The Facts Are Good Enough
A New Yorker staff writer and best-selling author recently joined the rogues’ gallery of prose practitioners who decided that because the facts aren’t good enough, embellishment is necessary — and who, by doing, so, erode the already endangered social status of writing.
Jonah Lehrer — already in hot water at the New Yorker for incorporating some of his previously published material into articles for the magazine — admitted last week that he fabricated quotations in his latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.
Print and e-book copies of the book, which has already sold 200,000 copies and was a New York Times best-seller and top-ranked on Amazon.com, have been pulled from distribution. Lehrer, who ironically once wrote in the New Yorker about the science of failure (and whose name is German for “teacher”), resigned from the magazine. Like most individuals who have been part of an early twenty-first-century wave of high-profile literary fabricators and plagiarists, his promising career as a writer is over.
I’ll leave the psychology of motivation for such invention to others to analyze. What I found pertinent to this website is the part of an article about Lehrer’s transgression that made reference to criticisms that book publishers do not double-check facts.
One of the fundamentals of journalism is veracity in reporting, and most periodical publications consider assiduous research and fact-checking integral to professional reporting and writing. Some professionally produced publications — including mostly magazines but some newspapers as well — employ staff or freelancers responsible for conducting research and contacting sources to verify quotations and quantifiable information, even though it is the reporter or writers responsibility to submit accurate content.
But lapses occur constantly: I’ve edited for several newspapers and magazines that, like many other periodicals, often have a space to acknowledge and correct significant factual errors. I’ve also read newspaper or magazine articles about incidents or events with which I was intimately familiar, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a given that even the most well-written article will get something wrong.
Sometimes these mistakes are innocuous. At other times, they are devastatingly damaging.
Book publishers are prone to allowing factual errors, as well as allowing inventions and plagiarism, to plague their industry, because, as one industry executive remarked, the onus is on the writer to provide copy free of such mistakes. Most writers strive to conduct impeccable research and transfer this dedication to the printed page, but even highly professional and very knowledgeable authors err at times.
Occasionally, because of that truth, a publishing company will request that an editor thoroughly fact-check a book or at least spot-check for errors; I’ve edited dozens of books and have performed comprehensive vetting for a couple of book projects and spot-checked several others. I’ve found errors that only the most exacting expert would notice (or, perhaps, care about) and others that might have prompted a recall of the published book if they had not been discovered. Such saves happen all the time. But many other mistakes slip through — and fabrication and theft of content (both more difficult to detect) are pervasive.
It’s one thing to slightly alter a quotation for grammatical effect or because the original statement was elliptical and requires more context, or to rebuild one from incomplete notes. It’s one thing to restate another person’s opinions or conclusions (which might themselves not be original). These are acceptable, standard practices.
It’s another thing to slide down the slippery slope of thinking that it’s too much trouble to contact sources to coax them into saying what you want them to say — just reconstruct a conversation from random comments and punctuate it with a bon mot in your source’s voice that she would have said if she had thought of it. It’s another thing to agonize that your article or essay or book is lacking, and to rationalize that the only way to remedy the shortcoming is to invent or copy.
Such well-intentioned deviousness seems harmless, but it’s akin, in a way, to bank robbery: The rewards are so gratifying, but the risk to oneself (and others) is hazardous, and the perpetrators almost always, eventually, get caught.
The moral of the story: Whether it comes to contemplating bank robbery or writing, opt for earning your money the hard way — honestly.