Jonah Lehrer: He really wasn’t where it’s at (apologies to Dylan)

Jonah Lehrer was here in April to take part in OHSU’s Brain Awareness Season lecture series by talking about his book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” and he was a hit, both his lecture and his appearance on Think Out Loud for Oregon Public Broadcasting.  Last week, we learned that Lehrer had fabricated some Bob Dylan quotes (and misused some others) in the book, and then Monday, he resigned from his staff position at the New Yorker.

Jonah Lehrer

I happened to be part of a large group invited to have lunch with Lehrer before his lecture, so I’ve been thinking about Lehrer, creativity and journalism “issues,” since the news came out. Nothing like a glancing contact with someone to generate a connection.

I found him bright and engaging, smoothly addressing our questions about creativity and then turning the tables on us to ask us about Portland and how it has become a creative economy hub, of sorts. He didn’t make big claims or say anything especially controversial, at least not that I can remember.

At the end, I thought something like, “smart guy, but the whole creativity thing is way too mushy for him to have really found the ‘answer’ to it.” That’s NOT a direct quote from my mind, just my recollection from several months ago.

We all want to be creative, which is a little weird, because we all ARE creative already, and we have a pretty good idea of what conditions seem to help get the sparks going, even if they aren’t 100 percent reliable—reverie, free association, idle chat that suddenly makes a connection, pounding the head against the keyboard repeatedly. Well, maybe not that last one. But seriously, give your brain a little space and a good cup of coffee and the promise of a warm muffin at the end of the session, and hey, “the shortest distance between two points on a plane is a straight line.”

Anyway, I didn’t read “Imagine,” maybe because the review I read in the New York Times was a bit peevish about… all the errors in the book. Another factor was his answer to a question I’d asked him at lunch: Had he considered doing something creative with the presentation of the material in his book? I had in mind something on the web, I think, but when he asked me what I meant, I focused on the actual book.

Had he considered dividing each page in half and asking other people (experts) to comment on his text in the right hand column, to refute or expand his points? I have a book that republishes editions of the French alternative design and politics magazine Utopie, and it did just that, among other things, and I’ve seen lots of books that I thought of as “creative,” maybe beginning with the Whole Earth Catalog.

He leveled his gaze on me and just said, no, he was just trying to write a book, and if he was going to talk to experts, he was going to use the interviews for the purposes of his book. Which is the way writers usually do it. I have to say that I was a little disappointed that he hadn’t at least considered a “creative” approach to marshalling his stories and studies about creativity, even though, sure, the question was a little crazy. I think I might have mentioned “pop-up pages”…

When I found out that Lehrer was in trouble for his Dylan quotes, not to mention his overall contention that “Like a Rolling Stone” marked a turning point in Dylan’s development as a songwriter, I wasn’t surprised.  Writers wander into Dylan territory at their own peril. There are humans out there who live and breathe and die Dylan. They’ve read every line of every interview, seen the movies and documentaries, read every scrap of Dylan analysis, listened to  countless hours of Dylan bootleg recordings not to mention the actual released material. So when you have some “new” quotes and a new argument, those people are going to scrutinize them, test them, challenge them. Which is as it should be. And if you played a little fast and loose with the quotes, let alone made them up? They are going to jump on you.

Which is what Michael C. Moynihan did in Tablet magazine.

Here’s the thing, though. The quotes in question weren’t that great. They didn’t add that much to our understanding of Dylan and his creative process in particular nor to creativity in general.  Here’s Moynihan:

“‘It’s a hard thing to describe,’ ” Lehrer claims Dylan said. “‘It’s just this sense that you got something to say.’ ”

No offense to anyone concerned, but that’s just… nothing. How often during your day do you feel that you have “something to say”? A lot, if you’re like me (ahem), though admittedly what I have to say often has to do with my creature comforts or some nutty idea that just popped into my brainpan, unbidden and mostly useless. I sit down to write, and I hope that I have something to say, and I say it. That does not make me like Dylan (“well, the funniest woman I ever seen was the great-granddaughter of Mr. Clean”).

So, basically, Lehrer made up a bad quote and got himself hung for his trouble.

Moynihan describes two major problems. The first is simply that Lehrer broke some central rules of the process of journalism involving the proper use of quotes. The second is that when he was called on it, he lied about it.  Together, though, they fit under a larger principle: transparency.

Transparency is hard. On one hand it’s about scrupulous documentation of sources and testing of information. Lehrer must have assembled thousands of facts and quotes for “Imagine,” but before he can use any of them, he needs to account for them somehow, provide some attribution, give us a chance to follow his thinking if the “fact” is complicated or in dispute. But the very process of arming himself with all of this information, makes it hard for a writer to display another characteristic of transparency. Openness. To debate and refutation, to sourcing, to alternative interpretations, to the idea that all of our descriptions and conclusions are tentative and can be overturned by better ones. It’s hard to be open when you’ve built your book (or post!) as a fortress of facts, quotes, arguments and interpretations.

So, Lehrer was opaque on both counts. He didn’t attribute clearly and he wasn’t open to refutation. Of course, he had something to be opaque about. But really, the lack of footnotes that both Moynihan and the New York Times reviewer both pointed out is a bad sign. And just to defend my question to Lehrer at the lunch a little, because I know how goofy it sounds, having other experts of various sorts vetting his work might have saved him—both from the errors he made and from himself.

The problem is worse than simply the errors that Moynihan found and Lehrer’s reluctance to confess to them. How many other errors and manufactured quotes and “facts” are in “Imagine”? What is actually true in the book? Anything? We are skeptical, aren’t we, even more skeptical than we usually are? And what about Lehrer’s other work? Yes, that’s why he had to resign from the New Yorker—his entire career has been thrown into question and that career is what qualified him to write for the New Yorker in the first place. We just don’t know. The New Yorker doesn’t know. Lots of perfectly sound work has undoubtedly gone up in smoke, but who would bet that “Imagine” was the first time that Lehrer took a short cut?

I’m not hard core about this stuff. I believe in second chances and learning from mistakes. As an editor, I’d work with Lehrer, if he wanted to continue his career. Of course, we’d have to talk, mostly about what we’re doing as journalists to begin with. Yeah, he’d probably be impatient about it, because he’s a smart guy, he knows the arguments. And that would be the end of our collaboration. But I don’t see another way back for him. You have to start back at the beginning.

Still, it seems unlikely that we’ll see his byline again, just because the other stories of journalism transgressors we’ve seen haven’t included a chapter on redemption.

What else? Was I too cavalier about “creativity” earlier? Probably. Too bad creativity got mixed up in all of this, because it IS an important subject, even though I tend to think of it as “activity specific,” or even, “situation specific,”  and if that’s true,  general rules about it are so general that they don’t really help.  Which undermines the whole premise of Lehrer’s book, I suppose.

Reading about creative solutions to problems, case studies, can be useful for me all by itself, though, and maybe for you, too? We do like to keep an eye on our successful primate brothers and sisters, after all, see what they do and try it ourselves, monkey see, monkey do. Or in Lehrer’s case, alas, monkey see, monkey don’t.


Comments are closed.

Oregon ArtsWatch Archives