Print Friendly

One of the non-fiction writers of my generation who I most admire / envy / emulate – Jonah Lehrer – has just performed one of the steepest plummets from grace I’ve ever seen. At 31, Lehrer had already authored three best sellers: Why Proust Was a Neuroscientist, How We Decide, and Imagine, which came out in May 2012, the same month as my book. I watched in awe as Jonah appeared on all the major book promotion stops, from Start the Week to the RSA. Hell, he was even on the Colbert Report. He also had a column in the New Yorker, and did 30-40 speaking gigs a year, for which he was paid, I don’t know, maybe $15,000 a talk?

He basically had my dream job. And he also wrote really well, so I didn’t grudge him his success (well…not much). I read and thoroughly enjoyed Why Proust Was A Neuroscientist, and it was a major influence on my own book, in its clean and strong structure,  its weaving together of scientific evidence and personal stories, its vision that the sciences and the humanities could and should be brought together.

So it’s saddening, and also frightening, to see his fall. It started with reports that he had self-plagiarised himself, using lines from one article again in another article, and also using stuff from his blog in his books. My feelings about that were, OK, I can understand that its wrong to sell the same stuff twice. But so what if he used stuff from his blog in his book – my God, 60% of my book is from my blog. That’s like reprimanding a painter for copying stuff from his sketchbook. The whole point of a blog, for me, is that you sketch stuff out and learn how to say what you want well. And when you’ve said something exactly as you want to say it, it’s not surprising if you then re-use that phrasing in a book.

The new revelations, however, suggest he made up and doctored quite a lot of quotes by Bob Dylan, in his new book Imagine. It’s a bizarre thing to have done, because everyone knows that Dylan fans are complete obsessives and he was going to get busted. Particularly as the Dylan story was the one he told over and over in talks and magazine excerpts. Now, alas, he has resigned from the New Yorker, and his publishers have stopped shipping Imagine, which is a shock as Lehrer must have been paid a socking great advance by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US and Canongate in the UK (I’m guessing over half a million dollars). In fact, they’re even offering refunds to the 200,000 people who have already bought the book, which seems like overkill to me.

It reminds me of the line of the Greeks (Solon? Aeschylus? Aristotle?) – call no man happy until they’re dead. By which they meant not that happiness is a cold grave, but that there are so many ups and downs in life that you never know how things will turn out. Sometimes great success like Lehrer’s is not all it’s cracked up to be. Would he really have made up quotes, if he wasn’t under extreme pressure to produce another best-seller to support all the hype?

There was a bubble in non-fiction popular psychology…perhaps a bubble in psychology in general, that built up over the last fifteen years, thanks in particular to the incredible success of Malcolm Gladwell, Lehrer’s mentor. His popularity helped stoke a massive public demand for for popular science books that neatly encapsulated some funky idea (Blink, Flourish, Bounce, Moonwalking with Einstein, you get the picture). But the market success obviously led to pressure to condense everything down into tidy TED-friendly ten minute info-bites, which in turn created pressure to simplify and (on some occasions) falsify. And it even turns out that some of the psychology studies of the last ten years were also falsified. So the pop-psych bubble seems to be bursting, somewhat.

Well, I’m sorry for Lehrer, it must be really vertiginous to rise so quickly then fall so quickly. He really is a genuinely talented writer, you can’t fake that. And I don’t know about Imagine or How We Decide, but Why Proust Was A Neuroscientist was simply a great book, which will last. Unfortunately its success, and the timing of it, meant there was too much hype put on him, too young. I wouldn’t wish that sort of success on anyone.