I read a lot. It’s my first and favorite hobby, but I love sharing what I read almost as much as I enjoy the act of getting lost in a book or an article. When I was a kid I used to come up and try to share the new knowledge I would get from my readings. Inevitably my mother would be the ultimate killjoy and tell me “you can’t believe everything you read.” This infuriated me. Of course I could believe everything I read! Writers have a higher calling! They are honor bound to write only awesome nuggets of truthfulness and perfection. Even bad writers have to tell the truth! To show her I decided that I was going to be a writer and a journalist. Then she’d have to believe everything she read because I would be like every other writer in the world and held to that higher standard.
I’m going to say it now and just this once: Mom, you were right. I can’t trust everything I read. Why? Because writers lie. Last week Jonah Lehrer, staff writer for the New Yorker and all around wunderkind (dude’s a Rhode’s scholar, a neuroscientist, a successful writer and he’s only thirty-freaking-one) resigned. Why? Because someone busted him for making crap up in his latest book, specifically fake Bob Dylan quotes, but that’s not even the worst part. Lehrer has lied before by plagiarizing his own work. Suddenly it doesn’t matter that he’s a brilliant guy. Now he’s just the liar and he’s not alone. Literary lies span all branches of writing. Remember Jayson Blair? Maybe not, but in 2003 he resigned from the New York Times for plagiarizing other people, making up quotes, and flat-out lying about things he was reporting on. He also mislead people about graduating from college in order to get his job with the Times. Stephen Glass went to even more drastic measures, going so far as to create fake organizations with business cards and websites for his fabricated work for NPR. Kaavya Viswanathan ripped off another author’s novels. And James Frey is still somewhat notorious for being outed by Oprah for outright lying in his “memoir”. Liars, liars, pants on fires all of them.
Why lie? Jayson Blair empathizes with Lehrer in an article for The Daily Beast, suggesting that it is success that forces the lies. His theory is that as one grows more successful the pressure to continue with success becomes too great. That I absolutely do not doubt. I think we’ve all been there at some point in our lives. We do something well and then are expected to do even better the next time. Does that mean that we are all pressed to lie, though? Lying is a form of cheating. Using success as an excuse to cheat is just that, an excuse, but it does something more. It sends the message that one can’t succeed without dishonesty. It’s a message that cheapens the work of others. It damages the playing field for everyone.
It isn’t all about the playing field for other writers, though. It speaks to something larger in our culture that makes it an acceptable option to lie in the first place. Blair’s assertion that the pressure of success is responsible for turning someone into a liar isn’t just an assertion that success is the issue. What Blair is really saying is that we shouldn’t hold a person responsible, but the environment. Isn’t that sort of the same as “don’t hate the player, hate the game?” I call shenanigans. The players (in this case the writers) make up the game and if the game is jacked up we absolutely need to look at the players. Situations like the one Lehrer finds himself in aren’t ones chock full of extenuating circumstances. Lehrer is an educated individual and given his specialty in neuroscience you’d think he probably had to have an ethics class at some time or another. More than that, you’d expect that he’d be at least introduced to the ideas of stress and pressure. Achievement is not a free pass. I don’t doubt that there is a higher standard for achievers, but using that as an excuse to do something wrong is just an excuse. It sends a bad message. It says it’s okay to be dishonest, to cheat, and to in effect steal from people by lying in your work.
It lowers the standard for all of us.
James Frey is still successful, albeit with a bit of controversy as he works on his latest literary and media endeavors. Kaavya Viswanathan is becoming a lawyer. Stephen Glass is still fighting to become one. Jayson Blair became a life coach. No one yet knows what Lehrer will do but I can tell you what I will do with them: use them as an example of who I don’t want to be when I grow up. I have better standards and I expect more than that. I hope you do, too.