What can YOU say in six sentences?
The latest bright rising writer to poop in his own chili is Jonah Lehrer of the New Yorker who made up Bob Dylan quotes that the songwriter never spoke. Lehrer is 31, and like several others who lied to their readership, was on the fast track in the world of letters and publishing.
Just a few years ago, James Frey had to admit on OPRAH that his so-called real life memoir was fiction.
Scientist Andrew Wakefield, an English doctor, had to admit that his study linking vaccines to autism was fraudulent after panicking millions of parents worldwide. So scientists lie, too.
I remember the shock waves when Janet Cooke at the Washington Post had to give back a Pulitzer Prize for making up an entire series about "Jimmy," a child heroin addict. The boy didn't exist. Those of us in the newsroom at the Atlanta newspaper who heard about Cooke's lies just went onto shock. Who would be that stupid? Why hadn't her editors caught on before the series went into print?
Same for Jayson Blair at the NYT who wrote dozens of pieces full of fabrications.
Stephen Glass at the New Republic made stuff up that was supposed to be factual. He wrote so beautifully that his downfall felt like a real loss.
So what I want to know is: Why didn't all these talented men and women just write short stories and novels? Is it because reporting jobs pay but fiction writers starve while we wait and hope a publisher will want our manuscripts?
Here's NPR's report of Lehrer's demise.
Sadly, I recently bought two of Lehrer's books. They sit unread on my bedroom floor. Now I want to burn them. And to think he was endorsed by a hero of mine, Malcolm Gladwell (another New Yorker writer) makes me equally sick.
I have to disagree with the wording regarding Wakefield, though. He didn't admit to fraud but said his work was "grossly distorted" and that he was the target of "a ruthless, pragmatic attempt to crush any attempt to investigate valid vaccine safety concerns." Wakefield was actually just organizing clinical research on Chrohn's disease, colitis and gastrointestinal disorders in young children, to determine whether or not there was a link between these gut issues and measles. It was the parents who suggested the MMR caused the gut issues and autism behaviors in their kids (many children with autism have lots of severe diarrhea and/or constipation). Parents are relied on heavily for clinical information, heavily. Every doctor we've taken Julian to has requested five to ten pages of MY report. Seriously. But the Lancet should have raised their eyebrows at only 8 kids. No study should consist of so small a group, and there were many other fundamental errors in the organization of the study. And then you have the subjective views of 8 sets of traumatized and frightened parents. I don't subscribe to any side's claims or defense but I don't feel Wakefield was a fraud, just irresponsible and way too soft. (If you find a link to a Wakefield quote admitting fraud, I stand corrected. I just couldn't find one).
But back to Leher's fraud and how it was discovered -- Do you think his colleague exposed Leher out of envy? Or just out of duty and personal responsibility? Who was injured due to the fictional Dylan quotes? I'm not supporting lies in journalism, but I wonder about the M---- guy's motives. He said it hurt to expose his colleague, but, I wonder how much it actually hurt to oust such a young rising star, and is M------ (can't remember his name) so innocent himself? Questions, so many questions.
Burn his books? Really? Maybe I'm holding this to the wrong standard, but compared to the lies and pump-fakes of politicians, this feels minor.
By the way, I had the same feelings when Frey was exposed. I loved his book and didn't feel cheated when I learned it was fiction. It was a fun read, very original. When Oprah called him out on TV I just shrugged. Not even nonfiction is entirely without its fictions. I don't know. Yes, falsifying something in writing is wrong. And Frey should have at least called his book semiNonfiction (if he was ever an addict at all). Or called it a Non-Novel. Lehrer just seems silly for making up those quotes. I started the book and wondered myself how someone so young got hold of those quotes. He seemed so within the inner circle of a music god. I would have secretly wanted to take him down, but not so much out of responsibility. Just pure envy. Without the quotes, he could have still proven his point. Maybe he was just showing off his big britches, awarded by those who love their stars.
(Should have typed above that "I had the same conflicted feelings when Frey was exposed").
Well, there's this: Most of these assholes, after being exposed as assholes, after being publicly outed for foisting lies as truth, have still been given six- or seven-figure publishing contracts. Frey for a fictional novel, Glass and Blair for barely fictionalized accounts of their own plummets. I guess they know readers don't care about whether or not they're lying, shiftless, fakers. And publishers now are so bereft of honor that they won't provide any disincentive for liars by, you know, not giving them whopping new contracts. From the writer's perspective, well damn, if you can get caught lying or plagiarizing or what-have-you and still get paid to write, then why not? (And with all due disrespect, T, this is an actual problem, especially as it gives credence to the eternally damaging idea that perception=reality, and when readers simply shrug it off they're making themselves part of the problem, because they're not providing any disincentive by continuing to buy books by known falsifiers). I sometimes think along even more cynical lines: that these "controversies" themselves are manufactured from the get-go to rile people up and interest readers. But surely no one would think the American market is that gullible, right?
Lehrer will probably land a new multimillion dollar deal within weeks. His name recognition is off the charts.
On the plus side, The Wire did a brilliant last season on this very subject, and the whole Frey controversy did give rise to one of the greatest South Park episodes ever. NSFW or anyplace else, really, but points for sheer bizarre originality are due.
Bill, that last season of The Wire was a gut-puncher. It might be the best single season of television ever, and if not, it's up there in my pantheon.
You raise an important point: "when readers simply shrug it off they're making themselves part of the problem, because they're not providing any disincentive by continuing to buy books by known falsifiers." How many people take books back to the bookstore and ask for their money back when someone like Lehrer or Frey are exposed? That might have an impact if hundreds of thousands of readers did so.
I love good fiction and I wonder why Frey didn't just label his manuscript as such.
I think he "didn't just label his manuscript as such" because it never would've sold as a novel. It's fascinating as a true story; as a novel, it's average.
They are narcissists, not the annoying, selfish, and often hurtful variety, but the full-blown look-it-up-in-the-big-red-book kind....incredible, fascinating, dangerous people who like to collect all kinds of victims. They will always be with us.
I think writing may, in some ways, attract these sorts.
Please inform me. I don't know the difference between the selfish hurtful kind and the look-it-up-in-the-big-red-book kind. How do we tell them apart?
My opinion: Fraud in science is 1oo times (2 logs greater) worse than fabricating a memoir. This is because other experiments hinge on what's been published. This wastes time, money, and worst of all, patients. I have had to deal with cases of scientific misconduct over the years and there is never one factor that initiates it. These cases give science a bad name although it is probably less than 0.01% of what is published.
When I was a teenager struggling with painkiller addiction I clung to Frey's book like Linus clung to his security blanket. I read passages from it every night before bed and every morning before going to class, steeling myself for a day of stomach cramps, watery eyes, and random muscle pain, common withdrawal symptoms. The book was my bible, my solace, my hope. Then along came Oprah and I was crushed. I burned the book in an empty dumpster sitting in the field next to our house. For two more years I relied on opiates to drown out the din of the world.
Okay, so, none of that was true.
It felt pretty despicable writing it. Reading it, maybe identifying with it feels like a betrayal and a waste of time. I say to these people, these falsifiers of information, stick with the facts (a true memoirist or journalist can make any experience compelling, because if they are thought of in terms of human emotion, they are all compelling.) The New Yorker sets a side a good amount of space for fiction, contribute to that. Some of these guys are downright pathologoical, though. They need medical treatment as much as they need to be given the axe.
Oh, good point about the New Yorker fiction space.
(And I am glad you didn't waste time on opiate addiction. Very few people can afford it and, as a result, end up selling their bodies or robbing liquor stores. )