God, I’m glad I’m not Jonah Lehrer
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Yesterday, Michael C. Moynihan at Tablet Magazine reported that publishing wunderkind Jonah Lehrer had fabricated a bunch of Bob Dylan quotes for his non-fiction book, Imagine. Lehrer consequently resigned from The New Yorker, where he’d already gotten into a bit of trouble in June for self-plagiarism (or, as one journalist described it to Moynihan, “stealing food from [his] own refrigerator”). The famously reclusive Dylan is yet to speak on the matter, but I imagine he’d say something along the lines of, “God, I’m glad I’m not Jonah Lehrer.”
Anyway, Lehrer got me reminiscing, and googling. If there’s one thing the blogosphere/internet/universe loves, it’s a plagiarism scandal. So, herewith my top 7. (This is just the tip of the iceberg.) Which are your favorites?
Preliminary side-note: wouldn’t it be great if there were Literary Scandal collector cards?
1. Stephen Glass
Glass fabricated more than half the stories he wrote for The New Republic between 1995–1998. In the grand scheme of journalistic scandals, Jonah Lehrer is to Lewinskygate as Stephen Glass is to Watergate: pretty, pretty, pret-ty bad, but not quite an impeachable offense. Glass got impeached, big time, in real life and on the big screen. If you haven’t seen “Shattered Glass”, get thee to thine site of legal media download now. It’s a great movie, not least because Chloe Sevigny pulls off high-waisted mid-90s denim with APLOMB.
Where is he now? In 2003, Glass published The Fabulist, a fictional account of his non-fictional downfall. It was not well-received. According to Wikipedia, he has been working as a para-legal in California since 2004.
2. James Frey
Y’all remember this one, for sure. Frey’s memoir of drug addiction and incarceration, published in 2003, turned out to be grossly exaggerated. From Oprah’s Sweetheart to Oprah’s Showdown in less than six months.
3. The Ern Malley Affair
This one is relatively obscure but very entertaining, and surprisingly resonant: In 1944, two Australian writers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, decided they were really fed up with modernist poetry, which they thought was pretentious and meaningless and annoyingly hip. So one afternoon they sat down and wrote 17 poems, pulling words and phrases at random from Shakespeare, the Oxford Dictionary and their own brains. They signed the poems with the pen name Ern Malley and sent them off to 22-year-old Max Harris — despised hipster, sworn enemy, and publisher of the wildly successful modernist journal Angry Penguins. Harris was thrilled. He published the poems immediately and hailed Malley as the Next Big Poetry Thing. What follows is a cautionary tale about the dangers of fame, literary pretention, and experimental poetry. Twenty-two year old poetry hipsters, beware.
Where are they now? Dead. But before they died, all three recovered from the scandal and had pretty successful literary careers.
4. Jayson Blair
Blair fabricated and plagiarized numerous news stories during his four-year tenure at The New York Times. The Times’ epic 7,500 word apology is the second-best newspaper correction ever written. The best one is this.
5. Helen Dale/Darville/Demidenko:
Oh, where to begin, where to begin? Demidenko published The Hand That Signed the Paper in Australia in 1994, when she was just 22. She claimed that the novel — which followed the vicissitudes of a Ukrainian family living under German occupation during WWII — was based on historical, familial events. She won the Miles Franklin, Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, and several other awards. She got a lot of mileage/authenticity out of her “ethnic” identity, donning peasant blouses for publicity shots (!) and drinking vodka. She also offended many people with her portrayal of Jews, and the way in which she basically insinuated that they had it (i.e. the Holocaust) coming. Anyway, it was all a lie! Helen Demidenko was actually Helen Darville (now known as Helen Dale), an Australian of definitely-not-Ukrainian descent. You would not believe how much crazy shit went down in the Australian media when her book was published — I had to take a tylenol after writing this little summary because my head was LITERALLY HURTING from trying to contextualize it. Listen to the full story here.
Where is she now? Like Glass, Dale completed a law degree. In 2006, she was working as a judge’s associate in Queensland, Australia.
6. Norma Khouri
In 2002, Khouri published a memoir called Forbidden Love about the supposed honor killing of her childhood friend, a Lebanese woman named “Dalia”. Khouri claimed that Dalia, who was Muslim, had been killed by her family after they discovered that she was in love with a Christian man. The book was a best-seller in Australia, where she was living at the time (Aussies are surprisingly good at literary scandals, right?), but in 2004 it was revealed to be a fraud. Khouri — real name Norma Bagain Toliopoulos — had fabricated the entire story. The brilliant 2007 documentary “Forbidden Lie$” (it’s “Capturing the Friedmans” meets “Shattered Glass” — you’ll need more than a tylenol to get through this one; I recommend liquor) reveals the sad and disturbing extent of Khouri’s pathology. She is a woman utterly in the thrall of her own imagination, both the snake-charmer and the snake.
Where is she now? In 2007, she was living in Naperville, IL.
7. Go Ask Alice
Ah, the 70s! When you could publish the fake diaries of a dead, “Anonymous” teenage drug addict and call it non-fiction and nobody cared.
Where is she now? Beatrice Sparks, the therapist who wrote Go Ask Alice and several other “real” teen diaries, died on May 25, 2012 at the age of 95.
— Elissa Goldstein was born and raised in Melbourne. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College and is the Online Editor of Electric Literature. You can find her here.