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How to Monetize Plagiarism
This is a column about Jonah Lehrer, the 31-year-old disgraced former New Yorker writer who recently — sigh — landed a contract for a book about love. (Yes, love.) But I want to start by recalling another disgraced former magazine writer: Stephen Glass.
Glass was once a Washington wunderkind, who wrote remarkable articles filled with fabulous scenes and quotes. It turned out, of course, that many of the scenes and quotes were figments of Glass’s imagination, and that 42 of his articles, spanning two-and-a-half years, were either partially or entirely fabricated.
The New Republic, his primary employer, fired him. Other magazines that had published his work announced investigations. And, to complete his humiliation, a movie was made about how Glass’s fabrications had been exposed by The New Republic’s editor at the time, Charles Lane.
In the decade and a half since he was quite properly drummed out of journalism, Glass has led an exemplary life. After his disgrace, he vowed to live honorably and honestly, and he has. He underwent years of psychotherapy to come to terms with what he did. He asked for forgiveness from those whom he had betrayed.
And, in 2004, he went to work as a paralegal for a lawyer in Los Angeles who often represents the homeless. For years, Glass has been trying to get admitted to the California bar, but the bar association has been fighting him, saying that he lacks the appropriate character to be a lawyer. Yet I can’t think of anyone more deserving of a second chance than Stephen Glass.
And I can’t think of anyone less deserving of one than Jonah Lehrer.
It hasn’t even been a year since the first of Lehrer’s journalistic sins was uncovered: He was routinely recycling previously published work for a pop science blog he had begun at The New Yorker. (His works seems consciously modeled on Malcolm Gladwell’s.) Then, Michael Moynihan, writing in The Tablet magazine, dropped a bombshell: In his best-selling book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” Lehrer had made up quotes attributed to Bob Dylan. Moynihan followed up with examples of good old-fashioned plagiarism in an earlier Lehrer book. Several people who had been quoted by Lehrer said that they had never uttered the words he attributed to them. Inevitably, The New Yorker and Wired, where Lehrer also wrote, cut their ties with him. At which point Lehrer was left to … well, what exactly?
He certainly didn’t spend his time atoning. After he was exposed, he issued a statement saying that “the lies are over now,” and that he was sorry for what he had done. Then he went dark. I tried to reach him several times; I was intensely interested in why someone with his talent and future would risk it all by doing things that could so easily be found out. He never responded.
In February, he popped up at the Knight Foundation — “the nation’s leading journalism funder” — where he gave a speech entitled “My Apology.” (Knight paid him $20,000, for which it later had to apologize itself.) The speech was anything but an apology. Rather, it was structured like one of his typical mini-Malcolm articles, with discursions into a big forensic mistake made by the F.B.I., the research of a cognitive neuroscientist and the work of a behavior economist. His central point was that for whatever reason, he couldn’t trust himself to do the right thing, so he needed a structure — a “standard operating procedure” — that would force him to do the right thing. As apologies go, it was both arrogant and pathetic.
Now comes his book on love, which was revealed earlier this week by Julie Bosman of The New York Times, who got ahold of his 65-page proposal. It is more of the same. Although the first seven paragraphs are about “my fall,” (“I have been found out. I puke into a recycling bin. And then I start to cry.”), the book is no memoir. Like his previous books, it is intended to be a work of pop science, an exploration into why and how we love. His chapter outline includes catchy phrases intended to move product. His attempts at sincerity come across as precious and phony. There is not much doubt about what is really going on here: Instead of atoning for the disgrace he brought on himself, Lehrer is trying to monetize it.
Although I was unable to speak to Lehrer, I did reach his editor at Simon & Schuster, Jonathan Karp, whom I’ve known and respected for years. “He knows he can’t screw up again,” Karp told me. “I’m not defending what he did, but I think we ought to have a little compassion here. He’s not a journalist. He’s a writer, and an unusually talented one. Everyone deserves a second chance.”
Actually, they don’t. People who make a big mistake and want a second chance need to earn it. That’s the difference between Stephen Glass and Jonah Lehrer.
A Fallen New Yorker Writer Signs With Simon & Schuster
Por Julie Bosman [The New York Times, 6/6/13]
Jonah Lehrer, the disgraced writer who resigned from The New Yorker after he was discovered plagiarizing and fabricating material, has sold a book to Simon & Schuster that uses his journalistic misconduct as a case study of the mysterious and redeeming power of love.
“Jonah Lehrer is an unusually talented writer,” Jonathan Karp, the publisher of Simon & Schuster, said in an e-mail Thursday night. “We believe in second chances.”
Ben Loehnen, the editor of the book, said in an e-mail: “We read Jonah Lehrer’s proposal in as unbiased a way as possible. The wisdom and the skill on the page are apparent, and all too rare.”
In a 65-page book proposal obtained by The New York Times, Mr. Lehrer described the day last summer — a “muggy Sunday morning in St. Louis” — when his journalistic fraud was discovered.
“I feel the shiver of a voice mail message,” he wrote in the proposal, “A Book About Love.” “I listen to the message. I have been found out. I puke into a recycling bin. And then I start to cry. Why was I crying? I had been caught in a lie, a desperate attempt to conceal my mistakes. And now it was clear that, within 24 hours, my fall would begin. I would lose my job and my reputation. My private shame would become public.”
Mr. Lehrer, then a 31-year-old wunderkind of the journalism and publishing worlds, had fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan and recycled his own work from one publication to another, and he subsequently lost his prestigious position at The New Yorker. His publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, quickly removed print copies of his best-selling book “Imagine: How Creativity Works” from bookshelves and from online retailers.
Since then, Mr. Lehrer has remained mostly quiet, appearing onstage in February at a seminar sponsored by the Knight Foundation. (The foundation, whose stated mission includes supporting “quality journalism,” later apologized for paying him an eye-popping $20,000 speaker’s fee.)
Liberally quoting from Jane Austen, Philip Larkin, Shakespeare, Erasmus, Darwin and Sartre (“Hell is other people”), Mr. Lehrer outlines a book with a style that resembles the pop-science titles that helped make him famous: “Imagine,” “How We Decide” and “Proust Was a Neuroscientist.”
“Careers fall apart; homes fall down; we give away what we don’t want and sell what we can’t afford,” he wrote. “And yet, if we are lucky, such losses reveal what remains. When we are stripped of what we wanted, we see what we will always need: those people who love us, even after the fall.”
On the cover page of the heavily footnoted proposal, the book is described as 80,000 words long. The manuscript will be delivered in November 2014, the proposal says.
“This book is about what has lasted in my own life,” he wrote. “I wanted to write it down so that I would not forget; so that, one day, I might tell my young daughter what I’ve learned.”
“If I’ve learned anything from writing these words, it’s that love matters,” he wrote in the proposal’s coda. “It matters more than I ever thought possible.”
The proposal was sent to publishers by the Wylie Agency, Mr. Lehrer’s literary representatives. When reached for comment, Andrew Wylie said, “I will talk to you if you tell me where you got the proposal.” Told that The Times does not discuss sourcing, he declined to comment further.
The journalist Michael Moynihan discovered Mr. Lehrer’s fabrications of Dylan quotes in an article published in Tablet magazine last year. After initially denying any wrongdoing, Mr. Lehrer eventually released a statement of apology through his publisher.
“The lies are over now,” he said in the statement. “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.”
Browbeat, Slate’s culture blog, reported on Tuesday that Mr. Lehrer was circulating a book.
In the proposal’s introduction, Mr. Lehrer describes leaving St. Louis, his “suit and shirt stained with sweat and vomit,” and returning home.
“I open the front door and take off my dirty shirt and weep on the shoulder of my wife,” he wrote. “My wife is caring but confused: How the hell could I be so reckless? I have no good answers.”
Lori Glazer, a spokeswoman for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, said the publisher had not received the proposal. Asked if her company would consider publishing Mr. Lehrer again, she said: “There is a higher bar to clear because of everything we found in the previous two books, but we would never prejudge.”