Jonah Lehrer, Bob Dylan, Hubris, Penises and Me
So depending on whom you ask, the abrupt downfall of New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer—who was recently revealed first to have self-plagiarized (which sounds way more exciting and somehow dirtier than it really is) and then to have fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan in his best-selling book Imagine: How Creativity Works—can be laid at the feet of hubris, sexism, carelessness, laziness, pressure to produce, or the fact that he just isn’t a very good writer. Me, I dunno exactly what he’s guilty of. But he sure makes me glad I’m old. Where Lehrer went wrong, it seems to me, was in becoming a boy genius. There is nothing in the world so annoying and aggravating as a boy genius—particularly to other boys who think they’re geniuses (genii?), too.
I’m not going to go so far as Roxane Gay at Salon and declare that Lehrer’s rise in the first place was due to an American journalistic tradition of coddling male prodigies—for which she summons as proof the likes of Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass. But I do think that guys can get awfully competitive, and in a profession where one’s reputation translates roughly into penis length, men do get obsessive about taking each other down a peg—or a whole ladder, in Lehrer’s case. Michael C. Moynihan’s explication on Tablet of his baring of Lehrer’s lies spools out how relentlessly and, well, kind of creepily he kept after his fellow writer, demanding to know just where he’d found those disputed quotes—which Moynihan red-flagged in the first place because he is, he admits, a “Dylan obsessive.” So, he’s obsessed with Dylan and with Jonah Lehrer? Doesn’t he have any vacuuming to do?
“It makes me feel … sick to my stomach,” a smart young female journalist confided as we discussed Lehrer’s fall from grace. “I mean, I think of all the times I couldn’t read my notes for a story and filled in the blanks … ”
“I know!” I hissed back. “Or all the blog posts we’re supposed to write—how do I know I’ve never said the same thing twice? Or said something somebody else did? They say a room full of monkeys and typewriters will come up with Shakespeare eventually. Maybe I came up with Malcolm Gladwell.”
“Not even infinite monkeys would come up with Malcolm Gladwell,” said my friend.
The emotion the two of us shared upon hearing that Lehrer had admitted his sins and resigned from the New Yorker wasn’t glee or even shabby schadenfreude. It was more like guilt, or abject shame. We didn’t think of ourselves as kin to journalistic caped crusader Moynihan; instead we groveled like poor Lehrer, red-faced with mortification. We might have been jealous of Lehrer’s success, but we weren’t foolish enough to think the destruction of his career would improve our lot. In that sense, Roxane Gay has a point. With or without Lehrer, I know the dubious odds of my name ever appearing at the top of a masthead.
I never had a shot at being a boy genius, and I’ve long since lost any chance of becoming a young genius. My friend’s still on the cusp for the latter, but I doubt she’ll make the cutoff, either. She’s too busy writing about the downtrodden, the losers, the embattled, the quirky. Lehrer is more interesting to her now than when he was on top of the world. It’s something she and I talk about a lot—the way so many male journalists we know seem to focus on power, on figuring out what makes John Dougherty or Vince Fumo or David L. Cohen or Steve Burke tick. Power doesn’t much intrigue us, which may explain why we haven’t got more clout. It could also explain the dearth of female nominees at our industry’s annual National Magazine Awards. This year, the 25 nominations in the most prestigious categories all went to men. Anomalous past NMA winner Vanessa Grigoriadis sums the female problem up succinctly: “[W]hat you’re interested in is not what your editors are necessarily interested in.” Guy journalists seem to approach the world with the bitterly enraged aggression of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”—How does it feel, Jonah, to be without a home/Like a complete unknown? Gotcha, sucker! No wonder Moynihan’s obsessed.
Mind you, I’m not saying he and all the other journalists who devoted their time and energy to ending Lehrer’s career were wrong to do it. I’m just saying thank God I’m not a boy genius, so they’re not coming after me.