Thursday, August 2, 2012

Why Lie?

I'm currently reading two non-fiction books:

You are perhaps familiar with how the author of IMAGINE, Jonah Lehrer has recently executed a literary belly flop? Yeah, he's admitted to making up some of the quotes in his book attributed to Bob Dylan. He's resigned from The New Yorker. He's probably drinking scotch and eating too many Pringles (yes, I'm projecting.)

I'm trying to use the second book, THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL, by Jonathan Gottschall, to understand Jonah Lehrer's actions. Frankly I don't really understand how someone who has so much, is so smart and successful can make such a stupid mistake. Yes, I know about deadlines and pressure and confusion and "I must have done it without realizing it." And I do understand the temptation to lie. Of course I do. I lie all the time.

Because I am (mostly) human I have an instinct to tell stories, to myself and to others. Even in my own life, in my own memories, I edit, clean up, modify, make myself look better, other's worse. Jonathan Gottschall talks about the history of mankind's storytelling impulse and looks at it evolutionarily - is there a reason we tell stories? Or is it a remnant of prehistory, a left over like a tail or an appendix that we don't need any longer?  Whatever the reason, the impulse to make things up is strong in us.

But telling a story is not the same as lying, right? It's close, it can be a blurry line, but there's a moment when you know, deep in your heart, that the thing you are saying happened, didn't.

I imagine (after all, that's what Jonah Lehrer has invited us to do) it went down something like this:

I should have a quote about creativity here.
That story about Bob Dylan's early touring would be really good in the beginning.
Hmm. It's not saying exactly what I want it to say. It's close, but not exactly.
You know what he should have said, old Bob? He should have said this. That would be perfect if he had said that. It would make my point perfectly.
I think he said that. I'm pretty sure I read him say that somewhere. 
I bet, even if he didn't say that, he meant to say that. 
He said that.

So it's not that I'm without sympathy to the writer who lies. It's our bread and butter, lying and we constantly take real things and apply 'what if?' to them. But since we do sail so close to the windy truth, we need to be more careful. We need to keep the truth as North on the compass. And for anyone thinking, I write fiction, I can make up anything I want! Truth is my plaything! I have one word for you: plagiarism.

So truth is elastic, subjective, open to interpretation as any PR person knows. But it's real. It exists. And once your foot crosses over it, you know. I believe you know.

If I'm ever in the position where I come up against a wall of truth and I want to jump over it. I hope I don't. I hope I realize the difference between artistic license and out right lying. But I may not. I'm only human after all.


  1. The author of Imagine now has a career in tatters. I'm sure he'll bounce back though and make millions conning some writers to write books for him ala James Frey.

    1. And that makes me so sad. I'm not cynical enough yet to think that James Frey's 'factory' writing is just business as usual. I hate everything about it - it' so jaded and worse, it doesn't give readers enough credit. Hoping Lehrer doesn't go down that evil path!


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