Jonah Lehrer continues to thwart his own redemption. The journalist and author, who resigned from his posts at The New Yorker and Wired last fall after he was caught repurposing old blog posts, inventing Bob Dylan statements, and lying to Tablet's Michael Moynihan about doing so, now faces fresh charges of plagiarism — or at least copious derivation. On Thursday morning The New York Times published quickly mocked details of the 64-page proposal with which Jonah Lehrer secured a book deal with Simon & Shuster. "We believe in second chances," S&S Publisher Jonathan Karp said. Less than 12 hours later, Daniel Engber at Slate, having procured his own copy, discovered similarities between the text of the proposal, mainly concerning the idea of love, and a March 2013 essay by Lehrer's former New Yorker colleague Adam Gopnik.
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How bad is it? The renewed calls of semi-plagiarism hinge on Lehrer's discussion of Charles Darwin's marriage. For example, in his own essay, Gopnik wrote that "the Darwins went on to have something close to an ideal marriage," whereas in his own proposal, Lehrer wrote that "the Darwins went on to have a nearly ideal marriage." In other passages, the order of Lehrer's Darwin quotes match that of Gopnik's.
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This isn't totally damning, certainly. But it doesn't exactly renew anyone's faith in Lehrer, who has been accused, by multiple critics, of recycling his own ideas and being, in his books and essays, a pretty sloppy thinker. And it raises a pressing question for anyone trying to cut it as a writer: Why does Jonah Lehrer get a second (or third, or fourth) chance while others struggle to break into publishing or journalism? As Forbes media critic Jeff Bercovici wrote:
Lehrer’s books made an exorbitant amount of money for his previous publisher, HarperCollins, enough to justify a high degree of risk. But that doesn’t sound genteel, so instead we get “We believe in second chances.” ... Even more than the humbug about second chances, misting up over the redemptive power of love is a nauseatingly cynical and manipulative bit of critic preemption. Who’s going to be so uncouth as to come out against love, for God’s sake?
So Lehrer occupies a somewhat strange position, both the object of fierce criticism over journalistic sins and the beneficiary of forgiving editors willing to stick their neck out for a scandalized yet best-selling author. This is familiar territory, though: following his ejection from 4 Times Square, multiple defenses of Lehrer appeared, and as Boris Kachka explained in New York last year, Lehrer enjoys the continued support, if not the spirited public defense, of extremely influential editors he has worked with in the past, including his former boss, New Yorker chief David Remnick. To that list you can now add Ben Loehnen at Simon & Schuster, who will be editing Lehrer's book, tentatively titled A Book About Love and slated for release sometime after fall 2014. With his last two books, Imagine and How We Decide, removed from stores, it's not difficult to imagine that Lehrer's editors will double down on fact-checking Lehrer's work.