Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Non-fiction Taboo---Making Stuff Up

Say it ain't so, Jonah! Another big-time non-fiction writer has scandalized himself by veering into the world of fiction. It seems Jonah Lehrer's Imagine: How Creativity Works is a bit too "imaginative." He's admitted to fabricating quotes attributed to Bob Dylan which make up an extensive introduction to his book and has now resigned from his post at The New Yorker.

I read the book a few months ago and thought it was not great but all right. (You can read my review on Goodreads.)  I remember the section on Dylan being somewhat inspiring in terms of rejuvenation and stick-to-it-iveness but nothing really memorable stands out. Was it worth it? Does the Pope shit in the woods? No, of course, not.

Sometimes it pays off. Greg Mortenson of Three Cups of Tea fame has built an empire that wasn't based entirely on lies, but the stories he invented and passed off as fact sure didn't hurt matters. He's tainted now, sure, but his bank account is quite large. And James Frey rode his fictive memoir A Million Little Pieces to the throne of Oprah before being tossed overboard and into the sea of ignominy.

Non-fiction sells better than fiction but fiction writers give themselves a world of possibilities. When I write a story I can play around with words until a character says exactly what I want him to say. Even when writing PR and communications materials I can put words in the mouth of an executive that would never be spoken otherwise. "Just make me sound smart, ha ha," is what they will typically say. And so I do, and then they sign off, and all is good in the world.

Hmm, maybe Jonah Lehrer could have gotten Dylan's okay before his book went to publication. Now, however, Lehrer must feel the breeze from Dylan's "Idiot Wind," and be thinking: Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press.

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