Open season for literary witch hunts

— Jay Caspian Kang, writer at Grantland.com, NYT Magazine, and author of The Dead Do Not Improve.

First Jonah Lehrer. The former Wired.com and recently resigned New Yorker staff writer appeared to have recycled some old material and called them new. He also admitted to fabricating some Dylan quotes in his recent book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Then there’s Fareed Zakaria, who was accused of plagiarizing several paragraphs about gun control–from, ironically, the New Yorker–was briefly suspended from CNN and Time and then was abruptly reinstated.

Both these writers are, or were in Lehrer’s case, superstars in literary circles. But what Henry Kissinger said about academics seems equally true in journalism, that the “politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”

Whether deserved or not, just observe the venom with which detractors attack any writer with a modicum of success. It is almost always disproportionate to the offense. James Frey (A Million Little Pieces), Danny Santiago (Famous All Over Town) and Margaret Seltzer (Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival) have all bee exposed as frauds and publicly (but figuratively) tarred and feathered. The question is, did all these writers commit a crime so heinous?

Are we focusing too much on the act and not the message? Is the message in the writing any less valid? If the writing provokes thoughtful discourse, is it all that bad? If reading Lehrer makes you think about neuroscience and examine how we think, is it so horrible that he made up some lines about an old singer-songwriter? Maybe to Dylan fanatics, but what about for everyone else? If Frey’s fake memoir causes us to look at drug addiction and the resulting degradation of personal relationships, what’s the harm?

I was recently posed these questions (from the most gentle and compassionate soul I have ever known). I suppose no matter which side you pick, the arguments will be valid. Fraud, false advertising, deception: these are words for one camp. Thought provoking, educational, inspiring would be words for the opposite camp.

Admittedly, I was caught in the middle. I do actually see the points from both sides. While the left-brain in me wants to be tidy and proper, the right-brain in me realizes that not everything is clear cut. Science may value precision, but humans are anything but perfect. So in the science of human behavior, there will never be satisfactory answers. I would say, look at the intention behind the cause and weigh that against the scope of the effect. Then put everything in context. Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but I know that whenever there is a mob with torches something is usually is amiss.

To EE, you are right.