“Why’s this so good?” No. 34: Buzz Bissinger trails a fabulist
So, you, a journalist, are given this ridiculous, outrageous assignment: Write a story about one of your own, a writer who betrayed your profession on a spectacular scale. It’s the story of Stephen Glass, perhaps the most remarkable fabulist ever to pretend to be a nonfiction writer. Oh, and by the way, Glass won’t talk to you, ever. Neither will anyone in his family (including his brother, who played a part in the fraud). Trying to figure your subject out, you may even be driven (as did happen) to stand in the street in front of his family’s house, seeking clues from the dark-wood façade and tidy lawn. But this is a Vanity Fair assignment, so make this an incredibly good story anyway.
I have a kind of love-hate attitude concerning the writer H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger. Hate’s probably the wrong word here. Love-annoyance. Love-if-you-would-just-quit-spouting-off-and-let- me-appreciate-you-as-a-writer. A “noted curmudgeon” is the way Deadspin describes him. “A professional crank,” says Business Insider. And I do wonder if the rants are just professional provocation. Because in so much of his work, Bissinger writes not just beautifully but with warmth, compassion, insight and a sense of fundamental decency. His portrait of Philadelphia, “A Prayer for the City,” is still one the most haunting tales of urban decay that I’ve ever read.
“Shattered Glass,” the 1998 story he wrote for Vanity Fair, also displays Bissinger at his best, a perfect balance of dogged research, astonishingly well-realized characters, told with a thinker’s narrative voice, one that muses, and ponders, and shares in the struggle to understand how a young writer could go so wrong. That’s undoubtedly one reason the piece fostered an art-house film of the same name.
As Bissinger writes, Stephen Glass, an aspiring writer from the wealthy Chicago suburb of Highland Park, was far from the first journalist to invent a story. Perhaps the previous best-known case is that of Janet Cooke, a one-time Washington Post reporter, who was stripped of her 1980 Pulitzer Prize after it was learned that she’d made up an 8-year-old heroin addict. Reportorial history is scattered with other examples – but no one on the scale of Glass, who wrote 31 stories for The New Republic, of which 27 were at least partly fiction and some entirely so. Or as Bissinger puts it:
But none of these journalists approached the sheer calculation of Glass’s deceptions. He is the perfect expression of his time and place: an era is cresting in Washington; it is a time when fact and fiction are blurred not only by writers eager to score but also by presidents and their attorneys, spinmeisters and special prosecutors. From one perspective, Stephen Glass was a master parodist of his city’s shifting truths.
In that context, it’s probably not surprising that Stephen Glass and his family chose not to talk with Bissinger. A story centered on a wholly uncooperative source presents a storyteller with a distinct challenge. The writer Gay Talese famously overcame this through brilliantly detailed observation of his uncooperative subject in the piece “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Bissinger obviously doesn’t have that option here; Glass’s “crimes” are long past when he approaches the story and Glass himself is in hiding.
He decides instead to focus on another character in the drama, that of Chuck Lane, the New Republic magazine editor who stumbles slowly, reluctantly – and even painfully – into a realization of the problem.
The story begins with Lane forcing Glass to revisit the scene of a recently published story, a hotel conference center. It turns out to have been closed on the day that a reported meeting allegedly took place there. According to Lane’s notes, Glass expressed bafflement, insisting that the events were real. And from that point on the narrative shifts back and forth continually between Lane’s story and the story of Bissinger hunting the elusive Stephen Glass.
This kind of structure is sometimes referred to as a zipper structure – essentially two narratives that interlock throughout a story. It’s a slightly imperfect description because the zipper image suggests that each section is of a very similar length, which is rarely true. But it does give you an idea of how neatly the writer has set up his tale. Lane’s investigation of Glass, Bissinger’s investigation of Glass – both move forward in tandem.
Lane is an entirely sympathetic character in this telling, an editor shocked by his discoveries, a man desperately trying to do the right thing. “As Stephen Glass spun feverishly,” Bissinger writes, “Lane anguished.” But as we follow Lane through his own investigation, we also come to see that despite the cost, the editor is also determined to see this through: He keeps notes, makes recordings, checks facts, meets with his reporter’s critics.
One of my favorite scenes is a moment of realization. The story begins when Lane is trying to verify a recently published tale of a California software company victimized by a hacker and eventually agreeing to pay extortion money. As it turns out, Glass has invented the company, along the way creating a fake website for it. During Lane’s investigation, a man calls him from Palo Alto, claiming to be the company president.
As Bissinger tells it:
He had no doubt the hacker story was trash, but he was still bugged by the calls from George Sims of Jukt Micronics.
At about 11 p.m., Lane spoke on the phone with senior editor [Margaret] Talbot. He filled her in on what had happened, and by chance, Talbot mentioned that Glass had a brother who lived in Palo Alto, California.
The second she uttered it, Lane knew.
You might think that devious and uncooperative Glass would end up simply the evil counterpoint to the dauntless Lane. But Bissinger doesn’t cheapen the tale. One of the things that elevates this above a standard retelling of a sordid story is that the writer shows such a serious, almost nonjudgmental effort to understand what he comes to see as a very troubled child.
Bissinger does indeed end up on a street in Highland Park, pondering the influence of neighborhood and upbringing. He looks at old yearbooks, college newspapers, the history of Glass’s professional career. He talks to friends and former colleagues, (a few actually go on the record). And he puzzles with all of them over the destructive habits of “the sweet and nice boy, the hardworking boy who could never be what he wanted to be, the boy who couldn’t live up to the expectations he had inherited.”
But he never forgets that whatever the excuses and explanations, the result was damage to people who trusted Glass, to people wronged by the stories and to Bissinger’s own profession. Thus the story ends on a pitch-perfect note with an ironic tribute to Glass’ improbable career: just a damning list of stories, published as nonfiction but real only in the inventive mind of Stephen Glass.
Deborah Blum (@deborahblum) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of “The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.”