You may recall that, earlier this year, Gay Talese took heavy criticism at a literary conference for being unable to name any women writers who inspired him. At the time, I defended him, thinking the flap indicated a generation gap between writers, something I continue to believe.
What I cannot defend, however, is the authorial sloppiness that lies behind his apology for being taken in by the main subject and source for his latest book, The Voyeur’s Motel. The fellow who says that he was the owner of a particular motel and witnessed for years all sorts of things through a peephole in that motel didn’t even own the motel for eight years he claimed he did. The problem is, the elderly Talese took his word lock, stock, and barrel, didn’t bother to check his facts, and stuck with writing his book for years before another investigation brought the falsehood to light.
Authors who build non-fiction books largely on the narratives of other people (Studs Terkel, John McPhee, and Robert Caro come to mind) are at risk of this sort of thing happening, but they usually safeguard themselves by interviewing multiple sources, each of whom will confirm or refute the original source. That’s how they know the original, main source is reliable. Talese didn’t do that work in this case. As a result, he’s taken the unusual step of disavowing the book he’s written. What’s even more amazing to me, though, is that Grove Press is evidently going to publish the book anyway as scheduled, on July 12. I guess they have too much money invested in printing costs to back out, although if the breach of truthfulness is as bad as it appears to be, they should back out. I can’t imagine enough readers would be interested in it to read it. Talese has left himself with nothing to stand on here, even with the apology. The error is not tantalizing or provocative; it’s just a kind of sloppiness, committed by a writer who needs to retire more than he needs to work.