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Writer Jonah Lehrer Caught Fabricating Bob Dylan Quotes

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(Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

(Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

In his best-selling book, this year’s Imagine: How Creativity Works, New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer presents a look into the mind and creative process of Bob Dylan. It’s just one small part of the writer’s third work of nonfiction, but now Lehrer is fessing up to fabricating multiple quotes from Dylan in the book – a moral oversight that’s forced him to resign from his position at The New Yorker today (July 30).

So what exactly did Lehrer fabricate about Dylan? The entire tale is chronicled by a self-proclaimed Dylan obsessive writing for online magazine Tablet, who personally questioned Lehrer about source material for many Dylan quotes. After a lengthy back-and-forth, Lehrer gave it up: He fabricated, manipulated and merged Dylan quotes to suit his argument in the first chapter of Imagine, an examination of how neuroscience explains creative genius. They’re small tweaks to actual Dylan quotes, or ordinary kinds of statements that seem reasonable for the press-shy-and-prickly Dylan to say – utterances like, “stop asking me to explain” in regards to his lyrical inspiration.

As Tablet‘s writer, Michael C. Moynihan, explains in his piece: “He [Lehrer] claimed to have been given access, by Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen, to an extended — and unreleased — interview shot for Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home.”

Moynihan continues: “Over the next three weeks, Lehrer stonewalled, misled and, eventually, outright lied to me. Yesterday, Lehrer finally confessed that he has never met or corresponded with Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager; he has never seen an unexpurgated version of Dylan’s interview for No Direction Home, something he offered up to stymie my search; that a missing quote he claimed could be found in an episode of Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” cannot , in fact, be found there; and that a 1995 radio interview, supposedly available in a printed collection of Dylan interviews called The Fiddler Now Upspoke, also didn’t exist. When, three weeks after our first contact, I asked Lehrer to explain his deceptions, he responded, for the first time in our communication, forthrightly: ‘I couldn’t find the original sources,’ he said. ‘I panicked. And I’m deeply sorry for lying.’”

Now Lehrer has released his own statement, which includes the announcement of resignation from The New Yorker. Lehrer has worked for The New Yorkerfor less than two months, and in that short time, has caused a stir over plagiarizing his own past works in “new” blog posts. Lehrer’s full statement is below, which Lori Glazer, a representative for his publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, provided to CBS Local. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt also provided a note, in which the publishing house says they “are exploring all options available” and “are taking the e-book of Imagine off-sale, and halting shipment of physical copies.”

“Three weeks ago, I received an email from journalist Michael Moynihan asking about Bob Dylan quotes in my book IMAGINE. The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes. But I told Mr. Moynihan  that they were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan’s representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr. Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have said. The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan. I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.” 

As for Dylan’s camp, their response was that “they were unfamiliar with Lehrer, had never read his book, there was no bobdylan.com headquarters, and, to the best of their recollection, no one there had screened outtakes from No Direction Home for Lehrer.”

Imagine was published in March to positive reviews, sales of 200,000 copies, according to Houghton Mifflin, and 16 weeks on The New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list.

- Jillian Mapes, CBS Local

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