By Carlo Wolff
By Stephen Glass, Simon
& Schuster, 342 pages, $24
The Fabulist is a bad novel, both as literature and for what
it exemplifies in our culture. It attempts to be expiation,
but this thinly disguised memoir about Stephen Glass’ journalistic
disgrace shames us all.
It’s the summer of 1998, and Glass is a hot young journalist
at the Washington Weekly, a publication that
“invented what became the dominant magazine journalism voice
of the 1990s: the Ironic- Contrarian.” He gets in trouble
when a reporter from a competing publication calls his editor
about a story Glass wrote about a conference for aggrieved
lottery winners in suburban Virginia. The story is fiction,
Glass won’t admit it to his editor, and his undoing begins.
No matter how much he obfuscates, he only worsens his situation
(he even enlists his brother in the deception), and Glass
loses his job.
His erstwhile colleagues try to interview him, his girlfriend
becomes more distant, and Glass leaves Washington, D.C., for
his home in suburban Chicago, where his parents welcome him
with open, neurotic arms. He ultimately loses his girl and
secures work at a video store, where he exhibits a smidgen
of managerial talent. He’s fired when he tells his boss he’s
been fired before. At the end, he and Sylvia, the gambling
addict who understands and loves him, embark on a new life
in a new place. Enabling wins again.
Novels are supposed to illuminate, entertain and enlighten,
and The Fabulist fails on all but a touch of the second
count. Glass can write, and he has a way with the generic:
“All of the Jewish suburbs splattered across the country—Lakeside,
South Orange, Highland Park, Shaker Heights, Whitefish Bay,
Scottsdale, West Bloomfield, Scarsdale, Potomac, just to name
a few—are impossibly interconnected, as if by underground
tunnels. As children, we went to overnight camp with kids
from the other suburbs. We saw them again in college, and
after we graduated, we ended up marrying them. And then, when
our kids came, we were supposed to move out of the cities
we lived in, and into still another one of these suburbs.”
Precocious, talented and ingratiating, Glass is part of the
young journalistic intelligentsia that helps shape modern
culture and gives it so much of its commercial clout. He’s
also Jewish, and his descriptions of the way his family handles
his problem—his mother smothers him with solicitousness while
his meddlesome father utters truisms—ring both true and revolting.
Glass’s facility doesn’t carry a book without character, however.
Reading this geek porn is like watching somebody pick his
If Simon & Schuster hadn’t paid six figures for this,
some other house would have. If I hadn’t called the publicist
for a copy, she wouldn’t have overnighted it. Buzz is codependent,
Now that I’ve read it, however, I wish this book would go
away. It’s an excuse, not literature. Its very publication
reflects and affirms the moral bankruptcy at its core. It’s
a thinly disguised memoir that attempts to justify mendacity
but offers no insight. One can only hope it remainders fast.
Five years after Glass was drummed out of journalism for fabricating
stories for The New Republic comes The Fabulist,
his novel about a man named Stephen Glass who was drummed
out of journalism for fabricating stories at a fictitious
publication called the Washington Weekly. The timing
is uncanny: Former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair
just stole Glass’s thunder, big time. Glass must be mad that
Blair upstaged him.
Nevertheless, The Fabulist is the frisson of the moment,
if only because Glass is a very bad boy and American popular
culture embraces bad boys, especially when they “out” like
Glass. In the celebrity culture, there are second acts, and
forgiveness can be all.
If The Fabulist is about enablers, its publication
is an act of enabling, a particularly cynical one. It reveals
an industry willing to facilitate the illusion of redemption
of a fundamentally irredeemable man; Glass’s acknowledgments
cite his family and bow deeply to his agent, editor, and the
gang of publicists who treat this book with far more respect
than it deserves.
loved the electricity of people liking my stories,” Glass
told CBS news correspondent Steve Kroft in early May. The
60 Minutes segment—hard-hitting and unflattering—was
nevertheless great publicity for The Fabulist. This
is Age of Spin, so the 60 Minutes piece was double-edged.
It not only “exposed” Glass all over again, it gave him a
launching pad for a second act.
loved going to story conference meetings and telling people
what my story was going to be, and seeing the room excited,”
Glass told Kroft. “I wanted every story to be a home run.”
Glass’s book is readable, but spin usually is. Glass is hard
to like in real life, so it’s no surprise he’s hard to like
or engage with as a fictional character. Still, he can be
perceptive. The callow, pasty Glass is a painfully self-aware
type who would like us not only to share his pain but to forgive
Unfortunately, his only substance is his notoriety.
Fabulist is a lame excuse for the hell Glass caused his
subjects and the pesky journalistic questions he raised. It’s
also his attempt to reignite a career justly cut short; word
is Simon & Schuster paid him a hefty advance for The
Fabulist. The book is adolescent, not sexy; wheedling,
not persuasive; pathetic, and faintly slimy. If you’re driven
to buy it nevertheless (the curiosity factor is sure to run
high for a while; it certainly did for me), wrap it in a plain
brown paper bag when you leave the store.