Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Dark Side of "Publish Or Perish"

I’m of two minds about neuroscience popularizer Jonah Lehrer’s spectacular flame-out this week. The claim that he plagiarized himself seems laughable on its face. John Fogerty demonstrated in court, back in 1987, that writers have distinctive styles, and even a very strong resemblance between two works is inevitable. Besides, in today’s media-saturated society, writers must recycle to get paid; even college courses emphasize this.

But that accusation, for which the New Yorker grudgingly forgave him, pales beside the accusation that he fabricated a prominent Bob Dylan quote in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Reminiscent of James Frey, Janet Cooke, and Stephen Glass, Lehrer’s intrusion of fiction into his journalism makes it impossible to separate reality from imagination. Lehrer went overnight from top journalist to a case study in his own discipline.

One of the bromides of creative bullshittery holds that a lie works best sandwiched between two truths. Thus Lehrer’s decision to place his fake quote in the opening pages defies reason, as does his decision to take many Dylan quotes out of context, changing their meaning. Because this is the opening section of the first chapter, it looks like Lehrer wanted to get caught. Moreover, it looks like he wanted to cast doubt on everything that came after.

Which is exactly what happened. The book sold over 200,000 copies in four months, including one to me, but it vanished on Monday. The publisher recalled all unsold copies, and its Amazon page disappeared at midday. The response was so quick and complete that the New York Times bestseller list will still contain the title at #5 this Sunday. In other words, one of America’s top-selling titles is a book you can’t get anywhere now, for love or money.

Many critics have homed in on today’s widespread Dylanology: it was only a matter of time before some informed amateur caught the fabrication. But I don’t understand why Lehrer even felt the blatant fictioneering necessary. Dylan, formerly the music industry’s greatest recluse, has lately become a veritable quote factory. Between copious interviews, multiple volumes of memoir, and idiosyncratic speeches, Dylan has been remarkably forthcoming.

Despite Lehrer’s naked chicanery, I actually understand his decision, at least somewhat. He had a point to prove, a point backed up with abundant evidence and a corpus of research. Bob Dylan made a good illustration, and the writing of “Like a Rolling Stone,” Lehrer’s chosen example, has been well documented. But he lacked a single, unambiguous quote linking the evidence to the conclusion. This doesn’t excuse lying, but it at least makes sense.

Writers today, as I said above, have to publish—a lot—if they want to get paid. Our society has become so saturated with stuff to read, watch, and listen to, that only constant production staves off obsolescence. Books that don’t become instant bestsellers have a life expectancy of about six weeks before they get pulled and pulped. Gone are the days of sleeper hits like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which took several years to find its audience.

Nor do books have exclusive claim on this limitation. Actors who once made $300,000 per film now do free webcasts so their résumés don’t stagnate. Musicians release rough masters to YouTube just to keep their names in consideration. Publicists require artists to update their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds as often as every fifteen minutes. That’s saying nothing about producers trying to fill 500 satellite TV channels daily.

Sooner or later, somebody was going to plagiarize, fabricate, or misrepresent something. Lehrer’s bestseller status nabbed him a prestigious New Yorker staff writer job, the holy grail of writers, when he was only thirty-one. That means he made money coming up with ideas and writing them down. He would have continued doing so if he hadn’t warped such a stupidly transparent source. Watch for other writers getting on the gravy train.

Our society, unfortunately, will feed, clothe, and house lunatics and murderers for the rest of their lives, but which tells geniuses to go pound sand. People like Lehrer (and me) want to make money doing what we’re good at. But look around. Financial executives can crash the economy trying to spin straw into gold, and make multi-million dollar bonuses for it. Most writers are two steps removed from food stamps.

Jonah Lehrer’s fabrications are humiliating for those of us who write. But they sadly make perfect sense in today’s context. I fear we haven’t seen the last controversy of this kind, not by a long shot.

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