Writer and author Jonah Lehrer has gone from wunderkind to liar, liar pants on fire in a matter of weeks. The New Yorker writer has admitted that he made up many of the Bob Dylan quotes in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works. He has resigned his position, but the disgraced science writer is going to have a lot of problems finding another job. After all, literary fraud is the biggest publishing crime.
Sure, plagiarism or literary fabrications may not be crimes akin to murder, but they are fraud. And they ruin careers. Anyone who has ever been to college (at least a good one) knows that copying text or submitting others' work as your own is the quickest way to be kicked out of school.
It's a serious crime, especially from a person who makes his living writing about ideas and tours the lecture circuit helping inspire people. How can anyone claim to be an "ideas" person when his own ideas are made-up or stolen?
These things matter for many reasons. One of the biggest is that cases like James Frey -- the writer who was eviscerated by Oprah over his fictional "memoir" A Million Little Pieces -- or Stephen Glass -- the writer who fabricated articles for New Republic magazine -- make us doubt everything else we read.
It's a serious issue when we can't tell the difference between fact and fiction. Besides, making up quotes is just a stupid mistake, especially Dylan quotes. You can't tell me if you didn't dig a little more or do an ACTUAL INTERVIEW, you couldn't get him to say what you needed him to say. That's called journalism, bud. And journalists aren't supposed to lie.
In the end, in fact, it was a journalist, not a publisher or a detective, who caught Lehrer. Michael C. Moynihan is an expert on Dylan and he smelled something fishy. Thank goodness he did.
In fact, stories like these highlight the importance of good journalism. Sure, Lehrer was sloppy, lazy, and even criminal. But we can't throw the good stuff out with the bad. Any bunch of people is bound to have one or two rotten ones. But the checks and balances work out in our favor here. The good ones will find the bad ones and toss them.
Anyone who is into smart writing and ideas owes Moynihan a debt. Making up quotes, plagiarizing, and lying about things isn't something the public should have to stand for. If something feels wrong, dig. Maybe it is.
Lehrer's punishment is the end of what once seemed like a very promising (and lucrative career). Laziness should never be rewarded.
What is the worst case of plagiarism you remember?
Image via Greencolander/Flickr