Publishing in the Fast Lane

Jonah with flare. Picture: Canongate

As if by August, you weren’t already humming “fact policing, you make my heart sing” every time you saw something innovative McSweeneys was publishing. As if you weren’t already thinking about fact checkers as a subset of superhero with amazing research powers, and you weren’t already considering how the “villains” (i.e. literary fabricators) steal the public imagination and memory more than those who caught them Epson-inked in the act. By now you’ve probably seen Lee Gutkind’s Hall of Fame of Literary Fabricators and Fakers, which was posted shortly after Houghton Mifflin pulled Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works from the shelves. Gutkind asks, “Why lie—especially about an American icon—information that can be easily verified or questioned?”

Granted misquoting Bob Dylan could be an excellent dinner party game (“Oh, the wily Buffalo knows,” Dylan, 1967), but the part of the question I got stuck on was “Why lie?”

I decided to look at Lehrer’s various slips.

The following breakdown of Jonah Lehrer’s journalistic misconduct comes from a post by Charles Seife* at Slate:

Recycling: Reusing your own phrases, sentences, paragraphs, etc.

Press-release plagiarism: Lightly editing a press release when writing up the topic.

Plagiarism: You should know what this means by now. I’m sure that every college syllabus had a note in about incorporate other writers’ phrases, sentences, paragraphs, etc. See: policies on academic dishonesty if you can’t recall your alma mater’s specifics.

Issues with Quotations: Placing phrases in direct quotations when they shouldn’t be, altering the content of direct direct quotations, or otherwise changing what comes directly from the horse’s mouth.

Issues with Facts: Misconstruing the facts, misrepresenting groups of people, swapping p’s for q’s, that kind of thing.

So, now that we know what the lies were, let’s get back to “why lie?”

There are a million variations of “writing is hard” and “writing the truth/facts is both difficult and filled with landmines” and “you got to toss some bling on your writing for our ADHD nation,” but I’m not convinced any of those traditional sentiments are the real answer.

Before Imagine: How Creativity Works, Lehrer already had two bestsellers published, How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist. He’s written hundreds of articles/posts for Wired, Slate, etc. That’s a lot of writing for a thirty-one year-old.

Could the recycling of his own sentences and the press-release plagiarism be symptoms of his incredible output? And could the old-fashioned plagiarism also be part of writing so much so fast? (Misquotes and misrepresenting the facts, though, might just be a symptom of writing for Wired for so long.)

I look at some writers, lit bloggers mostly, and wonder how on earth they write so much. How are they everywhere on the internet? I wonder about it more with the Doogie Howsers we celebrate, these Top 30 Under 30 authors with bestsellers and hundreds of insightful contributions to various mags and blogs. I wonder whether our obsession with youth, this romanticized Keatsian  hustlin’, is combining with our notions of the ADHD/internet-somatized audience to create the need to publish more, faster. Since we stopped calling it “writing” and started calling it “generating content,” we should have been concerned. Perhaps the pressing need to keep producing sacrifices integrity as well as consistency.

The fact checkers have their work cut out for them. If you’re looking for a job in the publishing industry, get some practice in this field. You’ll have ample opportunity to test your skills with elections rearing up; ’tis the season fact checking superheroes shine.



*Thank you, Charles, for your thorough analysis of Lehrer’s writings. Headings belong to Charles, definitions don’t. To read the examples given with each heading, please read the post at Slate.


  • Karen says:

    I made the mistake of reading this during a break from working on my nonfiction thesis. I am now suffering heart palpitations. Have I repeated one of my own phrases somewhere? Is all of my research reliable? If one of these essays gets published and someone calls so-and-so to ask them if that horrendously embarrassing event really happened and they deny it, will I be branded? Were there twelve aquariums? I swear there were, but what if there were nine? Oh God, someone hold me.

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