Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Michael C. Moynihan

Subterranean fact check blues

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In Jon Ronson’s uneven but worthwhile book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, there’s a fascinating interview with Jonah Lehrer, the superstar science writer who was famously hung out to dry for a variety of scholarly misdeeds. His troubles began when a journalist named Michael C. Moynihan noticed that six quotes attributed to Bob Dylan in Lehrer’s Imagine appeared to have been fabricated. Looking back on this unhappy period, Lehrer blames “a toxic mixture of insecurity and ambition” that led him to take shortcuts—a possibility that occurred to many of us at the time—and concludes:

And then one day you get an email saying that there’s these…Dylan quotes, and they can’t be explained, and they can’t be found anywhere else, and you were too lazy, too stupid, to ever check. I can only wish, and I wish this profoundly, I’d had the temerity, the courage, to do a fact check on my last book. But as anyone who does a fact check knows, they’re not particularly fun things to go through. Your story gets a little flatter. You’re forced to grapple with all your mistakes, conscious and unconscious.

There are at least two striking points about this moment of introspection. One is that the decision whether or not to fact-check a book was left to the author himself, which feels like it’s the wrong way around, although it’s distressingly common. (“Temerity” also seems like exactly the wrong word here, but that’s another story.) The other is that Lehrer avoided asking someone to check his facts because he saw it as a painful, protracted process that obliged him to confront all the places where he had gone wrong.

He’s probably right. A fact check is useful in direct proportion to how much it hurts, and having just endured one recently for my article on L. Ron Hubbard—a subject on whom no amount of factual caution is excessive—I can testify that, as Lehrer says, it isn’t “particularly fun.” You’re asked to provide sources for countless tiny statements, and if you can’t find it in your notes, you just have to let it go, even if it kills you. (As far as I can recall, I had to omit exactly one sentence from the Hubbard piece, on a very minor point, and it still rankles me.) But there’s no doubt in my mind that it made the article better. Not only did it catch small errors that otherwise might have slipped into print, but it forced me to go back over every sentence from another angle, critically evaluating my argument and asking whether I was ready to stand by it. It wasn’t fun, but neither are most stages of writing, if you’re doing it right. In a couple of months, I’ll undergo much the same process with my book, as I prepare the endnotes and a bibliography, which is the equivalent of my present self performing a fact check on my past. This sort of scholarly apparatus might seem like a courtesy to the reader, and it is, but it’s also good for the book itself. Even Lehrer seems to recognize this, stating in his attempt at an apology in a keynote speech for the Knight Foundation:

If I’m lucky enough to write again, I won’t write a thing that isn’t fact-checked and fully footnoted. Because here is what I’ve learned: unless I’m willing to continually grapple with my failings—until I’m forced to fix my first draft, and deal with criticism of the second, and submit the final for a good, independent scrubbing—I won’t create anything worth keeping around.

For a writer whose entire brand is built around counterintuitive, surprising insights, this realization might seem bluntly obvious, but it only speaks to how resistant most writers, including me, are to any kind of criticism. We might take it better if we approached it with the notion that it isn’t simply for the sake of our readers, or our hypothetical critics, or even the integrity of the subject matter, but for ourselves. A footnote lurking in the back of the book makes for a better sentence on the page, if only because of the additional pass that it requires. It would help if we saw such standards—the avoidance of plagiarism, the proper citation of sources—not as guidelines imposed by authority from above, but as a set of best practices that well up from inside the work itself. A few days ago, there yet was another plagiarism controversy, which, in what Darin Morgan once called “one of those coincidences found only in real life and great fiction,” also involved Bob Dylan. As Andrea Pitzer of Slate recounts it:

During his official [Nobel] lecture recorded on June 4, laureate Bob Dylan described the influence on him of three literary works from his childhood: The Odyssey, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Moby-Dick. Soon after, writer Ben Greenman noted that in his lecture Dylan seemed to have invented a quote from Moby-Dick…I soon discovered that the Moby-Dick line Dylan dreamed up last week seems to be cobbled together out of phrases on the website SparkNotes, the online equivalent of CliffsNotes…Across the seventy-eight sentences in the lecture that Dylan spends describing Moby-Dick, even a cursory inspection reveals that more than a dozen of them appear to closely resemble lines from the SparkNotes site.

Without drilling into it too deeply, I’ll venture to say that if this all seems weird, it’s because Bob Dylan, of all people, after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, might have cribbed statements from an online study guide written by and for college students. But isn’t that how it always goes? Anecdotally speaking, plagiarists seem to draw from secondary or even tertiary sources, like encyclopedias, since the sort of careless or hurried writer vulnerable to indulging in it in the first place isn’t likely to grapple with the originals. The result is an inevitable degradation of information, like a copy of a copy. As Edward Tufte memorably observes in Visual Explanations: “Incomplete plagiarism leads to dequantification.” In context, he’s talking about the way in which illustrations and statistical graphics tend to lose data the more often they get copied. (In The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, he cites a particularly egregious example, in which a reproduction of a scatterplot “forgot to plot the points and simply retraced the grid lines from the original…The resulting figure achieves a graphical absolute zero, a null data-ink ratio.”) But it applies to all kinds of plagiarism, and it makes for a more compelling argument, I think, than the equally valid point that the author is cheating the source and the reader. In art or literature, it’s better to argue from aesthetics than ethics. If fact-checking strengthens a piece of writing, then plagiarism, with its effacing of sources and obfuscation of detail, can only weaken it. One is the opposite of the other, and it’s no surprise that the sins of plagiarism and fabrication tend to go together. They’re symptoms of the same underlying sloppiness, and this is why writers owe it to themselves—not to hypothetical readers or critics—to weed them out. A writer who is sloppy on small matters of fact can hardly avoid doing the same on the higher levels of an argument, and policing the one is a way of keeping an eye on the other. It isn’t always fun. But if you’re going to be a writer, as Dylan himself once said: “Now you’re gonna have to get used to it.”

Jonah Lehrer’s blues

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Back in June, when it was first revealed that Jonah Lehrer had reused some of his own work without attribution on the New Yorker blog, an editor for whom I’d written articles in the past sent me an email with the subject line: “Mike Daisey…Jonah Lehrer?” When he asked if I’d be interested in writing a piece about it, I said I’d give it a shot, although I also noted: “I don’t think I’d lump Lehrer in with Daisey just yet.” And in fact, I’ve found myself writing about Lehrer surprisingly often, in pieces for The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, and this blog. If I’ve returned to Lehrer more than once, it’s because I enjoyed a lot of his early work, was mystified by his recent problems, and took a personal interest in his case because we’re about the same age and preoccupied with similar issues of creativity and imagination. But with the revelation that he fabricated quotes in his book and lied about it, as uncovered by Michael C. Moynihan of Tablet, it seems that we may end up lumping Lehrer in with Mike Daisey after all. And this makes me very sad.

What strikes me now is the fact that most of Lehrer’s problems seem to have been the product of haste. He evidently repurposed material on his blog from previously published works because he wasn’t able to produce new content at the necessary rate. The same factor seems to have motivated his uncredited reuse of material in Imagine. And the Bob Dylan quotes he’s accused of fabricating in the same book are so uninteresting (“It’s a hard thing to describe. It’s just this sense that you got something to say”) that it’s difficult to attribute them to calculated fraud. Rather, I suspect that it was just carelessness: the original quotes were garbled in editing, compression, or revision, with Lehrer forgetting where Dylan’s quote left off and his own paraphrase begin. A mistake entered one draft and persisted into the next until it wound up in the finished book. And if there’s one set of errors like this, there are likely to be others—Lehrer’s mistakes just happened to be caught by an obsessive Dylan fan and a very good journalist.

Such errors are embarrassing, but they aren’t hard to understand. I’ve learned from experience that if I quote something in an article, I’d better check it against the source at least twice, because all kinds of gremlins can get their claws into it in the meantime. What sets Lehrer’s example apart is that the error survived until the book was in print, which implies an exceptional amount of sloppiness, and when the mistake was revealed, Lehrer only made it worse by lying. As Daisey recently found out, it isn’t the initial mistake that kills you, but the coverup. If Lehrer had simply granted that he couldn’t source the quote and blamed it on an editing error, it would have been humiliating, but not catastrophic. Instead, he spun a comically elaborate series of lies about having access to unreleased documentary footage and being in contact with Bob Dylan’s management, fabrications that fell apart at once. And while I’ve done my best to interpret his previous lapses as generously as possible, I don’t know if I can do that anymore.

In my piece on The Rumpus, I said that Lehrer’s earlier mistakes were venial sins, not mortal ones. Now that he’s slid into the area of mortal sin—not so much for the initial mistake, but for the lies that followed—it’s unclear what comes next. At the time, I wrote:

Lehrer, who has written so often about human irrationality, can only benefit from this reminder of his own fallibility, and if he’s as smart as he seems, he’ll use it in his work, which until now has reflected wide reading and curiosity, but not experience.

Unfortunately, this is no longer true. I don’t think this is the end of Lehrer’s story: he’s undeniably talented, and if James Frey, of all people, can reinvent himself, Lehrer should be able to do so as well. And yet I’m afraid that there are certain elements of his previous career that will be closed off forever. I don’t think we can take his thoughts on the creative process seriously any longer, now that we’ve seen how his own process was so fatally flawed. There is a world elsewhere, of course. And Lehrer is still so young. But where he goes from here is hard to imagine.

Written by nevalalee

July 31, 2012 at 10:01 am

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