Former journalist who plagiarised tries comeback with new work

Jonah Lehrer has come up with A Book About Love, a work of non-fiction.
Jonah Lehrer has come up with A Book About Love, a work of non-fiction.PHOTO: JONAH LEHRER/TWITTER

NEW YORK • Four years ago, after his journalism career imploded, Jonah Lehrer found himself waking up in the middle of the night in a panic. Unable to fall back to sleep, he would go to his computer and write.

"At the time, it felt like a very sad discovery, that I still so wanted to write," he said during a recent interview at his publisher's office in Midtown Manhattan. "After everything happened, I thought I was done as a writer."

Many, including Lehrer, assumed that his career was over after it came to light that he had plagiarised material in his work for Wired, recycled his own writing in blog posts he wrote for The New Yorker and fabricated quotations from Bob Dylan in his book about creativity.

He lost his job as a staff writer at The New Yorker. His publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt recalled two of his books, Imagine and How We Decide. His banishment from the profession seemed permanent.

Now, as he tries a comeback with A Book About Love, a new work of non-fiction that draws on social and psychological studies and examples from literature to explore the nature of love, he is facing fresh criticism, as well as support. Some are sceptical that he has changed.

"He didn't seem to get the ethos of journalism," said journalism professor Charles Seife of New York University who conducted an investigation into Lehrer's work for Wired in 2012. "The deficits were so profound in the first round that I can't imagine him starting afresh."

But others - even some of his most ferocious former adversaries - say that Lehrer deserves a second chance.

"I don't believe in destroying a person's life forever and if Jonah wants to redeem himself, Godspeed to him," said Michael Moynihan, a correspondent for Vice, who first discovered and wrote about Lehrer's fabricated quotations from Dylan. "I wouldn't deny the guy a chance to right a wrong like that."

In an author's note at the beginning of the book, Lehrer refers to his "mistakes and failures" and writes, "I am ashamed of what I've done".

He describes the steps he took to ferret out errors and exaggerations in his new work. He hired an independent fact checker and sent sections of the book to his sources in advance of publication, allowing them to vet their quotations and his descriptions of their research. The book has 27 pages of footnotes.

Those steps might not satisfy Lehrer's critics. If early reviews are any indication, his new book, which came out yesterday from Simon & Schuster, will be highly polarising.

Some have praised the work and defended his decision to write it.

"He's had his public humiliation, and from the evidence of this book, a chastened Jonah Lehrer has a lot to offer the world," The New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks wrote in a forthcoming review for The Times Book Review. "The book is interesting on nearly every page."

But others have argued that Lehrer, while more diligent about citing the work of others, still takes inexcusable intellectual shortcuts. In a recent review in The New York Times, Jennifer Senior slammed A Book About Love as "insolently unoriginal" and claimed that Lehrer had appropriated the arguments and insights of others, concluding that "it may be time, at long last, for him to find something else to do".

Lehrer, 35, defended his approach. "It's an act of synthesis, trying to bring together various studies and translate it into a form that helps people understand this vast body of research," he said.

A Book About Love grew out of the wreckage he had made of his life, he said.

"I regret the kind of writer I'd become," said the California native who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two young children. "I was invested in the superficial markers of success and I wasn't focused on making the work as good and true as possible." After he was exposed, he often woke up at 2 in the morning, consumed by regret and guilt, and would go to his laptop to write about what he had done.

"That writing became self-help in the literal sense, writing to understand myself," he said. Though the inspiration for the book was personal, he does not reflect much on his life or relationships.

He has not recovered everyone's trust. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, said he had no intention of publishing Lehrer's work again. Representatives for Wired and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt declined to comment on whether they would consider publishing new work by Lehrer.


•A Book About Love is available for order from Books Kinokuniya online at $41.53

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2016, with the headline 'Former journalist who plagiarised tries comeback with new work'. Print Edition | Subscribe