I always coach writers that they need to pay attention to the story behind the story – the thing in their life that drives them to write the book they are writing. This is very often not something that ends up in the pages of the book, but it matters enormously, all the same.
I remember, for example, hearing an interview on NPR about a woman who wrote a book about famous people’s favorite items of clothing. When the interviewer asked her why she wanted to write such a book, she told a riveting story about being a professor at a design school, and how she took her students to the regional hub of Goodwill– where they process all the clothing that didn’t sell – so her student could see where “clothes go to die.”
Who wouldn’t want to read that book? The story behind the story was what sold me. (That book is Worn Stories by Emily Spivack.)
The same can be true of fiction and non-fiction, as well -- and it is most certainly true of the book I just cracked open: A Book About Love by Jonah Lehrer.
If that author’s name rings a bell it’s because he was disgraced several years ago by the revelation that, in his book called Imagine: How Creativity Works, he had made up quotes by Bob Dylan, and it soon followed that there had been other transgressions, as well. The book was pulled from the shelf and the publisher offered readers refunds.
Lehrer was not just some guy who wrote a book. He was a guy who wrote for the New Yorker and Wired, had several very popular and well-reviewed books out in the world already (How we Decide, Proust was a Neuroscientist) and was on his way to becoming a literary superstar.
It was hard to imagine Lehrer ever writing anything again. I mean, who would publish his next book? That was what I thought when I first heard the news – Well there goes a very promising career.
Years went by and then just a few weeks ago I saw something somewhere about a new book by Jonah Lehrer. My brain began to spin: Was this the same Jonah Leher? Who was the editor who agreed to publish it? Was that decision warranted? Was the book going to sell?
The story behind the story was redemption –- the possibility of it, the improbability of it.
I was drawn to it like a magnet. I ordered the book.
It’s an exploration of love – what it is, how it works, why it matters. It’s a great topic.
I remember being dazzled by Leher’s earlier books. I thought they were clever and fun, and filled with interesting ideas. They connected dots I didn’t know had connections between them. I was a fan.
I am not so much dazzled by this book about love. It feels somehow forced. It feels like he is being very, very careful – and in fact he says as much. The very first page is a straight up apology to his readers about what he did in the last book, and an explanation of how methodically and carefully he attributed everything in the pages, and how he had an independent fact checker go through the text to make sure it was all on the up-and-up.
But this book about love feels bloodless. And what I can’t help but think is that the story behind the story is not here on the page in any way. I didn’t expect it in fact, but I hoped for it in spirit. I hoped to learn about someone who loved him when no one else did, or the way he found love in the darkest of times – or something that spoke to the reality of his experience.
I am 50 pages in, and there is nothing like that. Just the careful studies, the somewhat guarded tone, the many, many footnotes. I’m not sure I will finish.
The whole thing makes me exceedingly sad.
After I wrote these words, I went on an Internet hunt and found a smattering of articles about Lehrer and the new book (this one and this one, and one of the harshest reviews of a book I think I have ever seen, which I will link to below), and learned so much more that I hadn’t known before-- about what went wrong, why it went wrong, how violently the public shamed him, and how he couldn’t help but continue to write in the midst of his sadness and shame, even though he was fairly certain that no one would ever read anything he ever wrote again.
The fall he endured, in other words, was far worse than I had imagined. It made me feel even more disappointed that Lehrer’s new book isn’t instantly and irrefutably fabulous, because that big public redemption is not going to happen for him – at least not yet. At least not this time.
I often write here that you have to write what you have to write. You have to honor the call that you feel to that story or that material. And I often say that you can’t control the way the world will receive it. That is a matter largely out of your hands. You can think about your reader and your topic and the marketplace but you can’t control it.
I imagine that no one knows this better right now than Jonah Leher. In the harsh book review in the New York Times, the reviewer ends by saying, “Perhaps Mr. Lehrer has changed — personally. But not sufficiently as a writer. I fear it may be time, at long last, for him to find something else to do.”
But the thing is that I don’t think Lehrer will. I don’t think he can. Writers write, and I imagine that he is going to keep on writing, whether or not anyone ever publishes another word of his again.
In the face of what I can only guess is far less of an obstacle, will you?