July 5, 2016
Gay Talese disowns his own book, calling its credibility “down the toilet”… or does he?
by Liam O’Brien
You think you’ve had a busy summer? Buddy, you don’t know the half of it. Try imagining the emotional rollercoaster that’s been Gay Talese’s life over the past few months.
First, there was that imbroglio between Team “He’s Sexist” and Team “He’s Just Old.” Then, an entirely new outlet for Talese-directed outrage, in the form of his upcoming book The Voyeur’s Motel, the revealed details of which indicated that Talese might have committed unethical, if not illegal, acts in pursuing the story of motel owner Gerald Foos, who spied on his guests.
Then, in a slightly-surprising twist, Talese apparently severed all ties with The Voyeur’s Motel, after being presenting with evidence that Foos may be even more of a creepy lying liar than Talese originally thought/tolerated. Paul Farhi reports at the Washington Post:
Talese overlooked a key fact in his book: Foos sold the motel, located in Aurora, Colo., in 1980 and didn’t reacquire it until eight years later, according to local property records. His absence from the motel raises doubt about some of the things Foos told Talese he saw — enough that the author himself now has deep reservations about the truth of some material he presents.
“I should not have believed a word he said,” the 84-year-old author said after The Washington Post informed him of property records that showed Foos did not own the motel from 1980 to 1988.
“I’m not going to promote this book,” the writer said. “How dare I promote it when its credibility is down the toilet?”
It’s always a little awkward when a reporter confronts you with damning evidence, but it’s especially unfortunate when you’ve been trying to tell a salacious story and defend it on journalistic merit. The outrage surrounding Talese’s book looked like it would provide a lightly notorious cushion of publicity, but that only works if the story is, or feels, true.
Yet Talese already acknowledged Foos’s lack of credibility in the book, writing, “I cannot vouch for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript” after initially discovering a few holes in Foos’s story involving timing. Foos’s journal entries about his voyeurism begin three years before his actual purchase of the hotel, and a murder Foos claims to have witnessed in the motel and that Talese found no record of with local law enforcement. And these discrepancies themselves don’t invalidate the potential journalistic merit of a book-length profile; after all, a portrait of a flawed and unreliable man can be just as compelling, if not more so, than that of an honest man.
But it appears that Talese’s trust in the book’s core source text, which are Foos’s extensive diaries, was shaken enough to be broken. This plus an anecdote from Foos about his son having rented the same apartment later inhabited by mass shooter James Holmes, which was later revealed to be a lie.
While the majority of the events Foos describes having witnessed in the hotel occurred before he sold it, his lies taint the full text. If Foos is a pathological liar, then any text that relies on his testimony is by definition compromised beyond the journalistic pale. But there’s a curious dodging of blame happening here. Talese doesn’t exactly apologize for failing to vet his source.
“The source of my book, Gerald Foos, is certifiably unreliable,” Talese said. “He’s a dishonorable man, totally dishonorable. . . . I know that. . . . I did the best I could on this book, but maybe it wasn’t good enough.”
Foos vouches for his own veracity. “I can swear to this, and I can say this unequivocally and without recourse, that I have never purposely told a lie,” he said. “Everything I said in that book is the truth.”
Talese is outraged, yes—but though I would speculate that his extreme reaction is at least partly a response to the uneasy rumblings of unethical reporting that have dogged the book since it was first excerpted in the New Yorker—the editor of which, David Remnick, provided a boilerplate “we’re looking into it” response to the Post. Talese neatly distances himself from his own work, which defuses any pressure on him to defend his choices… except not really, because, you know, he wrote the damn thing. Journalists don’t work in a vacuum, and the failure to discover these errors isn’t Talese’s alone. But it’s hard to excuse a failure to check every possible aspect of a source’s story when their credibility is already spotty—because that’s how you prevent embarrassments like this one.
But the ride’s not over. It can’t be! This story demands even more ambiguity. The day after the Post piece, Grove/Atlantic (Talese’s publisher) issued a press release in which they assured the public that Talese would promote the book and had just spoken out of turn. Grove CEO Morgan Entrekin said that the publisher “takes the Post story seriously and will work with Talese to address any questions in future printings.” Because in the world of 2016 Gay Talese, there are no certainties. Just headlines.
As of now, The Voyeur’s Motel is still slated for release on July 12.
Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.