Jonah Lehrer, and the “marvellous Boy”

Well, the sad news last week was that Jonah Lehrer, one of my favorite writers, admitted to fabricating quotes from Bob Dylan in his recently published book Imagine

I intended to purchase Lehrer’s book but hadn’t gotten around to it yet because I’ve been teaching an in-house technical communication class the past few weeks at a local manufacturing company.  When I saw the article about Lehrer’s fabrication, along with the statement that Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers would be pulling the book from their shelves, I immediately logged on to Amazon to see if I could buy Imagine before it was gone.

It was already too late.  Imagine had disappeared from Amazon’s website – poof! – without a trace.  Then I remembered how Amazon erased copies of 1984 from people’s Kindles a few years ago.  Have they done the same thing now to people who had purchased a digital edition of Imagine?  Probably not, as I’m sure everyone would be talking about it.  I can’t find anything online about the current state of the e-book, in fact, except for people asking how they can get a refund. 

Ironically, the quotes Lehrer made up are strikingly similar to something Bob Dylan actually did say in a 2004 interview, as pointed out by Los Angeles Times writer Randy Lewis in an article last Tuesday.  I’m guessing Lehrer read that 2004 interview at some point, remembered the gist of Dylan’s remarks, but then couldn’t find it again when he went to write the book. 

What seems most puzzling to people commenting on Lehrer’s literary larceny is how unnecessary it was.  Lehrer is a talented writer.  He knows how to do research.  Tracking down some Bob Dylan quotes about songwriting shouldn’t have been so difficult. 

The thing is, though, Lehrer is not alone in commiting such an error in judgment.  People commit plagiarism and literary forgery for many reasons – laziness, desperation, greed, etc.  Often the culprit’s own deficient writing skills may be explanation enough to understand the deed.  But when someone like Lehrer (or Nobel-winner Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or Vice President Joe Biden, or biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, or journalist/biographer Gail Sheehy, or disgraced 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner Janet Cooke) stands accused of cutting corners and misrepresenting sources in their work, we shake our heads in bewilderment and wonder: Why?

As it happens, I wrote my dissertation on plagiarism.  Partly my interest arose from my general curiosity about creativity; partly it resulted from my work as a freshman composition instructor.  As a writing teacher, especially working with basic writers enrolled in remedial courses, I became intrigued by the possibility that an act of textual appropriation might be a normal part of a writer’s growth.  Not cheating exactly, but definitely something other than a student’s “original” work – and clearly exhibiting little knowledge of how to cite and document other voices, especially expert sources, within papers that were supposed to reflect his own original ideas.

Greatly influencing me was an essay by David Bartholomae, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.  His important article, “Inventing the University,” first published in 1985 (and reprinted and much discussed after that), points out what a difficult task it is for students to use academic language with authority as they begin writing papers in college:

Every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion – invent the university, that is, or a branch of it, like History or Anthropology or Economics or English.  He has to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding and arguing that define the discourse of our community. . . .  

The students have to appropriate (or be appropriated by) a specialized discourse, and they have to do this as though they were easily and comfortably one with their audience, as though they were members of the academy, or historians or anthropologists or economists; they have to invent the university by assembling and mimicking its language, finding some compromise between idiosyncracy, a personal history, and the requirements of convention, the history of a discipline.  They must learn to speak our language.  Or they must dare to speak it, or to carry off the bluff, since speaking and writing will most certainly be required long before the skill” is “learned.”

Poet T.S. Eliot is famous for saying that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” meaning that they transform another poet’s work into something so new and fresh that it becomes almost impossible to recognize it as a copy of the original.  Because student writers (like immature poets) are apprentices, their essays are somewhat akin to the imitations of Old Masters painted by art students during their apprenticeships.

But back to Jonah Lehrer, who is neither student nor apprentice.  Some of my other dissertation research may apply to his case.  In particular, I’m thinking of a really brilliant article, “Plagiary,” written by Peter Shaw and published thirty years ago – American Scholar 51.3 (Summer 1982): 325-37, the complete citation, in case you’d like to find it. 

Shaw likens plagiarism to the psychological disorder of  kleptomania, in that literary theft for most plagiarists involves stealing items/texts they do not need.  It’s like a compulsion of sorts, says Shaw, or perhaps a need to be “honest” in their dishonesty: 

As it develops, giving the game away proves to be the rule rather than the exception among plagiarists.

A strange pathology underlies the act of plagiarism, some inexplicable force that attracts plagiarists to each other, according to Shaw.  Plagiarized texts often involve other plagiarized texts; that is, the “original” text that a plagiarist has stolen and passed off as his own is subsequently discovered to have been stolen itself from some other, earlier source.  Likewise, the most vehement accusations of plagiarism tend to be issued by people who later end up being exposed as plagiarists themselves.  (Similar perhaps to that well-known maxim of strategic deflection practiced by society’s more immature members: He who smelt it, dealt it.)

Because writing about plagiarism meant dipping a toe into those murky waters myself, the first sentence of my dissertation acknowledged my fear of being tainted by its subject matter.  Even the idea of posting this blog entry unnerves me.  If I find plagiarism fascinating as a subject of academic study, what does that mean? 

But I do think Shaw was right.  In 1997 romance novelist Janet Dailey, the first American to write for Harlequin in the mid-1970s, was sued by fellow romance novelist Nora Roberts after an alert reader noted plagiarized passages in at least two of Dailey’s novels.  Both writers were incredibly talented and astonishingly prolific.  There was no logical reason for Dailey to steal from Roberts, so it wasn’t surprising that, when she admitted to the plagiarism, Dailey cited mental health issues. 

I don’t know what Lehrer’s story is, but my speculation is that he felt driven/pressured to meet quotas/deadlines for delivering “creativity” beyond his physical and emotional capabilities. 

Just 31 years old, Lehrer has been called a wunderkind.  The title of today’s blog post refers to a similarly gifted young man who lived in the 18th century, Thomas Chatterton.  The “marvellous Boy” appelation comes from these lines in a poem by William Wordsworth, “Resolution and Independence“:

I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy, / The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride

Thomas Chatterton was a gifted, prolific young writer/poet, but poor and fatherless – two serious handicaps in 18th-century England.  He hoped to support his mother but found it difficult to earn a good living with his writing.  Upon discovering a remunerative market for antiquities, he invented a 15th-century monk-poet named Thomas Rowley and wrote pseudo-medieval manuscripts that he hoped could be sold for substantial sums.  They could not, at least not during his short lifetime.  Chatterton’s talent and ambitions exceeded the thin living he was actually able to earn from his work, and he committed suicide at age 17 (although some speculate that his death could have been a case of accidental poisoning as a result of self-medication with arsenic.) 

I don’t know why Lehrer’s admitted fabrication put me in mind of Thomas Chatterton, but that was the first phrase that came to mind when I read the news about Imagine last week: the “marvellous Boy.”  My first reaction was sadness and worry for Lehrer.  It has been interesting to note in everything written about the incident since last week how many other people’s first reactions have ranged from disillusionment to insulted outrage.  None of these is an uncommon reaction to plagiarism; it’s a very strange phenomenon.

Plagiarism is all about character.  It is primarily a moral issue, and unlike copyright infringement, plagiarism itself is not a crime.  However, it often bleeds over into economics, at which point it becomes fraudulent in terms of intellectual property issues similar to copyright infringement.  

For example, academic dishonesty cannot be tolerated within universities because it undermines the integrity of the institution and destroys the value of its degrees.  Plagiarism thus becomes a “crime” within the academic environment because it threatens the public good of everyone connected with that community.  Likewise, publishers cannot tolerate the fudging or fabrication of quotes by authors like Lehrer because it damages the trustworthiness of the entire publishing enterprise – something which that struggling industry can ill afford.

It’s a matter of economic survivial.

Lehrer’s confession seemed remarkably candid and matter-of-fact.  It reminded me a bit of Hugh Grant’s admission (on the Jay Leno show) of wrongdoing back in in 1995 when he was arrested for having oral sex with a prostitute:

I think you know in life what’s a good thing to do and what’s a bad thing, and I did a bad thing.  And there you have it.

Others have committed similar errors of character and recovered from them.  Following her plagiarism scandal, Doris Kearns Goodwin went on to publish a bestselling book about Abraham Lincoln, A Team of Rivals, which Steven Spielberg is reportedly making into a movie.  Joe Biden survived at least two accusations of plagiarism.  He failed a class in law school for submitting a paper that contained extensive passages of text copied verbatim from a law review article with no quotation marks and only one footnote to acknowledge the original text.  Then in 1987 he was forced to end his Presidential campaign when he was accused of plagiarizing a British politician’s speech.  Yet Biden kept his Senate seat for thirty years and is currently Vice President of the United States.

It’s not completely clear to me why some plagiarists/forgers/doers-of-bad-things are forgiven and others are not.  Ironically, even as we may appreciate and feel gratified by a confession, we appear to respect a denial more, even when the evidence renders that denial untenable.  Perhaps a denial makes it easier for us to pretend that the distasteful lapse in character never occurred?

There are many curious dimensions associated with these puzzling acts of literary impersonation, and some of the most confusing of these reach beyond the perpetrators to the rest of us.  We often seem to forgive wrongdoers quite readily, almost eagerly. 

Except when we don’t.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
This entry was posted in Books and reading, Teaching, WPLongform (posts of 1000 words or longer), Writing, blogging and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Jonah Lehrer, and the “marvellous Boy”

  1. Annie says:

    Good post, and nicely balanced. I wrote one on Lehrer’s fabrications myself, except mine was much more reactionary and lacked objectivity, seeing as I’d treated myself to two of his books (Imagine and The Decisive Moment) and I’m not exactly flush at the moment. Also, I found out he’d made basic anatomical errors in The Decisive Moment – errors that the most basic neuroanatomy or psychology student would spot, errors that could have been avoided by a quick check of a textbook. It was that more than anything that irritated me most about the whole thing, and it doesn’t seem to have been picked up on much either.

    I have a copy of Imagine that I feel that I’m unlikely to read now, so it’ll probably get put up on amazon at some point – hopefully you get to it first!


    • Thank you so much for your kind comments. I know what you mean about feeling “taken” after spending hard-earned cash on books that let you down. I also had heard the reports that Lehrer’s science reporting was fuzzy, but I thought the criticisms might be from people familiar with the “hard” science that Lehrer was reporting on who didn’t like that he was simplifying things for a lay audience. Recent events have put things in a different light, though.

      I have noticed the used copies of Imagine at Amazon, and because I do still want to read the book, I’m glad people have a chance to sell their copies as an alternative to returning them to the publisher.


  2. I firmly believe there is no such thing as a 100% purely original idea. We are constantly influenced from everything we see, touch, hear, and feel. It is a shame that professionals, or really anyone would plagiarize, especially in this day and age of technology. Besides the fact that it is wrong, it is easy to get caught.
    I am sorry to hear that someone you admire has done wrong. That is the problem with people I suppose, we look up to others and in the end they are just as flawed as the rest of us.


    • Yes, it feels bad when someone you admire does something so clearly wrong. Originality is a tricky concept because, as you point out, there is no such thing as a 100% original idea. Yet, we are also capable of creating something new out of the old every time because, like Heraclitus’s river, the universe is always changing. We are different; the world is different; and old ideas become fresh again in the new context. Thank you so much for reading my post yesterday and taking the time to comment.


  3. Alex says:

    Great article Katherine! Plagiarism has been a “hot topic” for a while now. In my case, I’m not a writer, but sometimes I have to write. I’m basically a free lance technician and currently I’m testing the hosted WordPress platform. But at some point I would like to start writing, just as a pastime. Reading your article makes me think, how can I avoid to use someone else quotes while so much has been written since many years ago. I don’t mean well known quotes, but how about points of view that may be too similar to those of another author that I never heard of? Cheers


    • Thank you, Alex! The whole concept of interacting with other writers’ words is tricky, which is one reason students have such a difficult time learning how to write academic prose. When you’re writing a paper on a topic you’re not an expert on, you can’t just rely on your own opinions to carry the discussion. You have to incorporate authoritative sources, which means you have to find other texts, evaluate their merit, and then pull out quotes to insert into your own text – with quotation marks and proper citation/documentation, etc.

      My best advice on getting started with your own writing is to read a lot in the subject areas that interest you. You’ll get a sense of the general conversation, and you’ll be able to respond to what has already been said as naturally as if you were getting to know and talk with people in a club/organization you recently joined. I love Kenneth Burke’s “parlor” metaphor as a way of thinking about this type of conversation.


  4. RAMU DAS says:

    Hey there, here is Mark Twain’s take on Plagiarism and Originality: “All Ideas Are Second-Hand”
    so this 1903 letter Mark Twain wrote to his friend Helen Keller, found in
    Mark Twain’s Letters, Vol. 2 of 2. In this excerpt,
    Twain addresses some plagiarism charges that had been made
    against Keller some 11 years prior, when her short story “The Frost King”
    was found to be strikingly similar to Margaret Canby’s “Frost Fairies.”
    Heller was acquitted after an investigation, but the incident stuck with Twain
    and prompted him to pen the following passionate words more than a decade

    “Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic
    and grotesque was that ‘plagiarism’ farce! As if there was
    much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written,
    except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul – let us go further and
    say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material
    of all human utterances – is plagiarism. For substantially all
    ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn
    from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer
    with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated
    them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere
    except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre
    and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.
    When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries
    and ten thousand men – but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly
    small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo.
    It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others
    that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine,
    or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing – and the last man
    gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite – that is all he did.
    These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed
    from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us
    modest. But nothing can do that.”


  5. Manoj Nair says:

    Interesting and thought provoking post. Why indeed do talented people copy? Maybe for the professional writers and journalists the pressure of a deadline forces them to such extreme measures.


    • Thank you so much for reading and responding to my essay! I think that you may be right about the deadline pressures. I am a slow writer, so it is lucky for me that I’m not a journalist. I could never live with the pressure of having to produce a piece of quality writing more quickly than I am actually able to.


  6. Borrowing is a form of flattery. I love to include quotes when I write to illustrate a point i’m making. Would that these people had done so


    • Right, that’s what they say about borrowing/imitation: that it’s the sincerest form of flattery. The fact that it should have been relatively easy to do the right thing and use/acknowledge their sources correctly makes these writers’ behavior all the more puzzling, especially since the likelihood of being “caught” was so high.


  7. The reason good writers steal, when they don’t have to, is insecurity.


  8. kollshi17 says:

    thank you


  9. daminidg says:

    Imagine is also on my ‘To Read’ list I just searched for the book on amazon and its still there I hope it works for you. Have a good one.


  10. PiedType says:

    I come to your post having just written about Fareed Zakaria’s plagiarism, and like you I am puzzled. Why would someone in his position, with his talent, do such a thing? I’m completely perplexed and deeply, deeply disappointed.

    Others have noted and I’m inclined to believe that there is nothing new under the sun, that everything we write is influenced by and drawn from everything else we have read, written, or experienced. We may very well transgress in some way without realizing it. But that doesn’t begin to explain plagiarizing verbatim from another recent article in another top publication.

    Perhaps both Zakaria and Lehrer just flew too close to the sun …


  11. Alyssa says:

    Who doesn’t fabricate these days? Even the quotes we tweet or post as statuses on FB are fabricated, just too bad that this great writer got busted.

    colorado springs divorce lawyers


    • It would be interesting to know how “true” tweets and FB status updates are, percentage-wise. Everybody’s life seems so interesting and their days so packed full of activity, at least it looks that way. Wouldn’t it be sad if most people were sort of staging/packaging fake lives for public consumption? Thanks for commenting!


  12. Lehrer is obviously talented…hopefully he gets a second chance like Doris Kearns Goodwin. Thanks for your insights.


    • According to F. Scott Fitzgerald there are no second acts in American lives. But he made a mess of his own life and seemed fixated on the idea that people are forever trapped by their mistakes (“so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”). I try to keep a more positive live-and-learn outlook myself 🙂


  13. eof737 says:

    I noticed that no one said it so …. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! 🙂


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