Last Saturday, Gay Talese was speaking at a conference at Boston University. When the octogenarian nonfiction legend was asked about women writers who had inspired him, he replied, “I didn’t know any women writers that I loved.”
Now, he’s followed up with the Boston Globe to say that he misunderstood the question, that he thought it applied to his youth—a bygone period in which women were barely allowed to work as reporters at all. Sure. This clarification doesn’t matter, really: not because Gay Talese being unable to name inspiring women writers is such a powerful literary wronging it cannot be undone, but because it didn’t really matter—didn’t matter pragmatically, outside of the realm of symbol, sort of like, well, never mind—in the first place.
Over the weekend, many outlets covered the story. (84-Year-Old Man Says Something Stupid About Women, filed to: YOU DON’T SAY.) The Globe covered it, ThinkProgress covered it, the Washington Post covered it (headline: “Gay Talese can’t name a single female writer who inspired him. Thankfully, Twitter has a few suggestions.”), the Cut covered it (good lede: “If there’s one thing the modern professional man should know, it’s that they should have at least one woman in their field they can namecheck when called upon...”), the New York Daily News covered it, the New York Post covered it, and we covered it.
On Jezebel, Rachel Vorona Cote closed her piece: “Stay tuned for Gay Talese’s damage control ‘Woke Bae’ campaign.” I wish, purely for the spectacle! (And there’s still time.) But never a Bae Wokese shall he be: that’s not house style, anyway. Talking to the Boston Globe, Talese clarified that he takes absolutely none of this back:
“I misunderstood the question,” he wrote in an e-mail to me Sunday night.
The question, the rest of us heard, was whether any female writers inspired Talese. He thought he was being asked whether any female journalists made an impression on him as a young man. His answer: “None.”
“My answer was ‘no.’ And it remains ‘no,’ Talese wrote. “I say this as a senior-senior citizen of 84, and if there had been a woman reporter who influenced me during my upbringing she’d have to be more than a hundred years old.”
He goes on to explain that when he started out in journalism, there were very few women working at big city newspapers. Those who were usually covered softer subjects like society and food and rarely ventured into substantive topics like crime and politics.
Mitchell Zuckoff, a professor at BU who was there at the conference, is quoted in many of the above stories saying that this is indeed what Talese meant—that he was talking about the past, not the present.
“The world he inherited in the 1950's and 1960's didn’t have a lot of women doing non-fiction narrative. That was his world,” Mitchell Zuckoff, the Redstone Professor of Narrative Studies at Boston University told the Daily News. “I truly believe he was talking about the era. That the women he knew in that era weren’t drawn to the stories he was drawn to.”
“I don’t believe he was characterizing women journalists as not being interested in those. I know he wasn’t talking about the women at the conference. I feel like he’s not getting a fair shake here,” Zuckoff said in defense of the legendary writer.
But as Shirley Leung points out in her follow-up at the Globe, the whole “misunderstanding” (and the wide aggregation of such, which has ruffled Talese’s feathery standards: “The existence of my reputation was tarnished by the irresponsible form of journalism on the internet these days that reaffirms my lack of respect for what and how things are being reported there,” he told Leung) could have been headed off at the pass by Tom Fielder, the moderator, who might have considered asking Talese to clarify.
With the audience stunned at the conversation, I wished Fiedler acted like a trained journalist he once was.
Fiedler, a former editor of the Miami Herald, could have stepped in and told Talese, “Hold on. So there weren’t many women you looked up to during your formative years, but what about later in your career?”
If he had done that, this is what Talese would have told him. The author would have clarified that he greatly admired female fiction writers growing up, especially Mary McCarthy and Carson McCullers. Talese also would have gone on to say that he holds many female journalists of today in high regard.
“I was not commenting on contemporary women who practiced journalism: Susan Orlean, Larissa MacFarquhar (I wrote her a fan letter two weeks ago, praising her piece in The New Yorker on the Ford Foundation), Lillian Ross (whose new collection I blurbed enthusiastically), Katie Roiphe (ditto) and the late Nora Ephron (whom I described with adoration in the new HBO show directed by her son, Jacob Bernstein),” Talese wrote in an e-mail.
For his part, Fiedler tells me he didn’t press Talese further because it was the audience question-and-answer portion of the program. Sitting on stage next to Talese, Fiedler did not sense a controversy in the making, but knowing what he knows now, he would have probed further.
Yeah, sure. Or, you know, Talese himself could have put down the glass of bourbon and put down the cigarette and stepped out of the midcentury pool room and chosen to answer the question of whether women writers had inspired him with anything other than a “no,” because “the educated woman wants to deal with educated people,” not interview “anti-social types.”
But to the point—finally—it doesn’t really matter. It’s demeaning for the women writers present at this conference to be dismissed so roundly by a king of the game; it’s also arguable, and I’d argue it, that part of removing old men like Gay Talese from their positions of extreme prominence is caring less about the dumb, ungenerous, anachronistic things they tend to say. Talese has shaped the market, exerted disproportionate influence, but the time in which his standards were our standards is done. And the mismatch in the conversation isn’t making this any clearer. “Thankfully,” read the Washington Post headline, “Twitter has a few suggestions, meaning women he should read. Thankfully for who? #WomenGayTaleseShouldRead trended, and we all (with the likely exception of Gay Talese himself) got another opportunity to be reminded of a better set of titans: Martha Gellhorn, Gail Sheehy, Janet Malcolm, Jill Lepore.
Image via AP