When Stephen Glass was fired from The New Republic in 1998 for fabricating elements of his news stories, I was struck with an amusing idea. What if someday he writes a book about his experiences? And what if I arrange it so that I, too, am fired from my journalism job for ethical violations, thus opening the door for self-referential shenanigans when I write a review of said book?
And so a plan was set in motion. I withheld information about a potential conflict of interest on a story I wrote for Provo’s Daily Herald, got myself fired, and now here I am reviewing Glass’ novel, The Fabulist, all according to my grand master scheme. And people said I was mad ...!
Of course, what I did—making an error in judgment regarding a story—pales in comparison to completely fabricating news sources out of thin air, and so my reviewing Glass’ book is a little like O.J. Simpson providing commentary on Pol Pot. But Glass and I have a few things in common. We’re about the same age, people often think we’re Jewish (they’re right in his case), we’re products of the same type of modern journalism training and we were both highly favored writers at our respective outlets. Of course, he was highly favored at The New Republic and I was only highly favored at the Daily Herald, so my reviewing his book is akin to William Henry Harrison discussing Abraham Lincoln. But still.
Before I could review Glass’ book, The Fabulist, I first had to read it. This was harder than you might suppose, since you probably think I have loads of time to read the memoirs of disgraced journalists now that I am unemployed. This is untrue, however; you are forgetting the importance of television in a jobless man’s life. I could work full time just watching Law & Order and its various incarnations. (And by all means, if any employers are looking for a full-time Law & Order watcher, I’m your guy.)
The Fabulist is a rather interesting concoction. It’s Glass’ fictionalized account of how he fictionalized news stories, and what happened to him when he was caught. It’s a “novel,” but written in the first person about a journalist named Stephen Glass who gets fired from a news magazine for fictionalizing stories. It’s obviously about Glass himself; the only question is how many of the details are what really happened and how many are just made-up enough to justify calling it a “novel.”
I’m not sure why he wrote a novel rather than just telling his story. Perhaps he knows, at least subconsciously, that the average non-journalist doesn’t even remember who he is, five years later, and that most people wouldn’t be interested in reading his memoirs. A novel, though—people like those. And about a guy who makes up news stories! That’s the makings for good fiction, there.
But it’s not especially good fiction. The irony here is that a man famous for weaving lies is actually fairly bad at telling them. Certain episodes in the book are so farfetched they stink, Louie Anderson-style, of a first-time writer’s attempt to create comedy out of nothing. He pretends to be deaf on a flight so no one will talk to him. He can’t find a pair of underwear and winds up wearing a plastic garbage bag. He gets yelled at in a massage parlor for using a pen to edit a sign on a wall. Oh, the wackiness!
I doubt any of those instances of hijinks and hilarity really happened, which is fine. The problem is, they’re so unrealistic that it’s hard to find them funny, either. And if any of them did happen—after all, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction—then Glass has shot himself in the foot by announcing the book as a “novel.” Our default reaction is to assume anything slightly out-of-place is merely fiction. The story would be much more interesting if he’d stuck to the facts, which is a lesson I would have thought he’d have learned by now.
Of course, it would only have been interesting to journalists, and maybe not even to them—I am one, and I’d forgotten all about Stephen Glass. Something the journalism world has yet to accept is that average readers aren’t very interested in “ethical violations” and whatnot. Most Americans don’t trust newspapers very much, and hearing that a reporter has been canned for lying just confirms what they already thought. It doesn’t rock the very foundation of their souls, which is the effect you’d think it had from the way the media pounced on stories like Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair and those two guys from The Salt Lake Tribune who sold information to The National Enquirer.
Glass seems to suffer from the same delusions as his profession, thinking regular people are fascinated by this stuff. And maybe they would be, if he wrote it with any kind of flair or personality. I finished the book, but only because hey, what else was I going to do? Law & Order is only on a few hours a day.