Monday, July 30, 2012

How does creativity work? Lie through your teeth...

...and hope you never get caught.

First, there was the widely publicized case of James Frey and his Oprah Book Club selection of the month, A Million Little Pieces. For those who may have forgotten, that book was sold as a memoir, Frey's supposed life story. But after the book became a huge bestseller, various stories surfaced that questioned many of the specifics in the book. Frey and his publisher initially defended the book, arguing that it was normal to change some details in a memoir (see Barack Obama, Dreams of My Father), but those changes turned out to be just too significant. For instance, in the book Frey claimed to have spent some eighty seven days in jail. But in reality, he had only spent a few hours. That's not minor change, that's a lie.

Eventually the publisher, Oprah, and everyone else agreed: the book was no memoir, it was pure fiction. Frey's career took a momentary hit, but he's since rebounded. Oprah was initially mocked for her support of Frey, then congratulated for calling him to the carpet, then--somewhat surprisingly--criticized for being too mean. All of this played out in 2006 and 2007, starting with the Smoking Gun's expose: A Million Little Lies.

And while the Frey business was still going on, another situation received national attention (though not as much as Frey's): that of Harvard undergrad Kaavya Viswanathan and her young adult novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. Unlike Frey's book, Viswanathan's was always a work of fiction. But in April of 2006, reports surfaced of plagiarism in the book. Initially, the publisher and the author argued that there was no plagiarism, that similarities with other books were coincidental or accidental.

As the story made it's way through the public, however, more and more accusations appeared, involving more authors, including heavyweight Salman Rushdie. The publisher--which had initially intended to publish a revised version of the novel--balked. The novel was pulled, the new addition was cancelled, Viswanathan lost her book deal, and a film adaption of the book was also cancelled. She hasn't--as yet--published any more books. But she received her Harvard degree.

That brings us to 2011 and Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea. The book--another in the memoir genre--recounts Mortenson's experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan, from mountain climbing to humanitarian efforts centering on the building of schools for girls in those nations and the establishment of the CAI (Central Asian Institute). Published in 2007, Mortenson's book had been a bestseller for four years. But in 2011, allegations surfaced with regard to not only the facts in the book, but also with regard to the CAI and the schools it had supposedly built.

One of Mortenson's biggest initial champions was noted author Jon Krakauer. But in April of 2011, it was Krakauer who exposed the supposed lies and questionable ethics of Mortenson in an e-book entitled Three Cups of Deceit. To be fair to Mortenson, there has been some support for him, still. And some criticism of Krakauer. But having read both, I'm inclined to believe Krakauer, who--it must be said--painted Mortenson as more of someone who lost his way than as someone who set out to deceive and use. Still, Mortenson's insistence that he's not crossed any lines is off-putting to say the least.

In the above three case, we have fabrication in the case of so-called memoirs and plagiarism in the case of a novel. But now we have a new case involving both plagiarism and fabrication: Jonah Lehrer and his 2012 non-fiction book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Widely praised by reviewers, the book purports to teach readers how to be creative (I kid you not), based on neurology and everyday activities.

Lehrer had already written two other books--both well received--and was a columnist for the New Yorker (he has resigned since this scandal broke). The plagiarism charge is a little unusual: Lehrer was accused of plagiarizing himself, of using portions of his books in his column without attribution. And that is, in fact, a big no-no, something Lehrer must have known was wrong. For in submitting pieces for publication without noting the material had been published elsewhere, Lehrer was defrauding his employer by submitting as original material what was not.

But it's the fabrication charge that's really sunk Lehrer. Basically, Lehrer devoted part of one chapter to Bob Dylan and how Dylan's creative process worked. In this regard, he used numerous Dylan quotations. The problem is, no one could source some of these quotes. Michael Moynihan at Tablet Magazine broke the story. A huge Dylan fan, Moynihn was puzzled by these quotes and asked Lehrer for his sources. What followed was a back and forth correspondence with Lehrer obfuscating and delaying, culminating in Lehrer's admission that he had lied. Lehrer's public statement on the matter:
Three weeks ago, I received an email from journalist Michael Moynihan asking about Bob Dylan quotes in my book Imagine. The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes. But I told Mr. Moynihan that they were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan’s representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr. Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have 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. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan. I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.
Lehrer's belated honesty is still refreshing, in my opinion. He could have stuck to his guns and insisted the quotes from Dylan were accurate. His publisher--and The New Yorker--would have probably stood by him for a time. Of course, Dylan is still alive, so there was a danger of him saying "hey, I never said that!" Moreover, Lehrer had to know what he was doing when he inserted those fabricated quotes into his book; he had to know he was doing something wrong. Why did he do it?

Well, why did Frey do it? He's a gifted storyteller, no matter what else he is; his post-Million Little Pieces efforts prove this. And the book is still a good read, even if its not true.

Why did Viswanathan do it? She was a student at Harvard, of all places. She's since graduated with honors. It's not like the book was her life's work.

Why did Mortenson do it? His misuse of CAI funds and fabrications in his book aside, the man has done good things, real things. Maybe not on the scale he has claimed, but his acts are still substantial.

Human nature being what it is, all four initially denied wrongdoing. Mortenson denies it still, by and large, despite the evidence. Viswanathan maintains is was mostly accidental, if ultimately wrong. Frey has fashioned  a literary justification and a new career based on his transgressions. It remains to be seen what will happen with Lehrer, but the above history suggests he is far from doomed, even as a writer.

For let's be honest: dishonesty involves creativity. The more creative one is, the more dishonest one can be. And creativity is a valued trait in many, many circles. We like to believe that honesty is the best policy, that people who honestly and immediately admit their mistakes do better than those who don't, who go to the mat  protecting lies and obfuscating until the bitter end, but that sure doesn't seem to be the case.

Perhaps Lehrer can tackle the issue in a future book.

Cheers, all.

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