April 7, 2016
Gay Talese can’t name any female writers that inspire him; claims he’s just too old
by Julia Fleischaker
While being interviewed at a conference in Boston on April 2, writer Gay Talese gave a bad answer when asked about female writers who inspired him. Ellen McCarthy reports for the Washington Post:
Legendary journalist and author Gay Talese said on Saturday afternoon that he couldn’t name a single female writer who shaped his work.
Speaking at a Boston University conference called “The Power of Narrative,” Talese, 84, further alienated many in the audience by asserting that female journalists aren’t interested in “uneducated” or “anti-social” subjects.
Anyway you read it, the answer was…not good. But in an email to Shirley Leung at the Boston Globe, Talese claimed that it was all a misunderstanding. Leung writes:
“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.”
Leung goes on to blame the moderator for not following up—“With the audience stunned at the conversation, I wished Fiedler acted like a trained journalist he once was.”
But Jia Tolentino at Jezebel argues that these distinctions hardly matter:
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.”
Valentina Zarya at Fortune agrees.
The conversation should be less about whether and which women Talese admires—he has since given the Globe a list of names of women he admires that includes Susan Orlean, Larissa MacFarquhar and Lillian Ross. It’s about the fact that he felt so comfortable grouping female journalists (who only talk to “educated people”) into a category separate from—and less than—men.
For his part, Talese has responded with disappointment over the Twitterstorm his statements caused, claiming that his “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.”
Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.