Content pressure

A friend of mine alerted me to this story about Jonah Lehrer’s self-plagiarism (which turned into a story of him plagiarizing others) and it made me sad.  This kind of thing keeps coming up (whether it’s plagiarizing or making things up, a la Frey and Mortenson) and it’s disappointing, sure, but it’s also puzzling.

Rather than opting for knee-jerk demonizing, I find myself wondering if it’s possible that these talented people are just cracking under the pressure to produce content at a speed that is unsustainable in order to catch the miniscule attention span of readers used to having 17 websites open at once and getting their information in McNugget bites.   Or, as in the case of those who “embellish,” if it’s the trying to make their stories bigger, shinier, funnier, more tragic, more more in order to grab your and my interest.

Is any of this excusable?  Are we collectively putting too much pressure on our writers and thinkers and pushing them over the edge into the ethical abyss?  What do you all think?



10 Responses to Content pressure

  1. No. None of it is excusable. Intentional plagiarism is the literary equivalent of knocking over a convenient store for the blue collar guy. Before I went to law school, I ground metal in a steel house during a summer. A summer in Alabama, by the way. They guys I worked with in that sweat pit – they had pressure also. Pressure to put food on the table, pressure to pay for school supplies for their kids. But they weren’t doing unethical things on the side to lighten their load.

    Unintentional plagiarism, however, is something that scares me to death. I’m from the Atari generation. I’ve had a screenful of pop culture saturating my brain since I can remember. One of my biggest fears is that something I’ve watched or read slips into my writing and I don’t realize it.

  2. Susan says:

    It’s possible pressure has something to do with it. But it’s also possible we’re just seeing how a certain personality type flames out in the 21st century. There have always been people so confident in their own superiority they don’t think they will get caught, and perhaps in the “old days” (more than 5 years ago!) a lot of them just got away with it. Others got caught, but things didn’t unfold quite so dramatically. Now we all have the Internet. For the professional BS artist, these are perilous times.

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Well, I reckon the term ‘self-plagiarising’ is unduly pejorative (and contradictory). The guy is guilty of re-cycling his own material. By the sound of it he’s spreading himself a bit thin and acquired the habit from his busy schedule on the lecture circuit. Of course nobody has a problem with a speaker repeating himself on the lecture circuit, anymore than we would with Leonard Cohen singing the same songs in Barcelona that he did in, say, Montreal. My guess is this is how Leherer ended up blurring the distinction between the written and the spoken word. Maybe he just needs to take a break.

  4. Dale Bishop says:

    There is no such thing as self-plagiarism.

    The publisher should have stood behind him. They buckle too fast these days because they are all so terrifed to say or do the wrong thing because it might make them look politically incorrect.

  5. Joelle says:

    Whenever I work on a new book, I always come across a phrase or sentence that sounds familiar and then I remember I used it in my last book. In other words, I unintentionally lift from myself sometimes. And sometimes, I lift from unpublished manuscripts of mine on purpose. I’ve stripped a few bottom-drawer manuscripts bare.

    I have two books out, and we’re most likely moving publishers for the third book, so I took a lot of time with it and wrote the whole thing, rather than fifty pages on spec, and I have to say, it was a luxury I loved. If people are feeling too much pressure to write too fast, they’re going to have to just say, “Sorry. I can’t do it.” There are plenty of writers out there taking a long time to write books because they’re in it for the writing. Writers feel pressure, I get that, but we also have to stand up for ourselves and just say when it’s too much. Preferably, before you sign the contract, of course.

  6. Jenni Wiltz says:

    This is a tricky one. It all reminds me of my creative writing classes at a major university. Due to budget cuts, the staff is down to one fiction professor. One. So students are obliged to take multiple classes with him. In doing so, we hear the same stories, the same lectures, the same advice on writing.

    It’s effective advice and the stories are delightful–students love taking his classes. Still, by the third telling, the older students know where the stories are going and start doodling in our notebooks. However, for the students who haven’t heard these stories before, they are fresh and new and helpful.

    I’m wondering if Lehrer is treating his writing the way he’s treating his speaking engagements. In a speaking engagement, I would think it’s perfectly acceptable to recycle words and concepts–if he’s found a brilliant example or way to explain a difficult concept, why not illuminate a fresh audience with the same words he used at a prior engagement? The audience is new to it, and they deserve to hear the best stories, ideas, and explanations, no matter if he’s used these words before.

    Is it possible he’s doing what my creative writing professor did–simply using the most polished, best, and familiar versions of explanations or lectures he has because, no matter the medium, he will always have fresh audience members who have not heard his spiel before?

    • RamseyH says:

      I think this is a good point, and I don’t think the acceptability of recycling material is limited to speaking only. It’s not only necessary but beneficial in business marketing – say you have a company with a website, a blog, email newsletters, etc. etc. You restructure and repurpose material from your website for your blog and then your newsletters. Depending on what type of business you have, you may also use that information to write articles for various publications that are helpful while also promoting your business. None of this is considered “self-plagiarism.” It’s just getting the word out to the broadest audience possible. It’s even desirable that there be consistency and even repetition in the message you’re sending; that’s a part of the whole “branding” idea.

      All of this to say, I can see how a guy with a business or marketing background – especially marketing himself – might think it’s perfectly fine to use his own original content repeatedly.

  7. Catherine Whitney says:

    Apart from publishing rights issues, if any, I don’t think “self plagiarizing” is a legitimate issue. He might have written, “I said it before and I’ll say it again,” but still, does it really matter? These are his own words and ideas. I think this is a phony controversy, created by people with too much rigidity and too much time on their hands.

    • Because it’s his own work he’s copying, I agree. I think with our current technology, he can only do it for so long anyway before it begins to hurt his business; Google was able to expose a lot of the instances he did this and if he continues to do so, publishers will stop paying for material they know readers can find elsewhere. It’s a short-term solution for him that could lead to a spectacular fall.

      I think that in general, society’s hunger for new content is going to break a lot of the content producers. It leads to a lot of ongoing pressure and mental strain with no time for breaks or any release valves. That pace won’t be sustainable for a lot of writers, and I think we’ll have to hope that having more content producers will satisfy the audience and give some relief to the individual writers.

  8. S. B. says:

    As Catherine Whitney pointed out, it seems like this is a publishing rights issue. I don’t know the details of the contracts involved, but it could be a sticky situation if wrote an article for one publication, then turn around and re-sold it to another publication.

    I’m not sure the comparison to Leonard Cohen singing the same applies. I wonder if a more apt analogy would be Leonard Cohen having a contract with one label, say Sony, then turning around and selling the same songs to Blue Note?

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