Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘SparkNotes

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.”

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