You’ve probably heard all about the kerfuffle last week when Jonah Lehrer, a talented, young writer resigned from The New Yorker after admitting that he’d fabricated quotes attributed to Bob Dylan, patching together pieces of quotes others had gotten the old-fashioned way. Apparently, this wasn’t his first infraction, and Lehrer had previously been given a smackdown (albeit a gentle one) for lifting stuff from the The Wall Street Journal and a couple of other publications. This is nothing new. In 1998, Stephen Glass, a rising star at The New Republic was discovered to have been writing almost pure fiction during his tenure right under the noses of his colleagues, some of whom were widely recognized as some of the best minds in journalism. And then there’s Jayson Blair, who had to resign from The New York Times after he was exposed as plagiarist.
Interestingly, in each of the scandals, there was a fair amount of denial going on. Time and time again editors were forgiving of these transgressions and decided to “give the kid another chance” or chalk it up to a simple “mistake.” To see how that can happen, you might want to check out, ‘Shattered Glass’, the film about the Stephen Glass debacle, with great acting by Hayden Christensen and the always amazing Peter Sarsgaard.
This phenomenon is not unique to journalism of course. People lie all the time in just about every field, unfortunately, but unless they’re pretending to be medical doctors or faking qualifications to fly jets, chances are they’ll by and large get away with it. But something about stealing the words of another is particularly odious to me. Maybe because I know how agonizing it is to come up with your own. Still, there is a part of me that sympathizes with these young writers at high-performance publications. The pressure to produce your pages must be incredibly intense, but they can’t just meet the word limit, they have to be brilliant while doing so.
And I do mean brilliant. I used to subscribe to The New Yorker and finally had to stop because I found that every single issue had something that was worth highlighting, attaching a Post-it note to for future reference or simply re-reading for the purpose of admiring the elegance of the prose. It made me sick, sick, sick with envy. So I stopped getting it. No, but seriously, I stopped because I could read it online and because I was building a veritable monument of saved magazines in one corner of my living room that was almost as tall as I am. These are not lightweights, is my point. The writers are held to incredibly high standards that I think might undo many of us, particularly if you’re the kind of writer who waits for the muse to visit and finds it difficult to produce a single word on command.
Another complicating factor is that writers tend to be voracious readers as well, and consumers of information in all forms. I cannot tell you how easy it is to have a stroke of genius come to you in the middle of the night, a particularly clever turn of phrase that later, over breakfast cereal, you realize is not your phrase at all, but a line from a song, or a movie or – the horror! – someone else’s goddamn book. And when that happens, it’s the scariest thing in the world. So I get the “mistake” defense completely. But apparently, this latest scandal is on a different scale altogether. Intentional fabrication disguised as fact is a tough sell.
Next month, ‘The Words’ starring Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana will hit theaters. It’s about a writer who faces the pressure of wanting to produce meaningful work that also supports him and comes up short. He discovers a manuscript, written by someone else that he passes off as his own and with that finally gets the acclaim his own writing did not. While I know that human beings are capable of all manner of petty deceptions or grand delusions, I’m fascinated that someone would do such a thing and am really interested to see how this character is developed. In my experience, few people write to become rich and famous.
First of all, writing is an inherently solitary pursuit; it’s just you and your words. And generally speaking, I think writing as a craft attracts people who prefer it that way, people who are hopeless cocktail party companions because they would rather not talk to you at all, they would rather be alone and writing. For the most part these are not people who want to be famous. Rich, maybe, acclaimed, yes, but not famous. Second, the point of writing, perhaps the only point is to see whether you can conquer the written word, whether you can sculpt and mold it into something that conjures up for others the picture in your mind. I can’t imagine why anyone would forego that pleasure and challenge in favor of a fleeting taste of fame. So I have no idea why the Bradley Cooper character does it in this film but I’m curious enough to go see it when it comes out.
As for Jonah Lehrer, I suspect the write-on-command construct was just all wrong for him. The tragedy of it is that no one seems to question his talent; but as a writer it’s the kiss of death to be known as someone who was caught stealing words.