@BIGSPORTSWRITER is the Twitter handle for some mysterious, well, sportswriter who anonymously peppers Twitter with bizarrely cogent insights for a place built on the shoulders of people who'd rather react to things with capital letters, exclamation points and emoticons, usually mixed together.
Jonah Lehrer is a whiz-kid idea guy/writer who rose to fame in the journalism world by writing brilliantly for Wired magazine and then parlayed that into what I assume is a finely remunerated gig with The New Yorker, where he was to regularly post blogs sharing his brilliance. Only, Lehrer got popped for recycling things he'd already written. Jim Romenesko has done a good job keeping up with that.
The journalism world went into a bit of a tizzy, and apparently lots of people were just way too excited to see Lehrer get knocked down a peg. Personally, I reacted with a shrug. Kid's young, he made a mistake, it likely won't happen again. But other people ... whoo boy.
Enter BSW, who like V For Vendetta put his flying knives of reason (Too much? I think maybe too much.) into the Lehrer episode by posting the following on his Twitter feed late last night. I've compiled the tweets—edited super lightly—into a single post here for your reading pleasure.
I've gotten a bunch of messages over the past day and a half about the Lehrer situation/snafu/fiasco (according to different messages). So as I come up for air from the my book, let me see if I can organize some thoughts, publicly.
First. It's extremely embarrassing, extremely public, and extremely telling, because anybody that's ever been paid for freelance work, or had a column, or written repeatedly for a publication knows the expectation of original material is a fundamental tenet. It's implicit, but often... it's also EXplicit. As in - contractually obligated and stated out loud. Re-packaging your old material to fill pages - web or otherwise - is pretty bad form, and a disservice to your frequent readers and fans.
Because you know what? Writing is fucking hard, man. It's hard. Nobody likes staring at a blank page, it's intimidating, emasculating even. Coming up with something new and fresh, finding a different perspective - or even an honest and coherent take - is hard.
I can't tell you how many times i've wracked my brain, pounding my skull against a wall or desk, hoping just one decent idea to fall out. Or how many times I've read something by Breslin, or @MySecondEmpire (Ed note: Chris Jones, of Esquire and ESPN The Mag), or Wolfe - and wanted to drag hot irons up and down my back because in my life, in 10 of my lives I could never write something so poetic, so beautiful, so lyrical, or so goddamn stark?
And then how many times I force myself to sit my ass down, strap in, and start stringing together letters, words and punctuation, because deep down, I knew the self-loathing, if I hacked my way through it with enough consonant machetes, and spewed enough vowel-laden agent orange at that blank foliage - eventually something important would be revealed?
A hundred times. A thousand times. A hundred thousand times. Every time.
But you know what? That dedication to something original and decent - that pain and anguish - I only owe that to myself.
You can make a damn good living as a columnist in this country by recycling material.
Without naming names, plenty have done it and pretended it was an accident, or pretend it's a style, or just don't give a shit, and have completely retired pretending at all - and just let it stand.
I think the phrase "self-plagairized" is hyperbolic, violently pedantic, malicious over-the-toppedness. It's a phrase writers, and wanna-be writers toss around in order to make a minor felony of the craft sound like THE capital crime. There is only one plagiarism. And it's Plagiarism. That's not what Lehrer did. If anything, he's guilty of Laziness, with a side of either "conniving" or "naiveté".
Lehrer is young. Younger and more popular than most of us ever have been. It's a new, more expansive media, that wants more material faster. Maybe he wasn't ready for the pace, maybe he isn't capable of the output, or maybe he realized people would gobble him up regardless.
One of the interesting, darker sides to this new expansive media is the white-light speed of literary (and journalistic) schadenfreude. By the time any of us heard about Lehrer's folly, and read in on it - thousands of people were essentially tweeting cartwheel emoticons. And there is a jealousy there, a jealousy and a vague frustration that you used to have to keep to yourself due to sheer lack of technology.
And please don't think it's lost on me that a kid who became wildly successful writing for "Wired" was essentially taken down by technology.
The truth is - while there is a dishonesty to repackaging your work - just as there was dishonesty in re-using college essays. It's not theft. It's not stealing. The real crime is against the publication that pays you for your allegedly-original efforts. Which is why - as you've seen - the New Yorker made no bones about the fact that they were pissed. "It's not going to happen again." And that's good. That is who the message needs to come from. "We are not paying for a collection of previous writing."
I understand the urge to flog Lehrer with a thousand keyboards, and beat him with the ghosts of sentences long-since deleted, and I know that's WHY the phrase 'we' came up with for his crime involves the word "plagiarize" - it invokes, nay DEMANDS shame. But let's not let our frustration with how hard it is to write cloud what actually happened.
He was lazy (and/or overwhelmed, naive, sneaky) and got publicly embarrassed for his [lack of] efforts. That's it.
This is a teachable moment, and he's seems like a teachable kid... so before we run him out of writing - let's give him a chance to regroup. Because if we got summarily dismissed from writing every time we committed minor crimes: like not fully examining sources, getting names wrong, getting dates wrong, misquoting, mis-stating, and missing completely, well, let's just say there'd be a globe full of writing critics and gossip hounds, and no writers to critique and gossip about.
Anyway... as always - sorry for filling your timelines up.