Remembrance of things passed: how my friend Stephen Glass got away with it
THE FABULIST: A Novel by Stephen Glass Simon & Schuster, $24.00
ONE DAY IN JANUARY 1996, I SAT IN Steve Glass’s apartment following the returns to the New Hampshire primary with him and one or two other colleagues of ours at The New Republic. We were watching a C-SPAN call-in show, and Glass began speculating about how callers can get on the air. Glass picked up the phone and called the number, and said he lived in Manchester. His status as an apparent bonafide New Hampshirite thrust him to the front of the line–within seconds he was talking to the host. His immediate success flustered him. Asked whom he had voted for, Glass stammered, “Uh, Lamar Alexander.” Why? “I was, uh, concerned about Pat Buchanan’s anti-Semitism,” he explained. The host asked him what he did for a living. Glass replied, “I’m a worker.”
His interview ended, and as he hung up the phone I doubled up in laughter. Real workers, I told Glass, would describe their job specifically–say, foreman at a tire plant. They don’t refer to themselves as “workers.” Only Marxists do that. Nor are they usually obsessed with anti-Semitism at the expense of all other issues. When I told all this to Glass, he could only blush and confess that he hadn’t been able to think of anything else to say.
I remember very clearly what I concluded about this at the time: “Steve Glass is a terrible liar. If he ever tries to lie to me, I’ll know it right away.” In retrospect, this was not the correct lesson to draw.
In 1998, Glass made national headlines when he was exposed as a serial fabricator, and fired for concocting much of what he’d written. People who didn’t work with him have often expressed amazement that he managed to convince a group of educated, highly skeptical colleagues to publish stories that, in hindsight, are wildly implausible. (The First Church of George Herbert Walker Bush?) If they suspected Glass from a distance, surely those of us who worked with him every day should have sniffed him out. This seems intuitively sound, but in fact has it backward: It was our very proximity to Glass that made us susceptible to his fraud. Everybody knew him as almost inhumanely industrious in his reporting–anytime you came into the office late at night, he’d be there–and equally diligent in his fact-checking of our stories. He was also unusually sensitive and considerate. Repeated exposure to him made possible the suspension of disbelief. My wife spoke extensively with Glass just once, when we went out for dinner with him and his girlfriend. Afterward she told me that she thought all his charming stories sounded made-up. I reacted with indignation. Steve Glass, I told her, was the last person who would make something up. Sure, he had lots of funny stories, but you just had to know him.
Many of my fellow journalists now say Glass never had any real talent, and relied entirely upon cheating to make it, but I don’t share this view. He had extraordinary social intelligence and a rare ability to get people to open up to him–as we all saw at the office, where he soaked up everybody’s secrets. On the morning Michael Kelly was fired as editor, before any of the staff knew what was happening, Glass walked into my office and told me something big was afoot–closed doors, tension in the air. On one occasion, the two of us worked together on a profile of Alan Greenspan. We attended the Fed chairman’s hearing in the Senate, and afterward he noticed a young woman walk up to Greenspan’s table and snatch his name placard. In a crowded room full of senators I hadn’t noticed it, but I followed him as he sought the woman out and asked her why she had done it. She confessed to being a sort of Greenspan junkie, who followed his public testimonials out of sheer enchantment. This was just the sort of colorful detail we were looking for. Sensing ! was about to crack up, I had to walk away and watch the interview from behind. But Glass kept talking sympathetically, as if it were the most normal thing in the world to follow Alan Greenspan around like he was the Grateful Dead.
Unfortunately for Glass, he is now permanently disqualified from using those reportorial skills, and so he has turned to fiction. After he was caught, I often heard it said that he should write novels. Perhaps he heard this himself and took it to heart. But it was clear all along that this notion was terribly misguided. He never had much talent for prose. When his stories read well, it usually resulted from heavy rewriting, most notably by Kelly. (Very often he would hand his stories to me minutes before they were due, and, to save him from embarrassment, I would perform a kind of emergency triage on his text, rearranging it into something resembling a coherent structure.) Moreover, his stories were interesting only because they were purportedly true. The characters in his stories, as in his novel, lack any depth or believability. What dooms him most of all as a novelist is the very thing that doomed his journalistic career: He lacks any capacity for grappling with moral questions.
The only reason anybody would want to buy The Fabulist–a fictionalized account of his fall from grace–is to understand why Glass fabricated stories and how he got away with it. Incredibly, he begins the story with his undoing, and spends most of it describing his life as a former journalist. From a literary perspective, the choice is baffling. There would be a natural market for My Life as a Double Agent by Aldrich Ames. There would not be a natural market for My Thoughts on Gardening by Aldrich Ames. Glass’s decision to skip over the portion of his life that gained him notoriety and instead focus on the uneventful period that followed renders his novel excruciatingly dull even to those of us who are clearly the inspiration for some of its characters. I cannot imagine anybody who did not know Glass personally managing to finish the entire novel without being paid to do so.
But while this decision is, from a literary point of view, an unmitigated disaster, it has the benefit (from Glass’s perspective) of portraying him in the most sympathetic light possible. He does not have to spend much time portraying himself conniving to advance his career through fakery. Instead, we see him driven out of polite society, wallowing in guilt, and seeking repentance in vain.
Though a novel, The Fabulist is intended to be read as truth in every important way. It is therefore not unfair to point out that the book is filled with lies–and that every significant diversion from the truth either makes Glass look better than he is, or his critics worse. At one point, “Brian”–a character who resembles me fairly closely–calls up Glass to berate him and reject his apology in advance. Glass explicitly presents this as justification for not having apologized or explained his behavior to his friends. “Brian’s call,” writes Glass, “had shown me, as well, that it would do no good to apologize.” Readers would no doubt conclude that something resembling this conversation took place. But, in fact, I never wrote or spoke to him after discovering his fabrications; nor, to my knowledge, did any other writers at TNR.
In the novel, when Glass finds his lies unraveling, a colleague offers to defend him to the editor, and he quietly demurs. (He nonetheless expresses deep regret at not having stopped her.) In reality, he actively encouraged his friends to rally to his side and save his job. “Robert”–obviously based on Charles Lane, the editor who fired him–is portrayed as having written a cover story entitled, “Clinton: Our Most Moral President.” Robert, writes Glass, “made the argument without a wink to the viewer, without a moment of hesitation.” If Lane could excuse Clinton’s lies, we are meant to conclude, why can’t he forgive Glass’s? Even putting aside the absurd moral parallel, in real life, Lane never wrote any such story. Glass simply concocts this anecdote to smear his critics with a wholly concocted hypocrisy. “Robert” also profits from the Glass affair by writing a book about his role in the episode. In real life, of course, it is Glass, not Lane, who cashed in on the scandal with a book.
After his firing, “Stephen Glass” does poignant, soul-building penance working at a video store. Perhaps something like this took place. But in fact Stephen Glass, unlike “Stephen Glass,” spent much of the subsequent time getting his J.D. at Georgetown. You can see why this detail never made it into the novel. Few things are less poignant or soul-building than attending law school.
A Sin-Sin Situation
The one great truth of the book is what it reveals, unintentionally, of Glass’s view of himself. In his own mind, he is more sinned against than sinning. At one point, he writes about how he identifies with the Bob Dylan song “Idiot Wind,” the lament of a man wrongly accused. The most venal characters in the novel are his critics. In one scene, a writer sleeps with Glass and then publishes an expose. In another, his chief journalistic tormentor grabs his dying dog and holds it hostage for an interview. Glass presents himself, meanwhile, as living in endless remorse, while the pompous, preening former colleagues who denounce him remain without exception unaware of their own moral emptiness. He sprinkles admissions of his guilt throughout, but they sound rote, like legal disclaimers, lacking any emotional force.
When he appeared on “60 Minutes” earlier this spring, as part of his publicity rollout, Glass admitted he had a lot of amends to make. That he cannot tell the difference between amends and revenge is the sign of a very confused soul.
JONATHAN CHATT is a senior editor at The New Republic.
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