“I often quote myself,” said George Bernard Shaw. “It adds spice to my conversation.”
So, apparently, does Jonah Lehrer.
In a piece titled “Why Smart People Are Stupid,” the recently minted New Yorker writer reused the first three paragraphs of a piece he had published in the Wall Street Journal a year earlier. And that wasn’t the only time. Now his blog is a string of disclaimers. “Editors’ Note: Portions of this post appeared in similar form in an October, 2011, post by Jonah Lehrer for Wired.com and in an August, 2008, column by Lehrer for the Boston Globe. We regret the duplication of material.” “Editors’ Note: Portions of this post appeared in similar form in an April, 2010, column by Jonah Lehrer for the Wall Street Journal and in a July, 2009, article for the Guardian, which was an excerpt of Lehrer’s book “How We Decide.” We regret the duplication of material.” And on, and on.
But is there something to be said for plagiarism? When a woman commented that a passage in one of Oscar Wilde’s plays reminded her of something she’d read in the works of another dramatist, he shrugged. “Taken bodily from it,” he said, or words to that effect. “Why not? No one reads anymore.”
In school, of course, plagiarism is terrible, verboten, the number one crime in the book. If you cannot write an essay about what Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes symbolize in “The Great Gatsby” on your own steam, at age 17, things must be pretty dire.
And when you get out, into the workplace, it’s even more maligned. “I couldn’t write ‘Atonement’, ” you yelp, “And neither could its author, apparently.”
But as someone who has, according to Google, used that Wilde anecdote twice before, I have to wonder: Is there a difference with self-plagiarism?
One of the bizarre things about modern life is that everything we have to throw away is constructed to last forever. Blogs stay on the Internet until the seas dry up. The little plastic doodads that come with your hamburger will outlast most of us.
The trouble these days is not that the things that were once ephemeral are permanent. The trouble is that they are permanent and searchable. A paragraph here, six pages there — what harm? No one is paying attention until everyone is paying attention.
That is the wonderful, terrible thing about the Internet. You have a full record of pretty much everything that you’ve ever put on it. And if you don’t, the Wayback Machine probably does. It has made plagiarism easier to do and harder to get away with.
But what about quoting yourself?
“Next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. What if you happen to be the originator of the good sentence yourself? It seems unfair to the sentence to use it only once. Some sentences are bridesmaid dresses. Others you can wear to work after the big day. Rules vary.
There’s a line between recycling material and regurgitating material. You do not stop orchestras from playing Beethoven’s Ninth, as someone wise once said, on the grounds that your audience might have heard it before. There are familiar cadences and repeated sentences that mark a writer’s style.
The reason everyone is leaping on Lehrer’s back and tearing the skin from his bones and growling is simple.
It’s not that the original author of the post will mind (obviously he won’t) or even that the audience had been duped into thinking the insight they were being vouchsafed was new. One or two incidents might have been forgiven. It’s the pattern. It makes it seem as though he hasn’t had a new insight in a rather long time, and the present one he’s riding around is staggering and dazed from overuse.
Self-plagiarism would seem to be a victimless crime, on first examination. If you are so grotesquely fond of the rich cadences of your own voice that you like to hear the same phrases over and over again, be my guest. But there’s a reason they say, “Stop me if you’ve heard this one.”
Repeating yourself in person is an annoying habit. In print, it’s a liability. As Mr. Lehrer is discovering.
“Editors’ Note: Portions of this post appeared in similar form in a December, 2009, piece by Jonah Lehrer for Wired magazine. We regret the duplication of material.”
And now, no doubt, so does he.