Nearly 100 years ago, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a short story mocking what we now might call “fake news.” The story, never published, remained in the archives until today.
This morning, the New Yorker published “The I.O.U.,” a satire written in 1920 about the way publishers chase sensational stories, no matter the cost. Fitzgerald’s story is well timed for today’s atmosphere of media distrust, where the line between fact and fiction is increasingly blurred by presidents and publishers alike.
The protagonist of “The I.O.U.” is an unscrupulous book publisher with a story he knows will sell: an account by a doctor who claims he’s had psychic contact with his dead nephew, Cosgrove P. Harden.
The narrator, a consummate businessman, carries six copies of the book on a train ride to visit the author, to “lend them casually to the most intelligent-looking of my fellow-passengers.” Unfortunately one of those intelligent passengers is someone unexpected: The “dead” nephew.
Cosgrove is livid at the completely fabricated book by his uncle, which includes lies about a mole on his face (he doesn’t have one), playtime with children (“I hate children.”), and flower-smelling (“God. I’ll never be able to attend another college reunion.”)
The two share this exchange:
I sighed—profoundly and tragically.
“Just when it’s selling better than a book of fiction.”
“Fiction!” he responded angrily. “It is fiction!”
“In a sense—“ I admitted.
“In a sense? It is fiction! It fulfills all the requirements of fiction: it is one long sweet lie. Would you call it fact?”
“No,” I replied calmly. “I should call it nonfiction. Nonfiction is a form of literature that lies halfway between fiction and fact.”
Our narrator spends the rest of the story trying desperately to keep Cosgrove quiet, offering him money and a house in California to let the story play out for 10 years before he tells the public the truth.
Fitzgerald, the author of The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise, became a fixture of US classrooms for the way he captured the extravagant lifestyles of the American elite, and the unsavory ways in which they sought to create legacies. The particular brand captured in the very funny “I.O.U.” is summed up by the narrator, who says:
I would rather bring out a book that had an advance sale of five hundred thousand copies than have discovered Samuel Butler, Theodore Dreiser, and James Branch Cabell in one year. So would you if you were a publisher.
The story will be published in a new collection called I’d Die For You: And Other Lost Stories, out April from Scribner.