Saturday, September 25, 2010

Journalists, ugly and true

CHOOSING is easy when the range is limited to the good and the bad.

Instead of comforting, though, the undeniability of this logic chaffed when I recently had to make a choice between John McPhee’s “Encounters with the Archdruid” and Stephen Glass’s “The Fabulist”.

I was in this secondhand bookstore, looking for a weekend treat that would not cost more than P151 (that’s all the change I had left; with payday still a week away, I didn’t want to break up the lone bill left in my wallet).

McPhee is a writer I’ve stalked longest, next only to Joseph Mitchell.

But while Mitchell died in 1996, McPhee, at 79, feels there are still topics to write about. His early books of the 1960s and 70s often turn up in bargain bins, perhaps because someone committed enough to pursue his personal curiosity into months, even years, of studying and writing about obscure folks going about their uncommon business—harvesting orange juice, fly-fishing, basketball, floorwalking, foraging for wild edibles, making birch-bark canoes, tending the lawn at Wimbledon, for samplers—would be out of place in the shelves groaning under bestsellers.

For the rigor of his note-taking and immersion in his subjects, McPhee deserves to be called, as he was extolled by one reviewer, “a reporter’s reporter”.

Yet, for the respect he pays to words and the gusto of his storytelling, what comes to mind is not journalism of the cut-and-dried variety but something more enduring, like literature. Here’s McPhee estimating the depth of a river where he’s dragging a canoe: “There were times, in holes, when I was up to my armpits, but that could not be called dramatic. Among armpits on this planet, mine do not imply great depth."

Coming upon “Encounters with the Archdruid,” one of four books McPhee devoted to “geology” (the arena now called “ecology”), should have instantly concluded at the cashier and my riding off to the sunset, delirious, with my sixth McPhee.

Alas, I dawdled at a shelf holding the hardbounds and found, at perfect eye level, the insidious, nefarious Glass.

Since about five years ago, every writing class I’ve handled gets acquainted with Stephen Glass before they wrestle with news leads and angles.

Thanks to the 2003 film dramatization, “Shattered Glass,” these future journalists get quickly drawn in, then repelled and, against themselves, become fascinated with the unraveling of Glass. (McPhee, on the other hand, glazes my students’ eyes after the first dozen pages; one condensed New Yorker article ran to 30 or so pages.)

In the late 1990s, Glass, a gifted, fast-rising American reporter and editor, was exposed for committing serial fraud. Of 41 articles he wrote for The New Republic, a prestigious magazine read by Washington and the Oval Office, Glass invented quotes, sources, institutions and issues in 27 of those articles. He denied and denied those fabrications until in 2003, when the ex-journalist published a “biographical novel.”

“The Fabulist” is the title of Glass’s novel. This was the copy I was staring at. I had only seen the book previously in a “60 Minutes” interview, when Glass apologized for faking journalism and plugged his book.

“A spectacular crash, I’ve learned, is the quickest way to incredible accomplishment.” So begins a tale that tantalizes in its allusions to answers Glass refused to give in real life.

Why did he do it? (Stephen Aaron Glass, the novel’s protagonist, perfects the “takedown article” but has to lie and invent to stay ahead of newsroom rivals.)

Does he exemplify the excesses of journalism? (Other journalists are more ruthless in stalking Stephen Aaron after he’s fired.)

Is there life for a journalist after a crisis of credibility? (He gets a new girlfriend, moves into a new apartment, and rediscovers Judaism.)

Is he sorry? (A believable degree of atonement is hard to stumble across when one is rapidly scanning a mint copy with still stiff, crisp pages. In the end, I just reread the line that opens “The Fabulist”.)

Maybe bad guys attract Hollywood. Owing to the exigency of my wallet’s contents, I went home with the writer who, without being a fabulist, elevated armpits into the heavenly.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 26, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

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