The ever-hilarious Jon Ronson is back with another investigation into pop-psychology, or rather the collective psyche of that mob mentality on social media. Some call it a social movement. I have no idea what it really is, but I’m fascinated by its energy. Here is a snippet from Ronson’s meeting with Jonah Lehrer, the now infamous self-plagiarist.
For the last hour Jonah had been repeatedly telling me, in a voice strained to breaking point, ‘I don’t belong in your book.’
And I was repeatedly replying, ‘Yes, you do.’
I didn’t understand what he was talking about. I was writing a book about public shaming. He had been publicly shamed. He was ideal.
Now he suddenly stopped, mid hiking trail, and looked intently at me. ‘I am a terrible story to put in your book,’ he said.
‘Why?’ I said.
‘What’s that William Dean Howells line?’ he said. ‘“Americans like a tragedy with a happy ending”?’
The actual William Dean Howells line is ‘What the American public wants in the theatre is a tragedy with a happy ending.’ I think Jonah was close enough.
Hah, way to kick him when he’s down.
Aside from self-plagiarizing, Jonah Lehrer has also been found guilty of misquotations and, in some cases, mangling Bob Dylan’s words. That was his downfall–mangling Bob Dylan. It was a small, barely noticeable, lapse in Lehrer’s huge body of work. By the time anyone (Michael Moynihan) found that tiny piece of loose thread and pulled, Lehrer had already become a popular successful author. And he’s so young too. Everyone had been amazed. So when the boy genius fell from grace, it was a big deal. It rocked the publishing world. But the fall out didn’t stop there. People went back and meticulously combed through everything he’s written and found that almost every essay and two books, now pulled from publication, contained self-plagiarism.
You may not think that’s a big deal–so he didn’t cite himself a couple of times, so what? Here’s what: he did it repeatedly and, I would assume, deliberately. But you’ll have to read Moynihan’s side of the story and decide for yourself. Anyhow. The point isn’t that Leher “forgot” to cite himself. The point is he recycled old material and passed it off as new…and got paid handsomely for it. If Lehrer were to cite himself properly in each of his essays, almost every single paragraph would have been a quotation taken from essays he’d written in the past. Very little of the new essay would contain new or original content. So if not for the recycled material, there would have been no new material to publish or sell. It was essentially a scam, and Lehrer did it knowingly. That is the point. Another point is no one looked twice because he’s a young educated fellow from a prestigious background, but that’s another thing entirely.
So far I haven’t learned much about the concept of public shaming, other than how it plays out, but I did learn what self-plagiarism is in the publishing world. And yes, it’s a difficult thing to avoid when you’ve written so much for so long on just one topic. Sometimes you’ll end up repeating what you’ve already written in the past; the lapse in memory is bound to happen sooner or later. It’s an honest mistake… if it happens once or twice. But in almost every essay? That shows intent and deliberation.
Jon Ronson writes in a very funny and engaging way. I find myself reluctant to put this book down.
[ETA] I did some digging and it looks like Jonah Lehrer’s transgressions extended further than self-plagiarism. People have found actual plagiarism in the two books that were pulled and many of his essays from Wired.com and The New Yorker. Only 18 essays were pulled for closer examination, and of those 18, 17 were found to contain plagiarized material. People have also found instances where Lehrer pulled a Stephen Glass, formerly known as a Janet Cooke, and made up facts and sources to pad his writing (source).
Jon Ronson seems to think we’re all being too hard on Lehrer. Maybe it’s time to forgive and forget? Maybe. After all, “we’re not monsters.” Hah hah…hah. Ahem. We’ll just have to see how much plagiarism is in his new book to determine whether or not it’s forgivable. Oh btw, he’s sold a new manuscript (source).