01 August 2012

Lies!

In April of this year I discussed my general dislike of books like the ones Jonah Lehrer is known for. That sort of pop science self-helpish book that takes a subject like creativity and runs out the clock discussing it at length.

And there is nothing really honestly wrong with these books. As I said then, they are entertainment, they get you interested in random acts of science. Radiolab, my favorite podcast, is essentially this format. It leans more on the science end of things though.

As you may have heard, Lehrer was caught lying. Michael C. Moynihan's report appeared in Tablet on Monday. In that article Moynihan details that Lehrer fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his most recent book, Imagine. This is the book I talked about back in April.

Lehrer was fired/quit his staff writing job at the The New Yorker the same day. In that run-down from the New York Times it is pointed out the Lehrer was just one month ago called out for recycling some of his own writing in New Yorker blog posts. While this isn't a terrible thing, remixing your own work as if it is new is an odd choice for a bestselling author.

All of this conjures shades of James Frey and Stephen Glass.


That is the trailer for Shattered Glass, the film made about Stephen Glass post-scandal. It's an all right movie about an interesting subject. The film is more interesting historically as Hayden Christensen's attempt to un-Star Wars himself.

I guess all of this is a long introduction to me getting to my real questions about these events in journalism. That is:

Where is the line between journalism and literary non-fiction? What sense of truthfulness must an author adhere to with a non-fiction book? Does the lie alter the argument?

Let's get the first one out of the way. The line between journalism and non-fiction is clear for me. Journalism should present the truth. This is why Glass deserved to lose his job and be driven from the industry wholesale. I am not for dry writing, but I am a 'just the facts ma'am' type of guy.

The second question is harder. In a book, that is meant to convey an argument. Meant to present a side of a story. To that effect, I think it's OK for a little fudging to occur. This is where I fall on Frey. He didn't really hurt anyone. His lies were there to make a good story, and people seemed to react to it. I fall in this area on the whole JT LeRoy thing too. I'm not going to go into it here but a middle-aged woman pretended to be a drug-addicted male teenager. Again, I don't care, I like the creativity involved and approve completely.

The final question is the trickiest. I don't know what the false Dylan quotes were or how they fit into the larger picture of Lehrer's book. But this was a lie about a living person. A very famous, very studied, person. While I think a little fudging is fine. This is not. A small lie to add oomph to an argument can be OK in the right instances. Clearly Lehrer has not learned how to pick these out and has been given a public lesson on it.