If you’re reading this right now, you’re probably affected by books and language. You hold what great authors say in high esteem. You might even have a secret file on your computer with thousands of paragraphs pretending to be a novel. What world have you stepped into, you with your love of literature?
It’s not a relaxing one. Those who are good with words are often good at using them to their downfall, and as a writer, you are a public corpse to be dissected, your work used and misused against your will, your very attributes questioned. It’s scandalous: it’s fascinating.
What follows is one perhaps-not-as well-read-as-she-should-be-writer’s reactions to what’s lighting up the literary spheres. I’ll dissect the stories out there, find precedents for what’s happening now, and offer my two cents. I like to see all sides of an issue, so I may not always have the best or most fervent arguments. But at least you’ll know what’s out there and what I think about it. And I’d love to hear what you think, too. One day, we may all be famous enough to start our own literary controversies, but in the meantime, everybody can be a critic, ethicist, or grammarian about the subject we love best: literature.
The Wrong Sort of Creativity
It’s been a great year for journalistic scandals. First, there was the This American Life/Mike Daisey/Apple debacle. For those who’ve forgotten, Mike Daisey adapted his stage monologue, Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory, for the radio program, and for some reason numerous fabrications, exaggerations, and misattributions slipped through into the finished product. “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” became TAL’s most downloaded story ever, until it was spectacularly retracted on-air a few months later by a very angry-sounding Ira Glass (who almost never sounds angry). The debate over truth, fiction, and integrity was re-ignited.
In the meantime, a certain book was also making the rounds of the reviews and interview circuit. Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine focused on the science of creativity. In it, he quoted many famous creatives, including a certain Mr. Bob Dylan. The book did well—I remember hearing Lehrer’s Fresh Air interview and wanting to pick Imagine up. (Why yes, I am an NPR junkie.) But like “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory”, the bubble was soon to burst.
First, Lehrer demonstrated a shocking lack of creativity when it was revealed that he had been recycling material from year-old blog posts in his New Yorker articles. Not great, but a forgivable sin. Anyone who’s spent years in writing workshops has been tempted to turn in the same story twice. Some authors spend years writing the same story on the same subject, and at least Lehrer was just plagiarizing himself, unlike say, Jayson Blair. However, he then apparently tilted back towards a more “creative” direction. Earlier this week, Michael C. Moynihan, a journalist and self-described “Dylan nerd”, revealed that he’d been in conversation with Lehrer about some Dylan quotes used in Imagine that had never been documented. Even worse, Lehrer apparently pressured Moynihan to say that the quotes were from some unedited interview with Dylan before finally admitting they were just made up.
“Imagine” has been recalled, pulled off shelves and online marketplaces. Lehrer lost his job at the New Yorker, as well he should. The fall from grace begins anew as we all question how the works we ballyhooed, now shot full of holes, ever got published in the first place.
On the scale of badness, I tend to rate Daisey’s sin less. His defense was partly that he was an artist, not a journalist. While some things he said just flat-out weren’t true, others were, and only became untrue when he pretended to have experience them. His fabrications, he claimed, were for the sake of art and to wake up an oblivious, tech-happy American public. And he certainly succeeded. If you listened to “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory”, you wanted to drop your Iphone in horror. Plus, I’ve never considered This American Life a “journalistic” program. From its inception its focus was heavy on individual, personal pieces. It’s been known to include works of actual fiction such as stories by Etgar Keret, and only the last ten years or so has it begun to break stories and do much reportage. Daisey’s piece could have fit right in if he hadn’t presented it as 100% true from the beginning. Or it may not have worked out: a lot of scrutiny would have been on the piece anyway, as it’s a negative potrayal of Apple, one of the largest and most powerful companies ever. In any case, Daisey also spent weeks lying to TAL producers, including giving them the wrong name of his translator and telling them he had no working phone number for her, so that does bring him back down to a certain level of journalistic hell. But TAL’s renewed fact-checking efforts on every piece is slightly ridiculous. Leave poor David Sedaris alone: I’m not sure I care whether that remark in the coffee shop was quite as cutting before it encountered Sedaris’s pen. And Daisey’s retraction was another gripping hour of radio (dead air was never so dramatic), so TAL ultimately might have benefited from the misstep.
Lehrer, on the other hand, deserves all he gets. He made up quotes by one of the most studied musicians ever for a purportedly scientific work of journalism. There’s no maybe with that one, and he should have figured he’d get caught. Though I’m a publishing intern, I can’t say I know much about how the fact-checking process works. I’d think it involves a lot of questions, conversation and research. I’d also think, with established names like Daisey and Lehrer, you’d be more likely to defer to them, even if you shouldn’t. Perhaps it’s their excellent reputations, or fear of questioning the mighty. Every fact-check should be thorough, but at some point somebody probably went, “eh, would Jonah Lehrer really make up a Bob Dylan quote?” and signed off.
So lesson learned, right? We all know we shouldn’t do that, and we’ll keep saying that until it happens again. And it will happen again. Roxane Gay in Salon says it’s a system, that we public want bright young white male things to remain bright. From the writer’s standpoint, it might be either anxiety or hubris. But let’s not forget that we’re talking about writers. Sure, our talents involve putting words and stories together in a pleasing way, but almost all of us begin by making things up. We’re just too darn good at it, and for some, it’s tempting to keep doing it, no matter who you are. ~Liz
This blog post was originally published at Books on the Make.
Editor’s Note: Liz Baudler recently graduated from Columbia College with a Fiction Writing degree. She founded and used to edit The Toucan Literary Magazine. Now, she just contents herself with editing one publication, Transcendent Journeys. When she’s not glued to a computer researching literary controversies or reading books and chuckling, she likes to ride her bike, cook, and make money talking about animals at Brookfield Zoo.