Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The constraint of the truth: Jonah Lehrer's over-imaginative book on creativity

When Jonah Lehrer's third book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, imploded and took its author down with it, it had already sold hundreds of thousands of copies during the first half of 2012. The book has some merits despite Lehrer's admitted partial fabrication of its content, but overall it remains under the pall of scandal.

Originally published to Helium Network on Aug. 20, 2012.


The difficulty was that Michael C. Moynihan, another journalist with a keen interest in Bob Dylan, had attempted to track down the source of Lehrer's material about the singer-songwriter. Eventually, despite Lehrer's claims to have found the quotes in unreleased footage, Moynihan had proved that the alleged Bob Dylan interview didn't exist."I'm deeply sorry for lying," Lehrer told Moynihan. The story was revealed in Moynihan's article in "Tablet Magazine" on July 30, 2012.

The Bob Dylan quotes aren't the only ones that are suspect. Lehrer had also interviewed Milton Glaser, designer of the popular "I 'heart' NY" logo. When Glaser read "Imagine," he had a funny feeling that something wasn't right. Glaser told Ryan Kohls that "half of it I know I didn’t say. Substantially nothing in there was false...[but] the vernacular wasn’t right."

Sam Harris, author of a recent essay on "Lying," wrote that he is "slow to judge" fellow writers for errors for which they may be "guilty of nothing more than poor research practices." For Harris, the plagiarism was less important than the lie. Harris took the moment to caution that many "smart, well-intentioned, and otherwise ethical not seem to realize how quickly and needlessly lying can destroy their relationships and reputations."

Whether the writer was well-intentioned or not, when a book on creativity titled "Imagine" turns out to be, at least in part, a work of fiction, it tempts readers to lampoon it in obvious ways. Some of Lehrer's lines provide direct fodder, such as this concluding bit from his "Coda":

"There is no more important meta-idea than knowing where every idea comes from. If we want to increase our creative powers, then we have to put this research to work in our own lives. We can imagine more than we know."
Well, now the public has learned where certain ideas came from, and it indeed had significant results for Lehrer. As Lehrer said of Crockett Johnson's famous children's book "Harold and the Purple Crayon," in which a boy steps into a magic world where the laws of gravity still apply, "the book is a delicate blend of the familiar and the fictional. Harold has a surreal tool, but it operates amid the usual constraints."


Roxane Gay suggested in "Salon" that Lehrer's rocketship to fame and the cavalier way in which he self-destructed indicate his privilege as a white man in the magazine profession. "Only entitlement can explain why someone would choose to lie in plain sight," she wrote.

In July 2012, Lehrer resigned from his position as a staff writer at the "New Yorker." A month earlier, the "New Yorker" had discovered that he had blogged content for them that he had previously published in the "Wall Street Journal," and the second scandal about the book was too much. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher of the troubled book, requested that retailers return unsold copies. Lehrer has not tweeted since the scandal, except to post an apology speech he delivered in February 2013 upon invitation from the Knight Foundation. As of Jan. 2014, Lehrer's own website still lists the book as available for sale; his bio, however, no longer appears on the site, having been deleted some months after the scandal.

Evaluating the book

When it is discovered that part of a work presented as non-fiction has been embellished, it disincentivizes others from thoroughly reviewing and analyzing the work. Who can know how much of the work is invented? When Lehrer reports that the Nike athletic slogan "Just do it" was derived from the last words of a murderer about to be executed, can he be believed (without resorting to the prior reporting of the "New York Times")? When it comes to weightier topics such as neuroscience, Lehrer describes the brain with the accessible style that is his trademark, but, unfortunately, no one who wants their own work to be taken seriously would be well-advised to cite "Imagine" as a source about how the brain works. So, researchers may as well spend their time seeking other sources.

Despite these setbacks, the casual reader can at least examine the general idea of the book. One of the book's strengths is its examination of some of the contradictory facets of creativity. For example, on the one hand Lehrer says that people are at their most creative when they are relaxed: half-asleep, showering, watching comedy, having down-time at work. On the other hand people who struggle against depression and other physical and emotional adversities tend to be more creative. Relaxation and effort thus both play a role.

For another example, creative genius often requires the investment of a great deal of perspiration, yet insight cannot be forced by deliberately going epiphany-chasing. People who get high scores on "creativity tests" are often daydreamers who have the special capacity to realize when their daydreams are generating insights and to seize the moment to follow up with a labor-intensive effort. They do not crank out the insights on command.

"Outsider thinking" is another hallmark of creativity. This means approaching a subject from a fresh point of view. Young people often exhibit this kind of thinking, simply because they have not yet had time to habituate themselves to particular opinions or methods. Older people can experiment with being "outsiders" when they attempt to solve problems that blend their usual competencies and skill sets with areas less familiar to them, or when they work with new groups of people.

Lehrer finds that a combination of solitary work, teamwork with longstanding colleagues and collaboration with new colleagues is the best recipe for creative success. The members of the working group should be ready to accept criticism from each other, because this is the way in which they will get honest feedback about what seems clever and inspired and what does not. Indeed, it sounds like a useful safety measure.

Image of Salle des Fetes, Paris, France from the Goodyear Archival Collection, Brooklyn Museum Archives, and posted to Wikimedia Commons. © Photo taken at the Paris Exposition of 1900. No known copyright restrictions.

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