The Lehrer Affair


If Jonah Lehrer ever writes a book about irrationality, it would be hard to imagine a better case study than his own. Like the best of his stories, it’s surprising, instructive, and deeply ironic. If another writer for The New Yorker had been caught repurposing chunks of his own previously published material after just two weeks of contributing to the magazine’s blog, it would have been newsworthy in any case, but it’s especially damaging in the case of Lehrer, a former Rhodes Scholar, still only thirty-one, who has quickly built a thriving career from his essays on creativity and originality. (It doesn’t help that one of the posts in question is titled “Why Smart People Are Stupid.”)

Before we continue piling onto Lehrer, however, it’s worth keeping things in perspective. As the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple has noted, calling his actions “plagiarism” isn’t simply misleading, but it trivializes real cases of artistic theft: Lehrer is guilty of reusing material that he had already published in Wired, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere, but while this was sloppy and unprofessional, it’s qualitatively different from stealing someone else’s work. If plagiarism is rightly seen as a literary mortal sin, Lehrer’s transgression, for which he has since apologized, is merely venial—a serious lapse of judgment that has done real damage to his reputation, but which doesn’t disqualify him from doing interesting work in the future.

If the sins have one thing in common, it’s that an author can fall into them by degrees. Plagiarism has a slippery way of arising from the legitimate use of other sources, and the kinds of books that Lehrer writes, in turn, are often assembled from the author’s old work. When I first read Imagine, I noticed that it recycled material from a profile Lehrer had published in Outside about the autistic surfer Clay Marzo, but didn’t give it much thought. Only when I consulted the copyright page did I see that Lehrer had failed to credit his original article, along with many others, a lapse that inexplicably eluded both his agent and his publisher. If such appropriations passed here without comment, it’s not surprising that they happened again.

It’s easy to see why Lehrer might have thought this was harmless. These were his own ideas, or at least his own words, and if he was going to discuss the same subject in more than one place, it was easier to copy and paste material that had already been polished and refined, rather than going through the trouble of laborious recomposition. Some observers have implied that Lehrer didn’t take his blog posts seriously enough, but that’s hard to believe: he had been blogging for Wired for years, and the New Yorker position gave him a tremendous platform. This was obviously a big moment for him as a writer, so it seems likely that these shortcuts weren’t the result of indifference, but of something else entirely.

On one level, they reflect an ongoing confusion about the relationship between online and traditional media. Writers have always reused material from journals and diaries, and it’s only a short step from there to reworking ideas in print from a personal blog. Similarly, podcasters often repackage the same material for different audiences, as Planet Money’s Adam Davidson has done in the New York Times Magazine and Slate’s Bob Garfield does on his radio show. None of this seems especially harmful, although it may be annoying to readers or listeners who encounter the same material twice, and Lehrer’s reasoning seems to have run along similar lines: his blog and his print work occupied two distinct categories, so there was nothing wrong with reusing material online that he’d worked up more thoroughly elsewhere. And while I suspect that he would have hesitated to take a similar approach in a magazine article for The New Yorker itself, the fact remains that the line between online ephemera and work intended for a larger, more conventional audience is far from clear.

More importantly, his mistakes reflect a hard truth about contemporary publishing, which is that authors are no longer allowed to be authors alone. A writer like Lehrer is expected to make frequent media appearances, be active online, and constantly crank out new content. It’s the same impulse that pressures novelists to publish two or more books every year, with supplementary short stories to fill in the gaps, as Julie Bosman recently reported in the New York Times. We’re living in a time of acceleration for all media, with a corresponding hunger for fresh material, even for authors, like Lehrer, who stake their reputation on big, surprising ideas that presumably can’t be turned out like sausages. The result, as the novelist Lee Child said to the Times, is a Red Queen’s race: “It seems we’re all running faster to stay in the same place.”

This impulse to turn writers into nonstop marketers of themselves is partially a function of limited publicity budgets at the big publishing houses, but it’s true even of a book like Imagine, which received a major promotional push. If anything, the stakes here are even higher. A writer like Malcolm Gladwell, who is Lehrer’s obvious prototype, isn’t just an author, but a brand name whose imprimatur moves books, sells magazines, and leads to lucrative speaking engagements. Lehrer wasn’t quite at that level yet, but he was well on his way, assuming that he could rise to the occasion. It seems clear now that he plunged into this new role before he was entirely ready, and when he had only a limited repertoire of material at his disposal.

In Lehrer’s case, it was almost inevitable that this approach would lead to diminishing returns. His great topic is creativity, a subject in which even a more experienced author is bound to repeat himself: after all this time, there’s only so much useful advice to share on the mystery of the creative process. As a result, books on creativity tend to endlessly revisit the same few points—the importance of randomness, of combining unrelated ideas, of thinking with the right side of the brain—and while the specifics can be endlessly interesting, it’s usually in the hands of an author with firsthand experience of primary creative work. This is why the best books on creativity, like John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction or David Mamet’s On Directing Film, tend to be written by artists who have already led productive lives in specific creative fields.

This is exactly what Lehrer lacks, at least at the moment, and through no fault of his own. He isn’t an artist or scientist, but a skillful journalist, and while he’s never pretended otherwise, there’s often a secondhand feel to much of his work. Lehrer has always had trouble discussing the process behind specific acts of creativity—as in his rather confused discussion of Bob Dylan in Imagine, which Isaac Chotiner of The New Republic has ruthlessly picked apart—and the fact that he returns so often to the same examples reflects the fact that he doesn’t yet have the deep well of insight that comes only after years of creative endeavor.

The real irony is that the sort of career that Lehrer is building for himself makes it especially hard to achieve this kind of knowledge. Creative work tends to be solitary, pursued without an audience or any clear reward, and rarely happens on schedule. It has little to do, in short, with the life of a pundit, blogger, and public intellectual. Lehrer may well be capable of original creative accomplishment, but his rapid rise to prominence has made this way of life increasingly difficult. In order to produce content on a fixed schedule, he’s been obliged to repeat the same handful of words and ideas, which can only estrange a writer from the process of creativity itself.

Perhaps his recent troubles will change things for the better. Lehrer’s career so far has been characterized by a steady, remarkably rapid ascent—it’s a life astonishingly free of mistakes. As such, it’s utterly unlike the careers of the geniuses Lehrer writes about, whose lives are full of failures, wrong turns, and the constant risk of public humiliation. 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. If nothing else, he’s just learned firsthand, to use his own words, a great deal about how a smart person can be so stupid.

Alec Nevala-Lee is the author of The Icon Thief, a suspense novel set in the New York art world. His nonfiction has appeared in The Daily Beast, Salon, and the Los Angeles Times. He blogs at More from this author →