So I leave the country for a few weeks, and I miss the latest Twitter storm surrounding Gay Talese. The world may have moved on to Pokemon (and by the time you read this, it will no doubt have moved on from that too), but a Talese scorecard seems in order nonetheless.
This year’s controversies began back in April, when the New Journalism demigod told a gathering at Boston University’s “The Power of Narrative” conference that no women writers inspired him. Which quickly inspired the outraged hashtag #WomenGayTaleseShouldRead.
Then, a few weeks ago, Talese at one point appeared to disavow his new book, “The Voyeur’s Motel” after the Washington Post discovered holes in the reporting.
When the Post informed him that the subject of the book, Gerald Foos, who says he spied on customers for decades at his Colorado motel, didn’t own the property for several of those years, Talese responded: “I should not have believed a word he said. I’m not going to promote this book. How dare I promote it when its credibility is down the toilet?”
A day later, however, he released this statement: “I was surprised and upset about this business of the later ownership of the motel, in the ’80s. That occurred after the bulk of the events covered in my book, but I was upset and probably said some things I didn’t, and don’t, mean. Let me be clear: I am not disavowing the book, and neither is my publisher. If, down the line, there are details to correct in later editions, we’ll do that.”
Storyboard readers might remember an Annotation Tuesday! that the writer Elon Green did a few years back on Talese’s most famous magazine piece, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” It was epic both in the interview (Green had Scotch, Talese had water) and the annotation itself (imagine a 15,000-word article with copious, and really informative, notes).
“I am not convinced that this screw-up is a reason to consign Talese’s career to the slag heap.”
A few days ago, Green came to Talese’s defense in a commentary piece in the Guardian, saying that he believes the author’s reputation will survive the scandal.
“Last week’s revelations about the property record search – and, consequently, the reliability of a man about whom Talese devoted an entire book –have certainly hurt his reputation in the short-term,” Green writes. “But what about long-term?”
He comes to this conclusion: “I am not convinced that this screw-up is a reason to consign Talese’s career to the slag heap.
“I believe, perhaps naively, that we should judge artists – be they writers, film-makers, or musicians – on their best efforts. (We Bob Dylan fans must live with the several albums worth of terrible songs in his backlog.) I don’t think lesser work negates, or even diminishes, great work. If anything, the former makes me cherish the latter all the more. I suspect a lot of people agree with me on that score. So while I wish Talese hadn’t made this mistake, I doubt it will damage his legacy.”
It has been an annus horribilis for Talese (sorry, just came back from Britain, and am hearing the queen’s voice when I write that). This scorecard may yet need updating.