Stephen Glass is back in the news. In the upcoming issue of Harper’s Magazine, they are running a letter from him and have issued a retraction about an article he wrote for them all the way back in 1998. For those who don’t know, Glass was a writer at New Republic in the mid to late 1990s. He was something of a star — publishing many remarkable and amusing stories. The problem was that he was just making stuff up — in some cases, entire articles. But it is coming up on two decades now and Glass is still running around making amends.
The article in question is, “Prophets and Losses.” In it, Glass supposedly went to work for a telephone psychic outfit. By the calculations of the Harper’s Magazine editors: “at least 5,647 of the 7,902 words… were based on fabrications.” That’s pretty amazing. At the same time, as a writer, I appreciate that he was actually writing. The question is whether such writing would have been published had it not been “true.” And the answer to that is pretty clearly that it wouldn’t have been. People accept much less interesting stories if they are supposedly true. Just look at The Blair Witch Project, which never would have been a hit without the cover story of it being real. It just isn’t that interesting and has a totally boring denouement.
But I still think it is pretty bad that Stephen Glass is still trying to piece his life back together. The same goes for Jayson Blair, although I don’t know what he’s up to. In Glass’ case, he’s trying to become a lawyer, but the state of California thinks he can’t be trusted to be a lawyer because of all the made-up stories he published. It’s kind of amusing really. I mean, a lawyer?! He wants to be part of a profession where creating plausible but false stories is critical.
Michael Hiltzik at The Los Angeles Times noted last week that there is much to dislike about Glass. In particular, “His imaginary characters are lower-class, often minority figures, depicted as credulous and uneducated, sometimes speaking in dialect.” But that brings up the broader issue of why it was that Stephen Glass was such a hot commodity while he lasted. As Hiltzik put it, “Glass played on his bosses’ prejudices…” So the question is: if his bosses at New Republic had such a classist take on the work, do we really think that the lawyers of California do not?
My interest is not in Stephen Glass. He’s from a privileged background. Even with all his baggage, and without license to practice law, he finds himself with the impressive sounding position at Director of Special Projects at a big-time law firm. But the treatment of him is typical of the way we treat people who have made mistakes in the past. We are not a forgiving society. There is a binary nature to our attitudes, where people are all good or all bad. And that just isn’t the case. People are all grey, as far as the eye can see.
But for most people without the resources of Stephen Glass, life is effectively over after a drug felony. These are the people who I fret over. And as a society, I think we really need to decide when we are going get over past wrongs. In Stephen Glass’ case, his great wrong was to embarrass a certain economic and intellectual class. I don’t defend what he did. But he’s hardly a murderer — and even they deserve some reconsideration over time. As a society, we need to learn the art of forgiveness.