Three days after he unexpectedly became the subject of a literati controversy that erupted in social media, renowned journalist Gay Talese clarified the remarks that set off a storm:
Yes, he told the Boston Globe, he admires many, many women writers. He just didn't know enough of them when he was growing up.
Talese, 84, a pioneering magazine writer of the 1960s New Journalism movement, stunned some audience members Saturday at a Boston University writing conference when he reportedly couldn't name any female journalists who inspired him.
"I didn't know any women writers that I loved," Talese said, when asked about female scribes who had impressed him, in comments that quickly made their way to Twitter. (He reportedly went on to explain that women of his era seemed to prefer not to deal with grittier subjects: "I think the educated woman wants to deal with educated people," he told the crowd.)
But that isn't really what he meant, Talese explained in an e-mail to Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung. Talese told Leung that he'd "misunderstood the question" and there are, in fact, plenty of women writers he admires and respects.
Talese said he thought the question from an audience member was specifically asking about his formative years — whether any women journalists inspired him when he was a young man. And his answer to that question remains "no," according to the Globe, because there frankly weren't many women journalists making their mark at that time.
"If there had been a woman reporter who influenced me during my upbringing she'd have to be more than a hundred years old," Talese said.
But he said his answer didn't reflect his thoughts on contemporary non-fiction writers, such as "Susan Orlean, Larissa MacFarquhar (I wrote her a fan letter two weeks ago, praising her piece in The New Yorker on the Ford Foundation), Lillian Ross (whose new collection I blurbed enthusiastically), Katie Roiphe (ditto) and the late Nora Ephron (whom I described with adoration in the new HBO show directed by her son, Jacob Bernstein)."
Talese didn't have the opportunity to elaborate during the conference; moderator Tom Fiedler, Boston University's dean of the College of Communication, didn't clarify the question or ask Talese to expand on his answer. (Fiedler told Leung that he had no idea it would become such a controversy, and wishes he had intervened.) By the time it was clear that Talese's response had offended his audience, the Internet outrage machine was already at full-throttle: many conference attendees vented their frustration and disbelief on Twitter, where the hashtag #WomenGayTaleseShouldRead began to trend.
The journalism legend was distressed to see his reputation damaged by the "irresponsible form of journalism on the internet these days," he told Leung. (Talese appears not to have an active social-media presence, not that there's anything wrong with that.) "In my case, the truth concerning me and my journalism was distorted and widely circulated."