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.