‘The IOU’ by F Scott Fitzgerald

This humorous short story is about the blurred line between fact and fiction, and explores what happens when greed hijacks truth: “I am a publisher. I publish any sort of book. I am looking for a book that will sell five hundred thousand copies.” ‘The IOU’ was written in 1920, five years before the publication of Fitzgerald’s acclaimed novel, The Great Gatsby, at a time when the author was just twenty-three years old. It remained unpublished until 2017, when it appeared for the first time in The New Yorker. At its heart, ‘The IOU’ is a story about fake news, and continues to be relevant more than a century after it was written. The protagonist is the publisher of a superbly successful book, who takes a train journey to meet his best-selling author, when, by chance, he meets the person who is the subject of the book, whose very existence discredits the story. The unscrupulous publisher grapples with the ethics at play: “I considered quickly whether I could change all the names and shift the book from my nonfiction to my fiction. But it was too late even for this. Three hundred thousand copies were in the hands of the American public.” The story is an entertaining romp of conflicted interests. And of course, the author and publisher get their comeuppance – thanks to the existence of a forgotten, but measly, IOU. 

First published in The New Yorker, March 2017, and available for subscribers to read there