Does a liar deserve a second chance?

By Ann Godridge

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Jonah Lehrer

On the whole, I do believe in giving people second chances. We all make mistakes, after all, and when that happens we all want a second chance. So I am a little disappointed in my reaction to the news today, reported in the New York Times, that Jonah Lehrer has another publishing deal.

Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer photo credit: Vivanista1

I used to like Lehrer. I read his blog posts at Wired, and elsewhere. I bought his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. I even gave it a positive review for Birds – although I can’t find the link at the moment.

So then it was discovered that he’d been making up quotes . When Bob Dylan didn’t say exactly the right thing to support Lehrer’s theory of creativity, Lehrer just made something up. He thought he could express the essence of Bob Dylan’s thinking better than Bob Dylan could. Well, maybe he could have – Lehrer is a good and clear writer. But he shouldn’t have attributed those words to Dylan.
That misquote was spotted by journalist Michael Moynihan, and the internet went wild, and revealed that he had also plagiarised himself. That doesn’t sound too serious, and indeed many writers do use their own work in different places. It’s perfectly legitimate to do so – so long as you are open about it. I would even have been tempted to buy the book if he had outright said that it was a collection of his blog posts. I’ve bought many a book of essays or collections of journalism just because the writer is worth reading. So even though he wasn’t stealing other people’s words, he was cheating his readers.

His new book, to be published by Simon and Shuster, is a memoir/self help/pop science book about the situation.  Apparently called A Book about Love, it is full of quotes from many writers, Austen, Shakespeare, Sartre.  I expect those quotes are squeaky clean.

A snippet from the New York Times makes me wince..

“I feel the shiver of a voice mail message, I listen to the message. I have been found out. I puke into a recycling bin. And then I start to cry. Why was I crying? I had been caught in a lie, a desperate attempt to conceal my mistakes. And now it was clear that, within 24 hours, my fall would begin. I would lose my job and my reputation. My private shame would become public. …. I open the front door and take off my dirty shirt and weep on the shoulder of my wife. My wife is caring but confused: How the hell could I be so reckless? I have no good answers.”

I suppose I am so disappointed because I liked his writing so much. He wrote so well, he had real talent, and he was successful.

Will I be tempted to read his new book when it comes out? I don’t know. At the moment I feel as if he is making hay out of his mistake. If he’d written a book around something entirely new and just added a preface with an apology, it might have been different. As it is, I read the coda (again quoting from the NYT) and it does not make me optimistic.

“This book is about what has lasted in my own life. I wanted to write it down so that I would not forget; so that, one day, I might tell my young daughter what I’ve learned. If I’ve learned anything from writing these words, it’s that love matters. It matters more than I ever thought possible.”

Love matters! That is what he has learned? Did he not know? As is probably clear, I really cannot bear lies. And this sounds more like a book sized excuse, rather than an apology.

Am I being too harsh?  I’d love to know what you think.


Ann Godridge

I finally finished my first novel, a psychological thriller - A Savage Art. At least for now.I've also made a good start on a second and very different crime novel. I'm an enthusiastic amateur textile artist and the director of a software company.

Latest posts by Ann Godridge (see all)

I agree Ann, it does sound like a book sized excuse. A sweeping under the mat his deception and only then discovering what matters? I’m not quite convinced this is a great story of redemption.

As to a collection of blog posts being published as a book, that’s not uncommon. However if it’s not marked as a collection of such, it should be greatly expanded upon. Blog posts form the basis of many of my books, but the books are always better edited than the posts and contain at the very least 50% more content that is unique to the book so the reader of the book gets more.

I do think there are some publishers that are no longer in touch with their readers and how they feel and with the internet it’s easier to express that displeasure whereas once upon a time the readers had no voice.

    Ann Godridge

    Well, the book isn’t published yet, these are just leaks from the proposal, I gather.

    Maybe they are working on the old idea there’s no such thing as bad publicity. We will see…in time.

He’s turd, a lowlife. How much of his earlier work was plagiarized from other people’s work without attribution?

The book may be an attempt at redemption, but really, who cares?

    Ann Godridge

    I went to google to search and read up on the back history, and it spewed out a LOT of results…

    An interesting overview here – I must confess I had missed a lot of the story, and this wouldn’t be a second chance. Likely one would run out of fingers counting them up…

      Exactly… This isn’t a one-off aberration, but years of plagiarising other people’s ideas and posts without attribution.

      There is a special place in Hell for journalists like that.

It feels like the publishers are riding on the fact that he has publicity…and may generate book sales, albeit short lived but enough to make what sounds very half arsed, viable!

    Ann Godridge

    His previous publishers clearly weren’t so keen – of course it doesn’t do their reputation much good. One of the jobs of a publisher is surely to act as a kind of gatekeeper, and they didn’t manage that so well…

Well I am not about to put a agree or disagree up…. yet! It sounds like he was a bit inappropriate… however I would really want to know more before i made my opinion. If you have done your research and it looks like you have, then you aren’t being harsh.. If he is doing things that aren’t ethical, it should be pointed out and perhaps consequences put forth.. If he learns from it and does what he has to to apologize and mean it, then perhaps, it can be pardoned! Which brings to my mind, we have to fail to succeed… however is what he has done failing or just cheating!!? And with that too a lesson is waiting to be learned…

    Ann Godridge

    As he apologised, both for the initial mistake and also for lying to cover it up – there’s not much doubt about that part of the story.

    As for the future – we will see.

Maya Middlemiss

Some people are amazingly successful at turning everything in their lives into a profit somehow. Doesnt make them amazingly successful at being a nice human being…

I was on the fence with Lehrer until I read about how the story about Pixar was completely fabricated. The way he described the building and layout doesn’t even exist. At that point I was simply done. This isn’t about “fixing” someone’s quoted words. It goes far deeper than that. He should probably stick with writing fiction… I suspect his new book will be a complete embellishment. Interestingly, before he got “canned” he was writing a book about…. wait for it…. Love.

Hi Ann

Just read this great post of yours:

And wondered… Despite all the noble feelings expressed here – which I identify with – is this author nevertheless laughing all the way to the bank? :-(

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