The Banality Of Fictions.
BY THE END Of The Fabulist, the protagonist--whose name, like the author's, is Stephen Glass--has certainly been through the wringer. Protagonist Glass has been fired from a hip and hot Washington political magazine for making up his stories; he has become a public pinata of the Jayson Blair sort; his friends have retrospectively retracted their friendship and his girlfriend has dumped him; he's stalked by reporters who show up cleverly disguised as pizza deliverymen and bank customers and, worse, by his hectoring, loving Jewish parents; he's achieved a false kind of redemption by working as a shift supervisor at a suburban video store; he's found true redemption in a mah-jongg circle of grandmothers he met at synagogue; he's located true love in a tense, pretty gambling addict and moved to the suburbs. The book's climax comes at a Virginia animal hospital where Glass has come to join his true love, who is there because her dog's penis has swollen to unnatural proportions. The dog is a Lhasa Apso named Milton Rosenbaum. I wish I were making some of this up.
Stylistically, the book is a disaster. Glass the author never achieves either tragedy or comedy; his novel substitutes self-pity for tragedy and slapstick for comedy and then seesaws between them. His characters are so sketchily drawn that you can't even form mental pictures of them; I spent a good bulk of the book laboring under the impression that Glass's girlfriend was Brazilian before discovering, on page 118, that she was actually a Jewish girl from South Orange, New Jersey. And whatever deus Glass happens to be employing, he's certainly at his machina--whenever the author needs an easy way out of a scene, a pager goes off or his protagonist's hour with a shrink is up or his mother calls. It's bad enough that his fringe characters evolve in the cadences of cliche--no one changes or surprises you--and that the reader gets the distinct impression that Glass purloined his players from the Phillip Roth Repertory Company and then flattened them. What's worse is that his protagonist is hopelessly two-dimensional, too: a cloying, nerdy boy who makes up his stories because he "wanted people to love me more" and finds eventual solace in giving up the fast-paced urbs for a simple suburban life, complete with rabbi. It reads, throughout, like a bad sitcom, humorless, campy, and seen before.
Stephen Glass, the real-life author, lived most of these events himself, or at least the crucial ones. He was a 25-year-old, smart-alecky writer for the New Republic when he was caught making up facts; after he was fired in 1998, the magazine investigated and concluded there were "substantial" fabrications in more than four-fifths of his stories, and Glass became the subject of an intense if short-lived media frenzy. There is some divergence; in the novel, the disgraced Glass went on to work in a video store, while the real-life Glass went to law school. But in general, reviews have taken this novel as Glass's explanation of what, exactly, went wrong. Someone--either the author or the publisher--decided to begin this book with the moment that Glass gets fired, a choice which in one fell swoop eliminates the interesting part of the story--how Stephen Glass came to be "The Fabulist." Instead, we are left with the self-pitying and much less interesting story of what Stephen Glass did to recover from being the fabulist.
It's too bad that Glass butchered his own story so badly that few will read it, because his novel--which purports to give the "why" and the "how" behind his real-life lies--could have told us a lot about contemporary journalism, and, particularly, could have directed us to understand in a way that few commentators have so far the case of Jayson Blair, the young New York Times national reporter caught fabricating countless details in numerous stories in a scandal that would ultimately bring down the paper's top editors, Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd. The main narrative that has emerged from the public pontifications about Blair and Glass is that journalism has become too ambitious for its own good: In its quest to be lyrical, analytical, and to have voice, journalism today puts inexperienced reporters on too-important assignments and relegates fact-finding and fact-checking to a low place on its priorities list. The more telling truth may be that journalism, which lets bad cliche pass for lyricism, has not been ambitious enough.
ONE OF THE irritatingly big flaws in The Fabulist is that Glass's world is populated by rather brittle cliches. Loving, hectoring Jewish grandmothers who play mahjongg and set Glass up with their granddaughters. Earnest rabbis. A woman, whom the book sneers at as a totem of white trash middle America, who dresses all in purple, capped by a sweatshirt that says "I Love Purple." What is disturbing about Glass's nonfiction is that his characters were equally thin, equally campy, no more credible.
The story that finally tripped up journalist Glass at the New Republic was a thoroughly invented story about computer companies in a bidding war to recruit and hire teenage hackers. The piece, called "Hack Heaven," began like this:
Ian Restil, a 15-year-old computer hacker who looks like an even more adolescent version of Bill Gates, is throwing a tantrum. "I want more money. I want a Miata. I want a trip to Disney World. I want X-Men comic book number one. I want a lifetime subscription to Playboy, and throw in Penthouse. Show me the money! Show me the money!" Over and over again, the boy, who is wearing a frayed Cal Ripken Jr. t-shirt, is shouting his demands. Across the table, executives from a California software firm called Jukt Micronics are listening--and trying ever so delicately to oblige. "Excuse me, sir," one of the suits says, tentatively, to the pimply teenager. "Excuse me. Pardon me for interrupting you, sir. We can arrange more money for you. Then, you can buy the comic book, and then, when you're of more, say, appropriate age, you can buy the car and pornographic magazines on your own."
Glass was caught in this invention not by his editors at the New Republic, but by a reporter at Forbes Digital Tool, the online version of the financial magazine, who was interested in writing a follow-up to "Hack Heaven." When that reporter tried to find the principals in Glass's piece, he discovered pretty quickly that none of them, technically, existed and phoned Glass's bosses at the New Republic. It turned out Glass had been lying, routinely and brazenly, in most of the 30 or so articles he'd written over the previous 18 months.
Two months earlier, the New Republic had published a piece of Glass's about the Wall Street cult of Alan Greenspan. The first paragraph is a scene-setter describing the frantic lives of bond traders at a fictional firm called RBL. The second paragraph, which was later found to be fabricated whole cloth, ran like this:
But once a year, RBL permits its indefatigable drones a brief respite. At about three o'clock in the afternoon on March 6, nearly all of the traders drop whatever they're doing and file into a conference room. For the next 15 minutes, they pass around a card, bring out a cake, and sing "Happy Birthday." "But when we come to the last line --'Happy Birthday to yooo'-- there's always this awkward pause because no one knows who's supposed to blow out the candles," says Ron Thompson, a senior trader. "He never shows up to his own party. I'm not sure we even invite him." Not that it would matter. You see, the birthday honoree is not a colleague at RBL but a man most of the celebrants have never met: Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. The birthday party, Thompson says, is "our little way of saying thank you and hoping for another year of health and prosperity and good interest rates.... He's been good to us, and it's a way to honor him."
The story, titled "Praised Be Greenspan," goes on to describe a made-up "shrine" to Greenspan that the traders tend, tenderly.
Over the past two months, several of Glass's former colleagues and friends have published reviews of The Fabulist trying to explain how Glass got away with lying for so long. They've said that Glass was so meticulous about fact-checking other people's articles and such a likeable, hard-working writer that he was the last journalist they would have suspected of fabulism on such a grand scale. I'm sure this is true. But Glass's fables are not muted inventions that might slip quietly under the credulity radar. They are gaudy, rococo constructions, cartoonish fictions. Real people simply don't behave like that; real people don't create shrines to Alan Greenspan. Real people are more complex. This is fabulism camp. That Glass got away with it for so long suggests more than just that Glass handled the personal politics of the New Republic office well enough to deflect suspicion. It says that the magazine did not demand a very sophisticated product--the Glass articles they published described a world in which people exist in caricature, in which character is reduced to cliche.
When compared to Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair's fabrications at the New York Times are not so campy--indeed, they tend toward the banal. A pair of his stories about Private Jessica Lynch's country family told of a house with "cramped living room" with an "overstuffed green love seat"; a "small, tin-roofed home" which looked out over a tobacco field. He quoted a family friend named Glenn Nelson calling Jessica Lynch "a wholesome West Virginia country girl." It turns out Nelson never described Lynch that way to Blair, or anyone else, and the visual scene of Lynch's small country town, Palestine, West Virginia, was not only dead wrong but entirely made up--Blair had never been there, and wrote these stories from his Brooklyn apartment. Many of his other made-up stories--about a family waiting to hear news of their soldier son in Iraq, or a Midwestern university cracking down on unsightly football tailgaters--evolve in the same cadences of cliche. So do the tainted stories of the lyrical, Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter Rick Bragg, who was suspended by the paper when the Blair investigations turned up evidence that he had not, in fact, seen many of the scenes he described in his stories--a lonely Florida oysterman poling around the bay and worrying about his lousy catch, for instance.
What is intriguing is not just the fact of these fabrications but their content. In place of reporting, Blair offers very simple cliches--the sort of scene a sneering New York comedian might construct as a joke about hick country. Had Blair actually gone to West Virginia, of course, he would have come up with a better, more compelling story--one that diverged from stereotype--and would have constructed more nuanced characters than his imagination alone could conjure. The striking thing about Blair's fabrications is that they are more banal than the truth.
But that didn't matter. For Blair's editors at the New York Times, this was tasty stuff--flavorful and descriptive. Blair, only 27, had been on the fast track to big assignments and big stories since his intern days five years before. Stereotypes like these were what got him ahead. There are disappointing echoes of Glass here. Two of the most prestigious periodicals in the country, the New York Times and the New Republic, seem altogether too comfortable in the belief that most people live their lives bound into crass cultural stereotypes. The level of condescension here is disturbing.
WORSE, HOWEVER, is that to readers of the New York Times or the New Republic or most other ambitious journalistic outlets around the country, Glass's or Blair's stories would not have seemed out of the ordinary--at least in one important way. Over the past quarter-century, newspaper and magazine journalists, who have come to see themselves in competition not only with other newspapers and magazines but also with television, radio, the Internet, books, movies, and all other ways in which people spend their time, have made it a priority to tell better stories. The anecdotal lead, which gives a visual scene to illustrate an article's larger point, has become universal (anecdotal leads also account for nearly all of Blair's and Glass's fabrications). But the leads need to make a vivid case for the story--if the story is about, say, the failures of welfare reform, the struggling former welfare recipient the author starts with had better be really, vividly struggling--and so the nuance of these characters tends to be lost.
After I left college, I spent about two-and-a-half years as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer's metro desk. I filed countless stories with these sorts of leads. Again and again, my editors--deeply talented, frequently prize-winning journalists--asked me to go back and try to find a stronger anecdote. It's very good, they'd tell me, but can't we find someone who makes our case a little more strongly? In other words, can't we find someone whose life exactly echoes the abstract idea we're trying to convey in the piece? Can't we find someone whose life has been stripped of nuance and then write about it?
The problem is that journalists have come to expect and value cliche. Trying to make imagery vivid and turn big ideas into intellectually manageable sound bites has mostly made journalism better, but the effort has sacrificed some needed nuance. Jayson Blair could not have told a more complex story about Palestine, West Virginia without visiting it. All he had to rely on, writing from Brooklyn, were secondhand cultural stereotypes. Stephen Glass, inventing characters from thin air, necessarily battered them into two dimensions; for them to be more nuanced, he would have had to meet them. They were able to get away with their fabrications for as long as they did because they met their editors' expectations, which in turn tells us that those who supervised them simply did not expect enough.
THE Times and the New Republic have said, in their own defense, that it would have been nearly impossible for any newspaper or magazine to preempt the fabrications of reporters so willfully bent on lying as Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass. To a certain extent, that's true, and Glass, in a section of The Fabulist in which he describes how he duped the New Republic's factcheckers, shows why: Even the most rigorous checkers, without the resources to go out and re-report each and every story, always reach a point where they simply have to take the reporter's word for it.
But the Times and the New Republic shouldn't let themselves off so easily. By stressing anecdotal writing, storytelling, and self-conscious lyricism, as most ambitious newspapers and magazines do, journalists are increasingly writing themselves into a pretty parochial corner. Urban yuppies writing for urban yuppies, they recapitulate the pieties of their group: West Virginians are uneducated hicks, or bond traders are worshipful, silly, and sheep-like, Greenspan their shepherd.
Jonathan Chait, a colleague and friend of Glass's at the New Republic, wrote in a review of The Fabulist that the novel, with its flat characters and outlandish detail, was not stylistically distinguishable from the invented magazine stories Glass wrote five years ago as nonfiction. This is both true and telling.
Stephen Glass cheated his readers by writing his story as fiction. The cover of genre let him give his friends and colleagues invented names and to write them as garish caricature. An honest memoir would have been a better book. Confronted with the necessary nuance of actual events and real people, Glass would have had to think more deeply about the reasons why he made up his stories and the reasons why his colleagues let him get away with it. Had he done that, he might have produced a more vivid and telling commentary on the psychology of deception--and a more sophisticated and defensible criticism of contemporary journalism.
Benjamin Wallace-Wells is an editor at the Washington Monthly.
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