So I know that it’s wrong to lie and make stuff up and attempt to pass off fiction as fact and only bad people do these things and if good people do these things, they should expect to be openly humiliated, publicly punished, we’ll call for hara-kiri. I know that culturally, “truth” is paramount, that’s how things work, we appeal to it in order to keep people in line, it’s how we can have at the very least the semblance of accountability. I know these things should be true, but I can’t help wrinkling my nose whenever there is another Jayson Blair/Stephen Glass/James Frey occurrence.
Jonah Lehrer published Imagine: How Creativity Works in 2012. It was a work of nonfiction dealing with the science of creativity. It shot to the top of bestseller lists, Malcolm Gladwell was an enthusiastic fan and revered Lehrer’s mastery of language and scientific principles, Lehrer was destined to be a star. Forever. And then a few journalists pointed out discrepancies in his work and it turned out that he had doctored some Bob Dylan quotes, plagiarized some of his earlier work, misrepresented data, used false information, the list goes on. Lehrer resigned from his staff position at The New Yorker, publishers recalled all unsold copies of Imagine, and Lehrer will probably never write again. People now discuss him in hushed tones as though his crime were pedophilia.
And I get it. I do. Look, you can’t have everyone out there coming up with stuff willy nilly, we need credibility and accountability. Lehrer didn’t just create a new life story for himself a la James Frey, it seems that he was irresponsible with the science behind his claims, he molded the facts to adhere to his thesis, he bungled the truth so he could make his point. And that has consequences, I know. It should. But. Don’t we all do a version of that? Misrepresent and distort to strengthen our rhetoric? I can think of ten people I know and love who traffic in that practice quite regularly (present company definitely included beyond any frigging doubt) and while the lies might not reach as many people as Lehrer’s book did, while the deceit might not yield the same type of consequence, it’s what we do. We all lie, we cheat, we deceive. It’s part of our national fabric, it’s how we get by, life is one big shared fat lie. But our hang ’em high world just wants to throw people to the wolves– it doesn’t want to look at the culture that demands such duplicity, it wants to be punitive with the individual.
Imagine was on my list of books to read. Knowing what I now know about the book, I’m definitely dubious, but I’m not sure I feel the entire work should be discredited. You can’t find the book on Amazon or Barnes and Noble websites. It’s disappeared from the publisher’s website, and no new copies will be printed. It’s like the book never existed. We can’t modify the book or offer more transparency about its history, we just have to erase it and tell ourselves it didn’t really happen. And something about that feels like a dishonest lie to me.