Legendary journalist and author Gay Talese said on Saturday afternoon that he couldn’t name a single female writer who shaped his work.
“I think for a gathering full of many talented women writers, it’s a pretty discouraging thing to have someone who might be a hero for many of us say that he can’t really name any women who helped shape his work,” says Amy Littlefield, a 29 year-old journalist from New York who was in the audience.
During a question-and-answer portion of his keynote address, Talese, whose six-decade career reached its pinnacle with the 1966 publication of “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” was asked about female authors who inspired him. He first named Mary McCarthy, Littlefield recalled in a phone interview after the panel discussion, “and then there was a pause and he said, ‘None. And I’ll tell you why.’ And he went into this explanation about how educated women don’t want to hang out with anti-social people.”
The comments by Talese, who also authored a much-loved profile of Joe DiMaggio called “The Silent Season of a Hero,” provoked an immediate backlash on Twitter. Women in the audience registered their shock and disgust, while others followed up online with suggestions of #womengaytaleseshouldread. Katherine Boo, Susan Orlean and Jill Lepore came up in conversation.
Presumably, Talese is not an avid Twitter user, but if he were, he might have seen that the universal reaction mirrored that of writer Jason Pinter:
Andrea Swalec, a producer for NBC Washington, said she challenged Talese about his comments after the panel discussion ended, telling the writer she believes that “scrappy women reporters of all ages want to report on murderers and scumbags.” In response, Swalec recalled by phone, Talese doubled down on his previous response, saying “that in his experience, educated writers want to interview educated people.”
The conference began the previous night with a keynote address from Nikole Hannah-Jones, an investigative journalist who has written extensively about racial segregation in the context of housing and schools. “It was this real high point of the conference that they started on,” Littlefield said.
Unfortunately, Talese must’ve missed that portion of the event.