Steal this book.
You know you want to. After all, no right-minded person wants to give money to serial confabulator Stephen Glass, formerly employed by The New Republic. No one wants to repay him for this second act, this memoir
wrapped in a novel wrapped in a film deal, this apology shaped suspiciously like a grenade. Even writing this review continues the terrible cycle, and don’t I know it. (You can borrow my free copy, if you want.)
But you want to read it. Or at least, I did. I’ve always been a fan of queasy reality performances: half truth, half manipulation. I loved Dave Eggers’s anti-memoir, studded as it was with pre-emptive self-criticism. I’m a fan of Philip Roth, whatever his crimes against Claire Bloom. I’ve got no objection to reading books by people who’ve acted like jerks; if I did, it would massively cut down my reading list. And I’ve never met Stephen Glass, never edited him; he never weaseled into my good graces, or played on my narcissism.
And of course, Glass couldn’t have timed the book’s release any better: It arrives on shelves just as Jayson Blair, formerly of the New York Times, goes down in flames, igniting that paper’s editorial hierarchy like kindling stuffed under the logs. But distinctions must be made: If the Jayson Blair story is news, his failings aren’t (to my mind) journalism’s failings. For all the handwringing, no profession is free of cheats and con men. Lies aren’t new; neither is schmoozing and/or drug abuse. And whatever the institutional errors that helped shove Blair up the greasy pole, he is, from all accounts, a chaotic schmuck, not a symbolic antihero.
Not so Stephen Glass. Stephen Glass I’ve always found creepy in a meaningful way–the bogyman in the journalist’s closet. There’s a Gothic quality to Glass’s transgressions: a primal violation of the writer/editor relationship. After all, he wasn’t a sloppy reporter. He was too neat, thrilling his editors with cynical inventions like the First Church of George Herbert Walker Christ. He carefully covered his tracks with fake fact-checking materials. Hell, he was so trusted his boss had him reorganize The New Republic‘s fact-checking department. In perhaps his ickiest takedown, he wrote a fraudulent profile smearing Clinton crony Vernon Jordan as a lecher. But if Blair’s fellow reporters universally describe his sharp elbows, Glass seems to have had no elbows whatsoever. He cuddled up to his colleagues, begging for approval–he was obsequious, smart, slippery. He always struck me as a real character, which is why I was secretly delighted (which is to say, appalled) that he had written a sort-of autobiography, with a central character named Stephen Glass. I wanted to know what he was thinking.
What he was thinking about, from this account, was not much. Like any compulsive bullshitter, Glass was too focused on plugging leaks to think about the plumbing. The book begins as the fictional Stephen Glass’s editor at The Washington Weekly, Robert Underwood (in real life, Charles Lane), leaves a series of increasingly distraught messages on his answering machine. As I read this first third–and the events here are fairly indistinguishable from what happened, except for the con’s-eye view–I gulped it down, lit up with Nixonian sweat. Here was the fatal confrontation in his editor’s office; here the drive when Glass feebly pointed to locations, trying to convince his editor he’d attended a conference he had in fact fabricated. It’s Kafka, except for the fact that Glass is unambiguously guilty, guilty, guilty, and also the fact that Stephen Glass is not Kafka.
In the aftermath of these events, Glass is chased down like Frankenstein by the maddened journalists bearing tape recorders. Glass’s brother gives Stephen a tough-love admonishment: “These people aren’t going to forgive you. That’s the way they see the world: no mercy.” It’s a convenient theory, since Glass never actually tried to do anything to gain mercy–even apologize in person. There’s a wildly self-serving moral continuum being dished up here: Forgiveness is good, Glass suggests, and people who forgive readily (indeed, often without knowing the original offense) are the elect, possessing a generosity of spirit that is the opposite of journalism. People who won’t forgive–betrayed girlfriend, seething colleagues, Javert-like boss–are ungood. And journalists who regard him as a news story? In the final scenes of the book, one tormentor goes so far as to kidnap a sick, shivering dog, all the while screaming in Stephen’s face.
Like Roxie Hart warning us off jazz and liquor, this is a pretty lame apology. And surely, the best way to get you to not buy the book would be to just dismiss it. But let’s put the truth moose on the table: I read The Fabulist ravenously, satisfying my curiosity for free. What did it feel like to get praise for stories he knew were lies? How did Glass talk his brother into recording a fake voice-mail message for him? What the hell was he thinking when he concocted false phone transcripts for the fact checker? (There’s a scene in which Glass types the fake quotes into his word processor and then scrolls up and down in a panic, inserting typos, spaces, ellipses, all the while speaking the interview out loud in two different voices.)
Glass answers all these questions, kinda sorta, but since he does so in the form of a novel–as Hendrik Hertzberg pointed out in The New Yorker, he’s switched from “fictional nonfiction” to “nonfictional fiction”–he also frustrates a reader’s desire to trust his revelations. In fact, amid the apologies, the book coyly reproduces the very thing that got him into trouble in the first place. Too-good-to-be-true stories abound: Glass dons garbage-bag underpants, has a one-night stand with a scheming journalist. In an attempt to get into character for the fake interview transcript, a panicky Glass cakes his face with his girlfriend’s makeup. The reader knows this isn’t what happened; in real life, the story he faked included quotes from imaginary computer hackers, not an imaginary old lady. But did he do something like it–pull on an X-Men sweatshirt and scarf Cheetos? Or is it just a symbol of how phony he felt, how humiliated?
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.