July 8, 2016
In his new book, Jonah Lehrer may only have learned how to plagiarize better
by Kait Howard
It must only be because his disgrace was so colossal that Jonah Lehrer was given another chance. When Lehrer resigned from the New Yorker and had two of his books pulled from shelves after revelations that he had plagiarized and fabricated large parts of his work, it seemed his career had been destroyed forever…until Simon & Schuster offered him a lifeline in the form of a deal for a book on the most earnest of subjects, love.
What a joke, then, that A Book About Love, forthcoming next week, has already been panned by New York Times critic Jennifer Senior, who not only describes it as unoriginal pop-sci schlock, but argues that Lehrer is still stealing other writers’ ideas.
In what might be the most damning NYT review we’ve ever seen, Senior describes A Book About Love as an “insolently unoriginal… series of duckpin arguments, just waiting to be knocked down.” Lehrer’s observations about love are empty (and sometimes false); nor does the book contain any reflection on how love might have been “a salvation” during his professional crisis, as we’re clearly being asked to assume (though it does include an apologetic author’s note, the Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada points out).
But while the book was, according to that same author’s note, independently fact-checked, and “relevant text [was] sent to subjects for their approval,” Senior identifies a couple of places where Lehrer expresses ideas that closely resemble ideas already expressed by other writers. “I fear Mr. Lehrer has simply become more artful about his appropriations,” she writes. They are symptoms of a “larger sort of intellectual dishonesty.” There’s no help for Lehrer, she concludes: “I fear it may be time, at long last, for him to find something else to do.”
This is a review that should destroy a book, but Lehrer has a knack for surviving destruction. The Wall Street Journal’s Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg reported that, at least prior to the NYT review, a number of booksellers anticipated strong sales, “with one suggesting that Mr. Lehrer’s past mistakes may heighten interest in the work.” Publicity is publicity, and sometimes even negative publicity is good. Still, if others besides Senior identify instances of outright appropriation, it’s hard to see Lehrer ever writing again. Unless, like the fake Howard Hughes biographer Clifford Irving, he decides to write his own The Hoax.
If you’re still baffled by Lehrer’s endlessly brazen antics, this completely real, not at all plagiarized interview may shed some light.
Kait Howard is a publicist at Melville House.