A writer's downfall: Blame our culture of conquest

  • Article by: BONNIE BLODGETT
  • Updated: August 4, 2012 - 8:52 PM

Jonah Lehrer wasn't a great scientist, but he was a great salesman -- under pressure.

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Jonah Lehrer

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The stunning fall from grace of science writer Jonah Lehrer, who admitted to making up quotes for his bestselling "Imagine: How Creativity Works," offers us a timely morality tale that my husband summed up nicely when he wrote to me in an e-mail, "Time for the re-emergence of the slacker."

Lehrer is 31. He published his first bestseller at 26. Before that he was a neuroscience postdoc at Columbia University and then a Rhodes scholar. He studied philosophy at Oxford University after his brief stint working for a legendary memory researcher, the Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, at Columbia, which is where he became close to another Nobel winner, Richard Axel, whose office was just down the hall.

I got to know Lehrer slightly when I was writing a book on the science of smell. By his own account, he wasn't much good in the research lab. He lacked that indefinable something (monomania? obsessive attention to detail? no social life?) that separates scientists like Kandel and Axel from regular blokes who never win anything. (Axel got his Nobel because the genes for smell were discovered in his lab in 1991.)

Lehrer's rise to celebrity came as his publisher (and mine) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was collapsing under the weight of debt thrust upon the venerable Boston-based house by a then-fashionable leveraged buyout. Its new owner was a Dublin-based cadre of financiers who knew nothing about books. What they liked was Houghton Mifflin's impressive balance sheet. Anyone under contract with HMH (the shotgun marriage was arranged after Harcourt ran into similar difficulties) felt keenly the pressure to do well by the publisher, and Jonah Lehrer no doubt felt this more keenly than most.

He was, remember, extremely young and not a trained journalist. His first book, "Proust Was a Neuroscientist," had been produced under the guidance of an editor without whose skill and experience it would not have been published. A remarkably quick study and deeply grateful, Lehrer happily agreed to parlay what he'd learned from that first successful outing into more titles in quick succession that would capitalize on the burgeoning popular interest in "brain books."

All this may seem tangential to the story of his terrible transgression, but I think it's partly why Lehrer did what he did. He is a precocious intellect, but more than that he is the classic pleaser. In this he reminds me of an entire generation of kids driven to do whatever it takes to meet their goals, often with the zealous support of their elders. I remember when the focus of Olympics coverage was the athletes; now it's their parents, upon whose faces are etched "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."

Richard Axel unwittingly had a hand in Lehrer's demise. Sensing Lehrer's frustration with the demands of the scientific method, which Axel swears by even as he chafes under its yoke, the older man encouraged his clever young friend to break out of the bondage of small incremental steps that might add up to something in a millennium or so, and parlay his personal charisma and creativity into a career as a salesman for science.

As a writer, Lehrer could make sense of science for the average person and make scientists seem as heroic as they actually are. As a writer, Axel advised, Lehrer could make the esoteric work of cell biologists accessible to the layperson, and even glamorous, and could help counter the ominously growing hostility toward science felt by those who saw it as expensive and esoteric, and as a threat to their fundamentalist Christian beliefs.

This was the first of many shortcuts for Jonah Lehrer, and for a while he thought he'd never look back.

A Los Angeles Times commentary blamed his bad choices on "the cult of overachievement." I agree.

But I also blame the cult of Ayn Rand-style individualism -- aka survival of the fittest -- which celebrates the hubris of high-flying private equity firms like the one that took down HMH (it filed for bankruptcy in June but will reorganize) and says to hell with anyone who just wants to live up to his or her own perhaps middling potential and make a modest living working an eight-hour day. To hell with anyone who doesn't dream big and do what it takes (lying and cheating permitted) to make the dream come true.

The obsession with individual excellence as measured by bestseller list rankings, Super Bowl rings, Olympic Gold and personal net worth glorifies only the winner of the race and brands the rest of the field, including the runner-up, "the biggest loser." It tells even a brilliant young science writer that he must do the literary equivalent of doping to stay on top. It demeans the efforts and belittles the dreams of what my husband calls the slackers and I call ordinary people.

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Bonnie Blodgett is a St. Paul writer. She blogs about gardening, politics and life at bonnieblodgett.com.

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