Sales of “Imagine” halted after author admits inventing quotations

In May, I reviewed Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine:  How Creativity Works  http://wp.me/pYql4-1Rv.  I ended by saying, “This is a wonderful study for anyone interested in imagination, creativity, and the conditions which favor it.”

Today I was saddened to read that Lehrer admitted fabricating Bob Dylan quotes in Imagine and lying about them when questioned by another journalist.  He resigned as a staff writer for The New Yorker, and Houghton Mifflin halted sales of the book, which had sold 200,000 copies since March and spent 16 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.  http://www.sacbee.com/2012/07/30/4674919/author-acknowledges-fake-dylan.html

In a statement Monday, Lehrer said:  “The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers.”

The incident raised a number of questions.  It is striking in part because strict enforcement of ethical standards has become so rare in public life.  We don’t even blink when we read of fresh bank scandals, or athletes on steroids, or the California Parks department with a hidden stash of millions of dollars even as it was moving to shutter some of our finest parks.  We’re running a presidential campaign on attack adds, where truth is merely an option, rather than statements of principle from either candidate.  These days I look to PBS and the Comedy Channel for responsible TV journalism.

With standards so lax in so many areas of public life, how many aspiring writers can be certain they would resist the urge to tweak a sentence or two for a shot at the best seller list?  I am not, by any means, excusing Lehrer’s actions – I am saying I think I understand them.

I also understand failure.  It’s a fire that can consume a person or temper what they are made of.  I hope Mr. Lehrer can rise from his ashes with the kind of deeper and darker wisdom that comes from enduring the dark night of the soul.

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6 Responses to Sales of “Imagine” halted after author admits inventing quotations

  1. ellisnelson says:

    Wow! I also blogged about this book. Very disappointing. I do wonder what (if anything) publishers do to try to prevent this kind of thing. Where were the fact checkers??? Reminds me of the Oprah scandal not long ago.

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    • I don’t know how such details could be fact-checked in every case, given that traditional publishing is struggling as it is. I would think that this incident would cause anyone currently writing non-fiction to double check and clean up their sources. Beyond that, a certain degree of trust has to prevail between author, publisher and reader. I guess it’s the violation of that that is saddest in the whole incident.

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  2. complynn says:

    An amazing, productive thinker invents quotes attributable to a man still alive, thus guaranteeing his fall from grace. So much humiliation for so little overall benefit to the book.

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  3. Rosi says:

    Truth, it seems these days, is becoming a rare commodity. Clifforn Irving was never really able to rehabilitate his career. He is best remembered for his hoax. That said, with the lack of journalistic integrity today, maybe making stuff up to suit a point of view being so common now, he will find work in a heartbeat and end up being just fine.

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    • NPR did a piece a day or so after the Lehrer’s resignation became public. It turns out that the fudged quotations were more critical than I first thought, calling his major premise concerning Dylan into question.

      Lehrer claimed that Dylan’s breakthrough – when he became Dylan and not just another popular folksinger, came during a haitus he took after touring Europe, and led to his song “Like a Rolling Stone.”

      The journalist who questioned him did so initially because he was a Dylan fan and believed the breakthrough came earlier in his career. At first he just wanted information, but then decided that whole section of the book was fishy.

      The NPR piece also noted that our collective hunger for superstars and willingness to believe that a 31 year old journalist could really be an expert on the neuroscience of creativity helped set the stage.

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