For a journalist, reading such accounts is like ethical porn: It turns you on and leaves you feeling like a sucker. Throughout the book, Glass anticipates our objections as we make them, putting them in the mouths of those he betrayed. "You've poured poison into the stream," Underwood lectures. "Readers, who are already increasingly cynical, will lump magazines together. Because of Stephen Glass' lies, they'll say, you can't believe journalists as a class." His friend Brian calls him up to end their friendship and accuses him of being a creepy manipulator: "You have an uncanny ability to tap in to people's deep psychological needs and satisfy them. You did it in your stories, and I think you did it in your friendships too."
But these explanations are the rhetorical equivalent of a salesman cutting you off with a finger to the lips: "I know what you're going to say." Because this is a novel, Glass can sketch nasty portraits of those close to him, all the while explaining how sorry he is that he wronged them. In real life Glass went to law school and to therapy; in the book he flees into an anonymous job at a video store--heightening the pathos and neatly eliding his real-life privilege. And when Glass delivers the money shot toward the end of the book, revealing what he's learned from this schadenfreudian analysis, it's equally maddening. Everyone has gotten him wrong, he insists. He's no evil genius. He didn't want grubby money, or icky fame. Instead, he was merely immature, needy, love-starved, imaginative--and, OK, jealous. "They had actually done what I'd only aspired to do, and at some subconscious level, I must have wanted to bring them down, to prove they and I weren't so different after all. But of course we were. They were the real thing; I was an imitation."
The strongest parts of the book are when Glass comes clean, or at least cleaner, about his own manipulations. Because if he continually insists that he's no monster, just a man who wanted love, the book seems fueled by the rage that underlies many a mutual dependency. In Glass's case, that primal scene was between writer and editor--a relationship that both parties must pretend is an egalitarian love affair, a mutual collaboration toward the perfect final draft. In real life, it's a bit more sado-masochistic. For editors, writers are babies who need to be handled. They're thin-skinned and grandiose, they procrastinate and need endless reassurance. And they don't understand the big picture.
But all writers have a little Stephen Glass in them. We may not be liars, but we're eager to please--and often filled with resentment. We're submissives; it's part of the job. It's part of all jobs, really, but in journalism, it's the task of editors to push for what they can't get: a better quote, a normal detail. It's normal for editors to bring their own thesis to the table: My editor on this piece suggested I write about the way that big journalism's overemphasis on the perfect narrative creates Stephen Glasses. I didn't entirely agree, so that's not quite what I wrote.
But I also knew my editor had a point about that professional undertow, that craving for a story that's too good to be true. All journalists mold reality into an idealized shape, and even writers with integrity can feel like beggars, scrambling for what editors sometimes refer to as the perfect casting--the photographable subject, the quote that supercharges the lead. When that casting isn't there, it's lethal. The story may die--or rather, to use the journalistic term, be "killed."
It's the writer's job to love something more than the perfect story: to want to tell the truth so badly that he won't lie even when an editor begs--explicitly or implicitly--for just that. Good editors rely on that love.
Stephen Glass loved himself more. And when Glass admits this sneaky coldness, this thrill at shifting the blame, he is perversely at his most likable. You can't help but believe him. After he's been caught, when he and Underwood are riding the elevator up to the Weekly offices, they stand silently. His editor fumes as the floors bing by. And what is Glass thinking? "Silently I begged Robert to hit me. Four. Bing. Please punch me, Robert. Five Bing. I pushed my chin out farther to make an easier target. Take out your anger on my body, I thought. Do what men do, Robert. Yes, you have a family that depends on you. Hit me. I deserve it. Break my nose. Scar me."
It seems like more of the same masochistic mea culpa until the next paragraph arrives. "If you hit me, people will see how horrible you are. No matter what I've done, it will be excused when compared to your violence.... Tomorrow, the headline will read: 'EDITOR ASSAULTS WRITER CAUGHT FABRICATING.' Maybe, if I'm really lucky, the last part will even be reduced to a subhead."
At moments like this, I, clutching my reviewer's copy, totally got my money's worth.