The Truth, Or Something Like It
I was pretty surprised last night when I read about the latest scandal to rock the world of journalism (is this appropriate language? does the journalism world really get rocked?). Apparently, Jonah Lehrer, the wunderkind author of (among others) Imagine: How Creativity Works fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan in that book. The book, which I have purchased but not yet read, includes in it an anecdote about Bob Dylan’s writing of the legendary song “Like A Rolling Stone” and in that section, Lehrer manufactured quote from the famed songwriter. Then, when a fellow journalist uncovered some discrepancies in Lehrer’s story and questioned him about it, Lehrer says he “panicked” and lied that he had found the quote from an old and unpublished source.
Part of what disturbs me about this story is not just that Lehrer lied, or even that he made up the quotes (which, admittedly, are terrible acts of journalism) but that his entire book, and his entire career, are pretty much discredited by this one act of foolishness. Lehrer’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has pulled Imagine from online outlets and stopped shipments of paper copies of the book. Lehrer also resigned from his post at The New Yorker magazine, which is just about the saddest thing I ever heard. Except that he did make things up. And he did lie about it.
Here’s the reason I’m conflicted about this whole matter: I don’t believe that one lie, or one act of fabrication, discounts the entire argument of his book. Okay, Lehrer probably shouldn’t get to work at one of the most well-respected publications in the world. And no, he shouldn’t be allowed to call himself a journalist anymore. But pulling his book off the shelves? I feel like it’s going overboard. Yes, it should now be read with a grain (or a giant rock) of salt, but do the ideas in Imagine cease to be legitimate just because some of the facts are wrong? What does pulling the book off the shelves really accomplish?
This is one of the things that bothers me about the idea of truth, and the idea of honesty. Is a misquote or a made-up quote that illustrates a larger point really such a terrible thing? I agree that there should be some signal to an audience that what they are reading is a dramatized version of the truth (or purported truth), but is the idea necessarily wrong if the argument is imperfect? I’m really asking; I don’t know the answer.
I think that this is one of the best reasons I have for choosing fiction over nonfiction: I don’t have that journalistic standard hanging over my head. I can write about ideas, even include facts or anecdotal evidence in my writing, but if I get something wrong, or I embellish a story or speech for dramatic effect, it’s no biggie. Because I’m not claiming that what I’m writing is fact, or science, or history. What I’m doing is mulling over ideas, perhaps inspired by facts, or science, or history. I wouldn’t claim otherwise.
Perhaps that’s the problem here. It’s the frame around the picture. If Lehrer had used a fictional musician to illustrate the point he was making in his book, perhaps it wouldn’t have gone over well with his publisher, and perhaps he would have had to take that section out of Imagine altogether, but he’d still have his career and his professional integrity intact. Or maybe he should have gone into fiction altogether.
But there’s another way to look at this, too. Writers have gotten in trouble for embellishing their nonfiction since there have been writers. We all remember James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces debacle. But there’s also Richard Wright, who borrowed episodes from his friends’ lives to include in his autobiography Black Boy, because he thought it would convey a more complete version of the picture he was trying to paint for his audience — what it was like to grow up poor and black in the Deep South. Or there’s Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, about a girls’ school the author supposedly had built in rural Afghanistan (much of which appears to have been false, or extremely embellished). Or we can even go the the world of theater and public radio and talk about This American Life and their retraction of Mike Daisey’s story about the Apple factories in China, which turn out to have been highly dramatized.
I think that what we can glean from all of these stories is that the writers all had good intentions. They wanted to convey ideas, they wanted to talk about subjects that were important to them, sometimes through the lens of personal experience, sometimes through dramatic conflict and action. And I think the problem is twofold. First, consumers of books, television, and radio have become somewhat obsessed with “reality” entertainment, both demanding that the products they consume be exciting and interesting and true. Somehow, fiction has lost their interest. And second, writers and artists feel pressure to produce work that is fact-based, even if they don’t have the facts to back it up. They write about the subjects they care about, but they do it under the guise of non-fiction, even if it is, in fact, fiction.
I’m not saying Lehrer was justified in fabricating quotes, and I’m certainly not saying it was okay to lie about it later. What I’m saying is, what’s so bad about writing fiction, if it’s the best way to get your point across? I have a lot of respect for journalism, and for journalists. I cannot do what they do. But everyone with something to say isn’t necessarily set up to be a journalist. If you can express yourself, your opinions, and your ideas better fictionally, why is that not acceptable? Why not call a novel a novel?