I wanted to review Jonah Lehrer's Imagine: How Creativity Works (2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) in this ExcitingWriting Advisory, but when I discovered that Mr. Lehrer's work included numerous instances of plagiarism (making up Bob Dylan quotes, for example), I dropped that idea. I refer to what happened to him and his book here to point out how unremittingly destructive to a writer's reputation even one instance of this category of corruption is (and here I'm calling plagiarism for what it is, a kind of corruption).
A nonfiction writer has only the honesty of his or her writing to present to an audience. Without honesty an author has nothing. If it later comes to light a nonfiction work is not original, even if it's only partly fabricated (the case with Imagine), it can ruin a writer's reputation.
What happened to Mr. Lehrer is a shame. I found his book engrossing and well written, filled with interesting insights explaining how creative minds work and brainstorm together.
Now my essay takes a sharp left turn.
I met Mr. Lehrer at a talk he gave in Dallas in 2013. He was on a speaking tour, signing copies of his book after his talk, a traditional method of promoting sales. He spoke about his book for about thirty minutes. He impressed me as being meticulous, hardworking, very creative, and very, very smart. The workings of the creative mind are extremely complicated. I thought he did an excellent job of explaining them to a non-technical audience.
After his talk, I waited in a long line holding a just-purchased copy of Mr. Lehrer's book in my hands. When I finally stood before the noted author I thanked him for writing about creativity, a favorite subject of mine. I told him his talk inspired me in regards to the writing of my novel, Charging the Jaguar. When he asked, I explained to him what it was about in a sentence or two. He asked me how long I had been working on it. I told him, and he straightaway inscribed my copy of his book with the words, "Best wishes! Believe in GRIT!" with his signature directly below.
As I look now at those words he wrote on the title page of his book four years ago, I think about the word GRIT that a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, Angela Duckworth, made famous a few years ago with her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.
Ms. Duckworth, now also famous for a TED talk she gave on the same subject last year, postulated that GRIT was "focused persistence" irrespective of native talent, ability or intelligence that drives us on, or, as Pharrell Williams so aptly phrased in his pop song "Brand New:" "A winner never quits and a quitter never wins."
Now I ask myself what kind of GRIT Mr. Lehrer might have been thinking about when he inscribed my book: What kind of grit brings one to make the mistakes the "noted author" made. He not only made up quotes from people he never interviewed; he also copied word-for-word from work he had previously published, a sin known in the publishing world as "self-plagiarism."
The burning question I'd love to ask Mr. Lehrer (if I could get a truthful answer): Why would anyone, no less such a "noted author," put in so much honest effort and write a brilliant book but then ruin it by throwing in a handful (or more) of inaccuracies and commit publishing sins?
I can only dream that he might say something along the lines of "because the truth wasn't good enough. I wanted to make it better." But I would never pretend to put words in his mouth. That would be wrong.
(By the way, today Jonah Lehrer is still a noted author; only now he's noted for something different.)
And now, a sharp right turn.
The ever popular "CBS Sunday Morning" show ran a segment last Sunday entitled "Gay Telese and the New Journalism," wherein they showed the meticulous care with which Mr. Telese has conducted every one of his journalistic projects since he began publishing his work. Gay Telese has kept transcripts of every interview he has used in writing every book and article throughout his career, going back to the 1960s. Why? So no one can say he never interviewed the people he in fact did interview, or argue that they never said what he reported them to say.
Keeping every interview on file going back a half-century: That is what I call GRIT. It's too bad Lehrer didn't have what that takes.
And now, breaking toward a fast finish.
I used to believe fiction writers have it easier than nonfiction writers. After all, we fiction writers make no pretense: The work we are about to loose upon the world is lies, lies, lies. Lies that get at the truth, of course. Although bringing out a novel that is artistic, original, and inventive requires a uniquely special brand of lying, no one said it was easy.
"Artistic" means a novel that artfully gives the impression of being authentically true even though it's fiction; also that the stories told and sometimes the characters who populate them are attractive, maybe even likeable. At least, they are interesting to meet and get to know, although, at the same time it's important to note that stories with characters that are dark, evil, and menacing, or mysterious and enigmatic can still come off as artistic.
"Original" means the work gives the impression that nothing else like it has ever been written before. But we all know writers who borrow characters, subjects, plots and writing styles from other writers. Borrowing can damage "originality." If a writer does too much of that, his or her work can be branded "derivative," which is not good. It's the fiction version of the publishing sins Jonah Lehrer committed.
"Inventive" means the work goes where no other writer's works have gone before, or gives that impression. But writers are always letting their inventiveness be influenced by following the trends of successful authors. How else can one explain the publishing trends one routinely sees, for example, when a raft of vampire novels and movies all came out at the same time? Exactly how inventive is that?
No, I no longer believe that we fiction writers have it any easier than nonfiction writers. Only the temptations have been changed to mostly protect the innocent.