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I’ve already, on this blog, compared Jonah Lehrer to Johan Hari – both of them madly successful, incredibly prolific writers whose prolificness indeed turns out to be incredible. Hari looked like the greater sinner of the two – he plagiarized and made up quotes, while Lehrer, last we heard, was guilty merely of self-plagiarism.

However, a tenacious writer and Bob Dylan freak has

[put] to rest the notion that Lehrer’s most egregious literary sins were a matter of the inaptly titled “self-plagiarism.” That’s the offense that the New Yorker uncovered in June, after Jim Romenesko reported that one of Lehrer’s posts for the New Yorker repeated material that he’d written in the Wall Street Journal.

The Dylan guy pestered Lehrer about quotations from Dylan that appear in one of his books. Turns out that, like Hari, Lehrer makes stuff up. His editor, in firing him, says it’s a “terrifically sad situation,” but UD wonders why he says that. Hari’s writing a book, and I’m sure it’ll do well (just as I have high hopes for von Googleberg’s book — and he got a job at a fancy Washington think tank too!); these guys always pop back up with something. Lehrer will write a book about his downfall and then he’ll write a book about his recovery (thanks to Buddhism, a woman, the sheer humbling indignity of it all…) and all will be well. As Gore Vidal put it in one of his greatest essays, “For those who cannot sing songs, a patter of penitence will do.” I’m assuming none of these guys can sing songs.

It’s not sad. These stories are kind of funny – in the sense of farce. Even James Frey has done fine.

It’s alright, ma. He’s only bleeding a little.

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5 Responses to “Lehrer in the Lair”

  1. Mr Punch Says:

    The whole “self-plagiarism” concept is dubious — there’s nothing wrong with multiple use of (substantive) material, and the question of how different its expression should be in each use is legitimate, but it’s about something other than plagiarism.

    There ought to be a distinction between wishing someone had been more original and charging him/her with plagiarism. The case of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dissertation comes to mind — he was branded a plagiarist for over-reliance on (a) the work of one of his professors , (b) a recent dissertation in his department, and (c) the subjects of his dissertation. None of this represented an attempt to pass off as his own the work or thought of others, which I take to be the meaning of “plagiarism.” His committee knew what they were signing off on; the safest conclusion is that the standards in the theology program at BU in the early ’50s were not high.

  2. Michael Tinkler Says:

    I think the self-plagiarism thing mainly matters to magazines because they’re paying for something they may think is exclusive only to find out it has been barely rewritten. I think of the similar problem of the folks who deliver the same conference paper over and over and over again.

  3. University Diaries » Strange. I quoted him just hours ago… Says:

    […] here, in this Jonah Lehrer post, because I’ve always loved Gore Vidal’s phrase “a […]

  4. Alan Allport Says:

    I agree that ‘self-plagiarism’ doesn’t really capture what’s wrong with submitting two pieces of identical work, whether as a journalist or as a student. It’s better to think of it as a form of double-dipping – of demanding compensation (pay/a letter grade) for something that’s already been compensated.

  5. Van L. Hayhow Says:

    I am in a part-time program at Harvard. According to a couple of my professors, a student in the program in writing a paper extensively used material from a paper the student wrote while he was at another institution without citing his own paper. He was expelled from the program for plagiarism.

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