By Ray Schultz
Oh, for heaven’s sake. Haven’t the Twitter twits got anything better to do than beat up on 84 year-old Gay Talese?
Talese got himself in trouble last week by saying, in effect, that he was not, as a young journalist, inspired by any female reporters—an admission that created a firestorm in social media.
He made the remarks during a panel at Boston University. And he was promptly given a failing grade.
Jerks, fools, classroom-bound jackasses…get a life.
Here’s what happened. You tell me if our nonfiction master deserves to be pilloried.
As reported by Sridhar Pappu in The New York Times, the poet Verandah Porche put Talese on the spot by asking, “In addition to Nora Ephron, who were the women who write who were most, who have inspired you most?”
Pappu continues, using transcripts provided by Boston University:
“‘Did I hear you say what women have inspired me most?’ Mr. Talese said.
“‘As writers,’ Mr. Talese said. ‘Uh, I’d say Mary McCarthy was one. I would, um, [pause] think [pause] of my generation [pause] um, none. I’ll tell you why. I’m not sure it’s true, it probably isn’t true anymore, but my — when I was young, maybe 30 or so, and always interested in exploratory journalism, long-form, we would call it, women tended not, even good writers, women tended not to do that. Because being, I think, educated women, writerly women, don’t want to, or do not feel comfortable dealing with strangers or people that I’m attracted to, sort of the offbeat characters, not reliable.”
It was a classic “gotcha” moment, almost as if Trump or Hillary had been caught in a gaffe. Talese, who does not own a cell phone, found out that he was infamous from a redcap at Penn Station, and then from his wife Nan, a prominent writer and book editor.
He tried to clarify his remarks in an interview with Pappu , mentioning that he once wanted to write like Carson McCullers. (A very high bar to set). But the flap was only beginning.
Roxanne Gay tweeted, “I hope no one expected Talese, who doesn’t wear jeans, to think well of women.” (Huh?) There were wildly inaccurate headlines saying that Talese admires no female writers at all. Some self-publicists have charged that he hates women.
Let’s step back for a minute. What I think Talese was trying to say in Boston was that there weren’t many women journalists around when he was young, especially any doing long-form literary journalism. And if so, he was right, particularly on the paper he worked on, that Gray Lady, The New York Times.
Granted, there were a few women in the business. In those days, if the folklore is correct, the stereotypical female reporter was a wizened person who smoked cigarettes as she hunched over a typewriter.
On some papers, female writers were called “sob sisters,” because they were given human-interest stories to cover, and had free reign to write emotion-charged copy. Thus, the best writing in newspapers was not on the front page, but in the women’s section and the sports columns.
I’d argue that Talese, while he clearly transcended it, came right out of that sob-sister tradition: Although a fine reporter, he distinguished himself more as a writer than a scoop artist. And I have a confession to make: As a teenager, when I knew him only by his byline, I thought Talese was a woman. Who else would have a name like Gay, and who else could write these deeply sensitive portraits of people?
Then I learned that Gay is short for Gaetano, and that he happens to be a man. And, yes, he has tended to write about men—Sinatra, DiMaggio, Floyd Patterson, the heads of the so-called Bonanno crime family. And nobody has done it better.
As for his performance in Boston. I suspect that Talese is uncomfortable on stage: He’s too much the reporter. Asked a tough question, he floundered for a moment.
If he had been prepared for that query, which I bet was designed to cause the exact effect that it did, he could have named Janet Malcolm, Lillian Ross, Janet Flanner or Joan Didion, whether or not he had read them. And he would have gotten away with it, given the superficial level of this discussion.
But he was set up—and caught. And now a deadly academic sensibility is creeping into it. Every time you turn around, someone is naming yet another female writer Talese should have read when he was climbing out on girders to report on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Why not Scheherazade, as one wag suggested?
It has turned into a feeding storm. It’s so easy for these coddled literary poseurs to attack a man formed in another era. They are, as author Katie Roiphe implied to ABC News, trying to police people’s inspirational influences.
Let’s not forget that Talese still writes deeply sensitive profiles that younger writers should emulate, and that his critics can learn something from him about accuracy.
For more about Gay Talese, click here.