Jonah Lehrer: When Facts Are Not Enough
It’s hard to understand why Jonah Lehrer, an accomplished and wildly successful 31-year-old journalist – a Columbia graduate, Rhodes scholar, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of three successful books and articles in all kinds of prestigious publications – would shoot himself in the foot and his career in the head by fabricating, borrowing, and out-and-out lying in print. After pulling his bestseller, Imagine: How Creativity Works, from its bookshelves, Harvard Book Store general manager Carole Horne told The Boston Globe, “I don’t know how people think they can get away with this in this day and age.”
Maybe it’s not our place to ask why, but as my wise son once said, “In the final analysis, all we have is our reputation.” [I hope I quoted you accurately, Josh.] Lehrer has lost his reputation and perhaps his career. That’s sad, for we need great new writers. There isn’t any good reason Lehrer can proffer for his behavior, but I was disappointed that his editor at Houghton Mifflin commented [in the same Globe article] that what he did “goes against everything I believe about journalism and is a betrayal of readers’ trust.” The fact is, she shares responsibility in Lehrer’s misadventure because it is her job to assure the book has been fact-checked and vetted prior to publication. This is an editor’s job.
Or at least it used to be their job. Sadly, in our business we see few editors exercising editorial due diligence. They have been bitten on the neck by Rush Tomarket, the publishing house vampire.
In many cases, vetting and proof-of-truth falls to agents and the ghostwriters or developmental editors who work on manuscripts before an editor ever sees them. That’s where the experience the Business Book Ghostwriters becomes a value-added asset to our author-clients. We were book editors before we became authors ourselves. Textbook editors, where absolute veracity is essential, although it is, as Lehrer’s gaffe points up, no less important in any nonfiction book. As we read an author-client’s manuscript, we look for remarks in need of references, citations or authentication. A statement such as “Many editors think authors always submit manuscripts that have been carefully documented and vetted” would, under our scrutiny, have to be sourced.
I want to end with a story from the lighter side of publishing veracity. I worked with an astronomy editor whose author was coming out with an new, very positively reviewed Introduction to Astronomy textbook. The author and editor inserted a reference in the Index that read, “Vader, Darth (see Force, dark side of)” as a wink of the eye to the recently (at the time) released film, “Star Wars.” Only the very astute would ever see the entry, and there was no page reference because there was no mention in the book content. It was a cute, harmless joke, and those who did catch it enjoyed it and shared it with others.
Lehrer includes a remark Bob Dylan made about his songs in the film, “Don’t Look Back,” telling a reporter, “I just write them. There’s no great message.” Lehrer falsifies a third sentence in his book, “Stop asking me to explain. ” What if Lehrer, instead of putting words in Dylan’s mouth, had simply written, “I wonder if he might have said….”