There has been a tremendous amount of digital ink spilled this week on the fall of writing wunderkind Jonah Lehrer, whose book Imagine: How Creativity Works, it was revealed this week, contains fabricated quotes of Bob Dylan. Lehrer’s publisher has pulled the book. His employer, The New Yorker, has accepted his resignation. And people like me, who promoted his book, find themselves dismayed and embarrassed.
There are many directions I could take this post. I could explore why this keeps happening, as Lehrer joins a long list of journalists — Janet Cooke, Jack Kelley, Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass — who weren’t satisfied with their stunning prose and skilled research, and had to “enhance” their nonfiction by making things up. I could ponder why anyone thinks they can get away with doing so in the age of the Internet, in which crowdsourcing serves as a distributed-computing fact-checker, but many others more eloquent than me have already covered that ground.
I’m inclined to explore the notion of how fiction has been pushing itself against a barrier from non-fiction that, to some, is now semi-permeable. Essayist John D’Agata defends making up details for effect, then publishes a book of a debate he had with a fact-checker about his inclination, then reveals much of those conversations were made up. He is both celebrated and reviled. James Frey fails to sell a semi-autobiographical novel, rebrands it a memoir, becomes a bestseller, is caught in his lies, is scolded by Oprah, and goes on to continue to write–and sell–books.
So we are somewhat more tolerant of “creative” writers like D’Agata and Frey than of “journalistic writers” such as Glass and Lehrer. As both a journalist and a creative writer, I get that. But I remain unsatisfied.
David Kinney in The New York Times brings an interesting observation to the conversation. In an op-ed August 2nd, he points out that Dylan was an outrageous fabricator in his own memoir, Chronicles: Volume I. Kinney notes Chronicles was celebrated, awarded, and promoted, despite its factual inaccuracies:
What’s the difference? Surely, part of it was that Mr. Lehrer was working in nonfiction rather than memoir, where scenes and dialogue are understood to be reconstructed from memory rather than from rigorous reporting. But even in memoir there are limits to how far reality can be stretched for the sake of the story, as James Frey, the author of “A Million Little Pieces,” learned.
Mr. Dylan got a longer leash with “Chronicles.” He filled it with knowing winks and nods to its unreliability, and anyone who didn’t know that he’d play around with his story hadn’t been paying attention.
As I note above, Frey has come out the other side just fine, still getting publishing contracts, and having a known name in an age where the membrane between famous and infamous is even more permeable. It will be tougher for Lehrer to rehabilitate himself, given he chose to write a work of analysis, not memory. Perhaps if he had instead written his chapter on Bob Dylan as a recollection of a weekend of music and pot with a protest-rock legend, and had placed those words directly in Dylan’s mouth as a witness–something Dylan himself did with others in his memoir–we’d go easier on Lehrer.
In the title of this post, I asked what we can learn from nonfiction writers who make things up. I’m still sorting that out. I suspect, however, that many of the lessons on creativity Lehrer offers in Imagine still apply. Perhaps Lehrer felt too empowered by the notion of creativity when he decided to be creative with another man’s quotes.