Imagine Bob Dylan Said This: When Nonfiction Writers Make Stuff Up

At the age of 31, Jonah Lehrer was a staff writer for The New Yorker and a contributing editor at several newspapers and magazines. He had published three best-selling books: Proust Was a Neuroscientist; How We Decide; and Imagine: How Creativity Works.

In that last one, he discussed Bob Dylan’s songwriting process at length. He used many quotes from Dylan, some of which he cobbled together or misrepresented. He also invented a few. When Michael C. Moynihan investigated this, Lehrer at first made up stories about his sources. He later confessed, resigning from The New Yorker on July 30th. His deceptions in Imagine throw the credibility of all of his other work into question.

Jonah Lehrer

Moynihan’s story about this in Tablet fascinates me. I understand why Lehrer might have wanted to fabricate quotes: to meet a deadline, strengthen a tenuous argument, or put out a book even more compelling than his last success. However, he is obviously a smart guy, and lots of people are crazy about Bob Dylan. Didn’t he know he might get caught? What made him take the risk?

It could be that he got away with enough small indiscretions that he felt invincible. Early this year, Lehrer got in a little bit of trouble for “self-plagiarizing,” or recycling sentences and passages without noting they had been published before. He might not have gotten caught in smaller fabrications earlier in his career.

Jayson Blair, a former New York Times reporter who stole some other people’s writing and made things up, claimed in his memoir that a practice called “toe touching” was common at the paper. One could write a poem in New York, travel to Washington D.C,. return immediately, and then give the story a D.C. dateline. Blair argued that this minor deception led him to feel other, bigger lies were no big deal, either.

Blair, who suffered from alcohol and drug addiction during his stint at The New York Times, wrote stories from towns he had never visited. He told Media Bistro in this interview, “I thought that once I felt better physically and emotionally, I would hit the road again.” I can easily imagine that Lehrer, also, might have thought he would just make a few things up for this book and that he would straighten out his act for the next one. I often con myself into thinking my bad habits are temporary, uncharacteristic aberrations. Journalistic lying probably begins with lying to oneself.

Lehrer’s story irritates people, including me, because we know there are so many less successful writers with a lot more integrity. Maybe Lehrer just chose the wrong genre, though. If a powerful turn of phrase or a good story trumps the pesky realities and details, you might still be a good writer. You’re just not a nonfiction writer.

6 replies on “Imagine Bob Dylan Said This: When Nonfiction Writers Make Stuff Up”

This is the first time I hear about him, but he immediately reminded me of the Shattered Glass story (which is basically shoved down the throats of Dutch students of Journalism). There is clear line between journalism/non-fiction and fiction and that is when you imagine and add, instead of using what is already there. Only cross it when your article/story crosses as well.

This is so disappointing. I went and bought Imagine for my kindle immediately after hearing him on Fresh Air. I’m only about half way through, but it’s a great read. But now, it’ll have a different spin as I read it. Instead of just absorbing it, I’ll be wondering which anecdotes are real and which ones are bullshit.

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