Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

This morning on my commute I began to read Stephen Glass's novel, The Fabulist. Stephen Glass, as you may recall, is the subject of the excellent, excellent movie "Shattered Glass" -- the writer for The New Republic who made up a whole bunch of stories from whole cloth, and after way too long not getting caught, finally got caught. (And went to law school, but that's a discussion for another day.)

The book, which came out a little more than a year ago -- 5 years after he got caught -- is billed as a novel inspired by what really happened to him; the reviews of the book (uniformly quite unfavorable) insist it's basically a memoir with the names changed (nonfiction as fiction, instead of his problem before -- fiction as nonfiction), and the characterizations played up so as to make him look less bad and the people around him less good. Which is sort of how it reads.... but I've been wanting to read it, because I found the movie tremendously compelling, and, honestly, although it sounds bad to say this, I can see what his temptation was. I'm sure most writers can -- the story would be so much better with that perfect detail, that perfect quote, that perfect character... all the way up to the story would be so much better if it was a completely different story than the one that really happened, but instead was the one in my head. But I'm not completely sure how someone could have the lack of conscience to actually write the fake story and submit it for publication -- and to forge documents and subvert the fact-checking and build up a web of lies to support the fake story -- and to continue to ratchet up the stakes from a fake quote to articles that were completely untrue in every respect.

And perhaps that's where the difference is -- most of us can imagine the temptation; few of us can actually imagine doing it; and even fewer of those people would go beyond imagining to actually do what he did. I mean, when I think about what he did, my closest parallel is that for my senior thesis in college, I came up with some words I thought would look nice in a quote, and then did a Lexis search to find if there was anything that fit -- reverse engineering, I guess -- and actually found something pretty close, and completely relevant, that I could cite. But even though that seems sort of improperly reasoned -- motivated badly, by the desire to find the quote instead of working in the other direction -- I'm pretty sure that's not even on the same slippery slope as what Glass did, and pretty much what I've discovered Lexis research is all about, actually.

But where I'm going with this post is that I wanted to read the book to learn more about what was going on in his head, and also about life as a writer at The New Republic, and what his world looked like, as compared with the world the movie created. And while I'm getting through the book with much less difficulty than the reviews indicated I might -- one reviewer I read said that he can't imagine anyone who wasn't involved in the situation actually being motivated to read the whole book -- there's not so much introspection going on, and, since the book starts as Glass is getting caught, not so much inside-The-New-Republic stuff going on. But there is one passage, all the way on page 141, that I found myself reading over a second time, and I wanted to flag. It's from a fictional phone conversation with his best friend from work, a week after Glass gets fired -- I know it's fictional because the real character it's based on wrote a review of the book, and insisted in the review that the call never happened. But it's some interesting emotional content to ponder. I'm quoting extensively here; hoping I'm not breaking any copyright laws:

Two years ago, Brian's car had broken down near York, Pennsylvania, around midnight, the night before his article was due.... [E]ven though he didn't ask me to, I drove up to York [from Washington] that night, arriving after 3 a.m., and brought Brian home. He finished the piece and it ran in the magazine after all.

"At the time, I thought, Holy [], what an amazing friend," Brian explained. "I wouldn't have driven that far. that late, for anyone. But after you did that for me, I absolutely would have done the same for you. Hell, I would have driven to Alaska for you. It was like some kind of logic game. You took the first step, and proved to me you would be my great friend, and after that I would have been happy to repay you tenfold.

"But, Steve, you never called in the debt.... You never asked any of us for favors. Which is really strange, since you were always doing them for us.

"Steve, you do favors people don't even ask for. You noticed what we liked to eat, what we liked to read--then you'd always get it for us....

"I now realize why you do all these favors. It's because you're asking for a favor every day--your own kind of favor. You ask for our trust and approval and kindness and love. That's what you want. You want the things we give away for free. But that's not friendship, that's buying us."
Now, maybe he writes this to paint Brian in a bad light, like he's turning Steve's friendship into something sinister. But the passage got me thinking a little bit. We all want people's trust and approval and kindness and love. Or do we? I do. But maybe other people don't? But if I feel a little like this guy who's making up magazine stories so people like him... does that make me capable of bad stuff like that too? And maybe this is the kind of thinking he wants people to engage in, so they get a better sense of how he could do this. Or maybe I shouldn't care if people like me. Anyway, the passage was thought-provoking. Enough that I felt like typing it to share. Interesting book, if you liked the movie. I don't feel nearly as terrible about the book as the reviews did. (Then again, I got it for free from the library.)