Saturday, September 22, 2012

In Defense Of Jonah Lehrer

by CWK

Jonah Lehrer is an insightful young writer. I was helped much by an NPR interview he did on creativity. He approaches the world with curiosity and a willingness to receive the surprising data of our wonderful universe.

His voice rose quickly and loudly, like a rocket. Then, for a couple of years, he was everywhere: the counter-intuitive and quirky scribe of a new generation. In the last month, his rocket has crash landed amid the rubble of a litany of literary crimes. Once the 'it' boy of the New York writer-guardians of culture, he's now been exiled to the scrap heap of also-ran plagiarizers. Just moments (in media time) after clicking with the 'click,' he was thrown out on his head for misquoting Bob Dylan. For his crimes of misquoting, plagiarism, and recycling articles, he's been excommunicated and denounced.

In short, Jonah Lehrer was hastily placed on trial, and found guilty of crimes against the written word. Then, summarily sentenced to literary execution. I ask that this preceeding be declared a mistrial. Formerly, Lehrer was a defendant with no defense: with no one to defend him. I intend to defend him; I intend to plea for a stay of execution.

My defense will, first, evaluate the literary world which is evaluating Lehrer. He may be guilty, but he didn't act alone. Second, based on our universal need for mercy, I'll ask for mercy

1. The Praise Of Literary Man 

A second ago, the literati loved Lehrer. He was on NPR, writing for The New Yorker, and making The New York Times bestseller list like every single day. That's a lot of capital N's, and counts for about as much capital as any writer can build in 2012. A second later, he's out in the cold. He's the Eagle's proverbial, "New Kid In Town." This sudden turn from being so hot to so not is a testimony -- not to the value of Lehrer's voice -- but to the total lack of value in 'the praise of man.' Spurgeon said the praise of man was not worth the paper it was written on. He hated the praise of the faddish masses. Why? Because such praise is, itself, a fad. It comes quickly, and goes more quickly; you could more easily catch a gust of wind in a net than hope to capture and hold on to the praise of man. Spurgeon was wise. If we are wise, we'll realize that, in the end, what is said for/against us matters not at all: what WE SAY AND DO matters all.

“I do the very best I can, I mean to keep going. If the end brings me out all right, then what is said against me won’t matter. If I’m wrong, ten angels swearing I was right won’t make a difference.”
Bits & Pieces, April 29, 1993, p. 15-16

-- Abraham Lincoln

2. The Culture Which Cultured Lehrer

The literati ought to take a long look at themselves. I'm concerned they are too busy looking, with scorn, upon Mr. Lehrer to realize that they are the one's who made him what he is. They are the mad doctors who produced what is, at least in their eyes, a Frankenstein. In order to ship more paper, they built him up to a young genius. In order to make themselves look smart, they testified to his smartness. In order to churn unceasing content for a 24 hour internet audience, they demanded more content. This demand for fast writing, like fast food (quick, hot, and fresh) is perhaps, more than anything, what encouraged Lehrer's miscues. 

Certainly, Lehrer went along with all this. He should not have. He should have stood up in the middle of the room and said, "Stop the presses! I don't have a word to say right now!" Still, I ask, "Was anyone else willing to stop the presses?" When you get a young hot author, there's a sea of voices begging him for one more book, one more article, one more blog post. Was there anyone, even one voice in that sea, that encouraged him to take a break? Did any of his 'handlers' handle him with care? Or, did they just see him as a product? Did they just see his work as a product? It's no surprise that a man who is viewed as a product would begin to see himself -- not first of all as a writer -- but, first of all, as a producer: a sort of content-farm. It's no surprise that such a man would mass produce pages poorly researched and insubstantially footnoted. Everyone blames Lehrer for pages chock full of misquotes and recycled content. But what about his editors? Was no one fact checking his work? Was no one asking about his sources? Was no one asking where he got his material? Obviously not. But why not? I submit they cared too little for integrity-based content; they cared too much more content. They got what they wanted.

3. The Sins Of The Self-Righteous

Remember when Jesus confronted a group of self-righteous culture watchers and beckoned them, "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone?" He's still saying that. His words are still echoing into 2012. Seriously, are those who are deriding Lehrer so spotless? In the rough and tumble world of publishing, does anyone truly have clean hands? How many writers who've chided him have made similar mistakes? How many, maybe because they were pressed with time, mailed in an article with insubstantial footnoting, and then regretted it the next day? How many have mistakenly misquoted others? How many have knowing altered quotes, even if slightly, to make a point? Or, cast quotes in fuzzy frames for effect? For crying out loud, CNN, FOX NEWS, and MSNBC spend most of their time quoting, in misleading soundbites, the news makers of the day.

Also, is the response to Lehrer really appropriate? To slap his hand, and expect a public apology, is logical. But all this shouting from the rooftops and harsh criticism seems to me, well, harsh. Does he really deserve to lose his job, publishing contract, and reputation? It's as if everything he ever wrote was recycled plagiarism. He made mistakes, yes. But that shouldn't define him. Why can't these mistakes form the beginning of a new chapter -- a chapter with more maturity -- in his literary career. I guess the literati agree that, "there are no second acts in American lives." I hope they never need a second act. I find the outcry against Lehrer extreme; he has literally been given the death penalty for stealing. We don't give the death penalty for stealing in the USA -- at least, not to anyone but writers. We'd view any culture which handed out death penalties for stealing as barbaric and unjust. Well, Lehrer has been given, in many circles, the equivalent of a literary death penalty. 

4. Something Borrowed

Shakespeare is lauded as the master craftsmen of English. He is recognized as The Great One of the English tongue. As he should be. Did you know that The Great One has been accused of plagiarism and swiping plots? I don't think he's guilty of anything more than incorporating great stories into his own stories. That's not plagiarism; that's the mark of a great artist. Actually, we all borrow from the ideas of others, and we do it non-stop every day. Yes, there is a state line that should not be crossed between innocently borrowing and maliciously stealing from other's work. But none of us live across the country from that line; we live on the line. Many of our best ideas are the ideas of others; our best words are often quotes reformed in our 'own words.' Our best stories are the echoes of Homer, Plato, Aesop, Bunyan, Shakespeare, and Austen. Our best ideas were inherited, as a gift, from previous generations. Our best lines are borrowed. Usually, this borrowing takes place without malice or an intentional desire to steal. Regardless, we borrow all the time. This is a good reminder for anyone who lauds absolute originality, or would try and hold Lehrer to such a standard.

5. A Plea For Mercy
These times are so uncertain;There's a yearning undefined,And people filled with rage.We all need a little tendernessHow can love survive in such a graceless age?And the trust and self-assurance that lead to happiness,They're the very things we kill, I guess.Pride and competition cannot fill these empty armsAnd the work they put between us,You know it doesn't keep us warm
- The Heart of the Matter, Don Henley

I could make a plea for mercy based on the merits of Jonah Lehrer. Despite his flaws, he's young, and he'll surely mature. Despite his mistakes, he's a gifted writer with a future. I could make my plea based on Lehrer's merit. Instead, I'll make my plea for mercy based on the demerits of his critics. Lehrer is not the only one who needs mercy. We all need mercy, and the critics of Lehrer need it as much as him, and perhaps more (critics generally need MORE mercy). What writer, on the face of the globe, can honestly stand up today and say they don't need forgiveness for some of their words? Words written in anger? In a fast folly? Words ill-conceived? or, poorly executed? To those who are even now showing no mercy -- I hope you never need mercy. Even more, I hope you realize how much you also need mercy.


“Blessed are the merciful,” that is, those persons who do not take to heart any injuries that are done them, any insults, intended or unintended. A certain governor of Georgia, in Mr. Wesley’s day, said that he would have his servant on board his vessel flogged for drinking his wine. And when Mr. Wesley entreated that the man might be pardoned on that occasion, the governor said, “It is no use, Mr. Wesley, you know, Sir, I never forgive.” “Well, then, Sir,” said Mr. Wesley, “I hope you know that you will never be forgiven, or else I hope that you have never sinned.”

From Charles Spurgeon's sermon, The Fifth Beatitude.


What’s notable about what happened to Mr. Lehrer is what never happened to Mr. Dylan.
“Chronicles” mimicked a candid autobiography even as it broke every rule of fact-based writing, and he was rewarded with sterling reviews and a new six-book deal in 2011 at Simon & Schuster — also my publisher.
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. This was a man for whom the first pseudonym gave way to many more: Blind Boy Grunt, Tedham Porterhouse, Lucky and Jack Frost.
When Mr. Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village at 19, he talked all sorts of jive about where he had been and what he had done. He invented an entire persona, and fed it even to the paper of record, The New York Times.
For the past decade, a great debate has been boiling about the authenticity of Mr. Dylan’s work. The liner notes read, “All songs written by Bob Dylan,” but listeners were finding in the lyrics bits of Virgil and Ovid and Henry Rollins. They tended to take the appropriations in stride when it was confined to the records. But it made some people a bit more uncomfortable when a pair of sleuths — Scott Warmuth, a record collector and disc jockey, and Edward Cook, a scholar at the Catholic University of America — uncovered similar, seemingly systematic borrowings in “Chronicles.”

From David Kinney, "Freewheelin’: Bob Dylan, Jonah Lehrer and the Truth."

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