob Dylan’s Brain” and centers on the singer-songwriter’s hesitation to parse his own creative process.)
By now, we know the story. Self-described Dylan obsessive and writer for Tablet Magazine Michael C. Moynihan puzzled over the origin of some of the Dylan quotes in Lehrer’s book, quotes like, “'It’s a hard thing to describe,' Bob Dylan once mused about the creative process. 'It’s just this sense that you got something to say.'" He communicated with Lehrer, received bogus lies in response, and finally, an admission to fabricating the quotes. The falsification was revealed on Tablet’s website, Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker under editor David Remnick’s advice, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt pulled every copy of “Imagine” it could find from bookstore shelves and e-book sites, and statements were issued all around.
“The lies are over now,” Lehrer said in a statement to the New York Times. “I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers.”
He added, “I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.”
Editor Remnick said in a statement, “This is a terrifically sad situation. But in the end, what is most important is the integrity of what we publish and what we stand for.”
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said Lehrer had committed “a serious misuse” and promised to “explore all options” and recall print copies of “Imagine."
The 31-year-old Lehrer graduated from Columbia University with a degree in neuroscience and received his masters at Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes scholar. He began his popular “Frontal Cortex” blog at Wired, where he explained complicated scientific principles and processes in a snappy, culture-oriented approach in the fashion of Malcolm Gladwell. His popular blog then moved to The New Yorker’s website, where Lehrer commenced to write six articles for the magazine. Along the way, he wrote three bestselling books: “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” a surprise hit published when Lehrer was just 26, “How We Decide,” and the now-marred “Imagine: How Creativity Works.” Lehrer had just become a staff writer for The New Yorker in June 2012 before his late July resignation.
Monday’s revelation wasn’t the first. In June, Lehrer was criticized for the awkwardly named offense of self-plagiarism, recycling his own past material in blog posts for The New Yorker. And according to Moynihan’s article in Tablet, questions were raised as early as Lehrer’s first book, “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” in which the young writer was accused of plagiarizing a paragraph from Malcolm Gladwell. Even “Imagine” was criticized for “many elementary errors,” for “borrowing (heavily)” from economist Edward Glaeser, and for its “inaccurate, misleading, or simplistic” exegesis of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” according to the Tablet article.
The question, of course, is what leads a person, and a bright, promising, successful writer at that, to commit such colossal misjudgments, such bald-faced lies, such stupid audacity? Even as he saw his predecessors – similar rising stars – fall for the same lies?
As Jayson Blair, of New York Times fabricating fame, wrote for The Daily Beast, “Part of Jonah Lehrer’s problem had to be his success … success, of course, brings with it the pressure to make each new publication better than the last.”
And for this pressure, writes Roxanne Gay of Salon.com, the media and its breathless adoration of the boy wonder, is to blame. “Consider,” she writes, “how journalists have referred to Lehrer. At NPR, he is a “superstar science writer.” At Tablet, Lehrer is referred to as a “celebrated journalist.” In a Boston Globe article, Lehrer is a “rising star.” The New York Daily News refers to Lehrer as a “promising young pop-science writer.” In the Chicago Tribune, Lehrer is a “seemingly prodigious young writer.” The Atlantic calls Lehrer a “wunderkind writer.” The lavish descriptors go on and on and on as journalists try to find just the right words to capture Lehrer’s promise, his genius, his place as prodigy, to remind us that in that young man, there is (was) greatness.
“The question isn’t really why did Lehrer fabricated those Dylan quotations and then lie about it nor is the question why did he plagiarize himself time and again in his highly visible position as a staff writer for The New Yorker,” Gay writes. “The question that intrigues me most is how this happened at all, how Lehrer was elevated to a position of such prominence. Are we that enamored by bright young things that they can act with impunity?”
This, we imagine, is only the beginning of the agonizing soul-searching that will follow. For writers like Gay, for Lehrer’s readers, for The New Yorker. And of course, for Lehrer himself.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.