"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 26 May 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Stranger Than Fiction



"In my tenderest years, I became

familiar with the great art of

synthesizing news," exclaims

H. L. Mencken in Newspaper Days,

en route to an explanation of

how he and two other reporters

from rival Baltimore newspapers

used to spin their barroom

fabrications into a convincing

web of counterbalanced deceit.

In Saving Graces, Eldon

McElway's memoirs of his years

at Esquire in the mid-1940s, the

man who pioneered the

personal-finance column reveals

that many of the supposedly real

people and situations he

described in his urbane fiscal

dramas were in fact nothing more

than the felicitous products of

his didactic imagination. And,

finally, in Wayward Reporter,

A. J. Liebling biographer Raymond

Sokolov suggests that his

subject, renowned for his

ability to accurately

reconstruct lengthy, often

convoluted conversations even

though he hardly ever took

notes, once wrote a seven-part

series on a New York pinochle

match that was "obviously 90

percent fiction."


In other words, as much as he

seems the ultimate embodiment of

our transparently specious era,

Stephen Glass, the Georgetown

law student moonlighting as a

Streep in Wolfe's clothing, is

actually part of a rich, storied

tradition. Of course, there is

one important distinction

between this particular vessel

of the Zeitgeist and his less

virtuous forebears: When

Mencken, McElway, and Liebling

were fashioning their

journalistic deceptions, a

viable commercial market for

short fiction still existed.


Glass, on the other hand, was

faced with the grim prospect

that all writers of short

fiction must now address:

literary ghetto-ization in the

little magazines and vanity

journals, the occasional token

appearance in the one or two

glossies that have not yet

divested themselves of that

hidebound tradition known as the

annual fiction issue, and a

dead-end job as a disingenuous

reassurance dispenser at some

fourth-rate creative-writing

program in Montana. Apparently

not plagued by the low

self-esteem that forces most

writers of fiction to sell

themselves out so cheaply, Glass

simply did what great artists

have always done: He changed the

rules of the game to fit his own

requirements, passing off his

stories as nonfiction in order

to capitalize on truth's greater

financial returns in today's

magazine marketplace.



"No one but a blockhead ever

wrote for anything but money,"

counseled a characteristically

pithy G. Beato in a

much-cited Traffic article

a few years ago; the irony of

that venal maxim is how much

first-rate work it has inspired.

In their mad dash for dollars,

writers invariably end up

breaking through boundaries and

overcoming obstacles that would

have likely proved

insurmountable had their quarry

not been quite so alluring - and

it was no different in Glass'




In the mid '90s, when the

slippery satirist presumably

began pioneering what the

smartass set is now calling the

New Fiction, the short-story

genre and journalism were both

in advanced states of

decrepitude. In the case of the

former, the nation's bustling

MFA mills had oversaturated

the marketplace with thousands

of Raymond Carver and Gordon

Lish franchisees capable of

churning out little more than

technically adept

slices-of-lifelessness and

paint-by-numbers grotesques.


Journalism, alas, was in no

better shape. While the original

practitioners of New Journalism

revivified the genre by

inserting themselves into their

stories, their descendants

somehow arrived at the

conclusion that the story part

of the equation was actually

rather dispensable; all that

mattered was their own opinions,

and thus, a thousand op-ed

columns bloomed. Accelerating

the discipline's devolution was

the ascension of the celebrities

drive-by - if a detailed

psychoanalysis of Claire Dane's

lunching apparel and remarkably

precocious mastication

techniques moved the most

product off the newsracks, then

what was the point of

underwriting the costly research

and reporting that the

labor-intensive New Journalism




Glass' methods were the exact

jump-start the magazine industry

needed: By presenting his work

as journalism, he gave it a

sense of urgency and import that

short fiction simply doesn't

generate on its own any longer.

And by making everything up, he

was able to extend the cued-up

drama and just-add-Junod

epiphany of the celebrities

handshake to more comprehensive

canvases, at a fraction of what

it would cost to produce such

material using traditional



Of course, Glass has proven to

be a somewhat controversial

character. Like Fox's Masked

Magician, he was a bit too

cavalier in his revelation of

the trade's secrets, and now, in

the wake of a months-long

unattributed sourcefest

regarding whether Clinton

actually did or did not impale

Monica Lewinsky, and amidst

chronic allegations that the

media is faking it at least as

often as a frigid transvestite

hooker, the industry's stewards

of truth and flakuracy have

apparently decided that a

sacrifice to the gods of

Hypocritical Piety is in order.

So down into the volcano of

pundit opinion Glass is cast,

even though readers have mostly

responded with amused

indifference to his

transgressions. Indeed, what the

various publications now

distancing themselves from

Glass' erstwhile editorial

diamonds don't seem to recognize

is that the public likes ersatz

news - as long as it's done with

appropriate verve and insight.

Given the success of slightly

less covert practitioners of the

genre like The Onion, Po Bronson, and

silicon Glass-piper Carl

Steadman, what's amazing to us

is that HarperEdge has yet to

announce the first New Fiction



On the other hand, any new

literary movement worth its

assaults on convention faces

initial bull-headed opposition -

and given New Fiction's

essential haziness, the

misunderstandings and accusatory

Glassolalia will surely

continue, at least until

someone, the ASME perhaps,

develops a set of guidelines

that delineates exactly what

does and what doesn't constitute

New Fiction. (Consider, for

example, the work of Salon

columnist Courtney Weaver, who

is sometimes taken for a New

Fictionist even though her

weekly banal sex musings have

the unmistakably flat tenor of

actual experience.) At the very

least, responsible magazines

should start staffing up their

fiction-checking departments.


As the de facto barometer of New

Fiction's ultimate fate, Glass

will be closely watched during the

next few months. Luckily, it

appears that not everyone has

forsaken his considerable, if

controversial, talents:

Yesterday, watering holes from

Old Town Bar to Akbar were

buzzing with rumors that

director Terry Gilliam is

planning to option "Prophets and

Losses," Glass' transparent

paean to his own duplicity in

the form of a telepsychic user

manual. Apparently disappointed

with the Godzilla-distracted

sobriety moviegoers are aiming

at his version of Hunter S.

Thompson's gonzo journalism

masterpiece, Gilliam is

reportedly looking forward to

working on a project, which -

like recent hits Titanic, Spice World, and

Primary Colors - has a greater

basis in fact.

courtesy of St. Huck