By now, you’ve heard the story: Gay Talese, the 84 year-old author of Thy Neighbor’s Wife, and other classics of the New Journalism of the 1960s, was asked at a conference back on April 2nd to name any female writers who inspired him. “I didn’t know any women writers that I loved,” he replied.
Ignoring the possibility that Talese was simply answering the question honestly, some women in the audience and a whole host of writers and other Twittering critics ripped Talese a new one, cursing his ignorance, his lack of taste, his gender insensitivity, and his dullness.
Talese later said he thought he’d been asked if any female journalists had impressed him growing up. A slightly different question than one about women writers he might have loved, but the answer was still no. Whatever the original question was, the writing world–at least a small part of it–remains self-righteously shocked. They need to get over it, especially the smart-assed Jodi Picoult, who snapped, “Coincidentally, I can’t name a single reason I feel like reading Gay Talese right now.”
Picoult hasn’t read a line of Talese in her life. In all likelihood, none of those criticizing Talese has done so. Instead, they’ve all lined up in solidarity against him, simply because he didn’t work in an era when the praise of women writers–no matter their level of talent– has become obligatory, and the tongue-lashing against actual honesty has become a national sport.
The truth is, Talese comes from an era when it wasn’t hip to praise your inspirations or voice your admiration of your contemporaries. Hell, you were competing against these people, for crissakes, jockeying for print space in The New Yorker, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, or whatever. You didn’t want to give your editor any ideas about hiring anybody else. If you liked somebody’s work, you kept that knowledge to yourself.
Still, it is passing strange that Talese couldn’t name Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Rachel Carson, or Mary McCarthy in the moment. Surely he read these writers, at least. Surely he ran across Frances Fitzgerald and her work covering the Vietnam War. But I guess not. That’s what surprises me about his response. He was never impressed by Helen McCrory or Helen Thomas? They did good, highly-visible work covering politics in the newspapers every day. Neither of them made an impression?
That’s really too bad. But what is worse is the reaction to Talese’s comments. One cannot expect an 84 year-old man or woman to kow-tow to a younger generation. He won’t do it. Do not say, “Well, he should“; I’m telling you, he won’t do it. He’s lived too long and put up with too much bullshit over his career to keep playing games to the end of his days. Part of it is anger. Many of the elderly view their expression of anger and narrow opinions as an entitlement due them from having to suppress so much anger in their youth toward their jobs or their families. But the chemicals that help us keep our emotions in check deteriorate as we grow older. The anger of old age often robs the elderly of the grace and thoughtfulness they’d really like to have in the moment of a social occasion. Had Talese been asked this question twenty years ago, he probably would have handled it far differently and far better, even if the essence of his answer remained “No.”
That’s what this audience was looking for: a bit of grace, a bit of charity or full-heartedness toward the writing community. Yet, when they didn’t get it, what did they do? They did not give back to him the thing they sought. They responded with meanness of spirit and an all-knowing smugness. They never even considered the possibility, slight and disappointing though it may be, that a man might grow up without a woman writer (or a woman) as a positive influence, just as there have been many women writers who, honestly in their souls, can’t think of a single male writer (or a man) who truly made them a better writer or a better person. Nowadays, most of us can name such a woman or a man. But if we use that knowledge only to ridicule someone, to pillory him publicly, as was done here, that only makes us different from Talese, not better. For there’s something else to consider, too. The truth that we often keep to ourselves, whether we are men or women, is that the real list of our actual inspirations, just like the list of our actual friends, is very small, despite what we say or write in public to make ourselves look good in the eyes of other people.