As someone who quit as Gay Talese’s teaching assistant because of his sexism, I’m not surprised he got himself in trouble this past week by saying that not a single female writer of his generation inspired him.
My disillusionment with the master of narrative nonfiction happened back in 1999. Talese was a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, and I gladly accepted an offer to work with one of my literary heroes. Before the course began, I reread my favorites of his books: “Fame and Obscurity,” with its remarkable profile of Frank Sinatra, and “Unto the Sons,” the story of his Italian immigrant family.
Our fallout occurred just a few classes into the semester. During a 10-minute break, Talese asked me to make him a cup of tea. The request seemed vaguely demeaning and inappropriate. But I wasn’t really in a position to consider it. My hands were already full with a stack of handouts he’d asked me to photocopy for him. “I’m on my way to copy these,” I nodded toward the stack. “There’s a kitchen just through there, with a kettle on the stove and an assortment of teas in the cabinet.” Our class met at Penn’s Writers House, a lovely 13-room Victorian on the main campus walk that’s a make-yourself-at-home sort of space. Other students from the class had already congregated in the kitchen — I could hear laughter as someone finished telling a story. I assured Talese that they would help if he had trouble finding anything, and then I headed upstairs to the photocopier.
After class that day, we ended up revisiting the tea episode, and Talese berated me for refusing his request. One comment still sears. “You’re not perky enough for me,” he said.
Might he have asked a male TA to make him a cup of tea? Possibly. After all, he likes to talk about starting at the New York Times in 1953 as a copy boy, “getting people coffee and sandwiches, running errands.” Maybe he thinks that’s how all aspiring journalists should pay their dues.
But “perky” was different. Perkiness is not something usually expected of men. When I look up the definition now, Oxford Dictionaries offers the example: “She certainly looked less than her usual perky self.” Journalist Jessica Bennett has included “perky” among adjectives to excise from your vocabulary if you want “to avoid sounding like a sexist jerk.”
With all the perkiness I could muster, I told Mr. Talese he could find someone else to make him tea and to help teach his class.
I hadn’t been looking for sexism in him. I didn’t know then about his 1964 comment while in a taxi with Gloria Steinem and Saul Bellow: “You know how every year there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.” I hadn’t heard any stories like the one from New York Times investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who says Talese asked her if she was leaving the narrative writing conference at Boston University last weekend to get her nails done.
If you missed it, here’s Talese’s controversial exchange with poet Verandah Porche at that conference:
Porche: “In addition to Nora Ephron, who were the women who write who were most, who have inspired you most?”
Talese: “Did I hear you say what women inspire me most … is that what you … ?”
Porche: “As writers.”
Talese: “As writers. Uh, I’d say Mary McCarthy was one. I … would, um, [pause], think [pause] Of my generation [pause] um, none.”
Talese has since said he “misunderstood the question.” He thought he was being asked about female journalists who inspired him when he was growing up and “was not commenting on contemporary women who practiced journalism.”
But I looked back at my copy of his anthology of creative nonfiction published in 1996, and it indeed includes few female writers. There are only three pieces by women — Joan Didion, Melissa Fay Greene and Annie Dillard — along with 26 pieces by men. Barbara Lounsberry was Talese’s co-editor on that project, though her name appears on the cover in small type below his — big, bold and in all-caps.
I’d say the backlash he has experienced this past week has been a long time coming.
His sexism, however, wasn’t even what I found most disappointing in our interactions.
In a terrific 2009 profile of Talese, Katie Roiphe writes about how “His method is to go as deeply as possible into character, to burrow into a single psyche, as a way of capturing the spirit of the times. … Talese lives his books in a way most writers don’t; he uproots himself and inhabits the world of his subjects in a way most writers can’t. His books are so thorough, and so passionately researched, that they seem to reproach ordinary journalists for a certain tepidness and restraint in their approach.”
Yet whereas in his writing he seems so perceptive, of his surroundings and the human experience, when I met him in person he seemed totally consumed with himself and uninterested in listening to or engaging with what anyone else had to say. (Several other students dropped the class for that reason.) He seemed to lack the curiosity of most reporters I know. At the time, it made me wonder how much creative license is in his creative nonfiction.
Now, though, I think maybe he just didn’t have much enthusiasm for college students. At last weekend’s writing conference, he suggested that he’s less interested in “educated people” as subjects than in “undereducated, or rather antisocial figures.” (Whereas educated female writers, he generalized in the present tense, “don’t want to, or do not feel comfortable dealing with strangers, or people that I’m attracted to, sort of the offbeat characters.)
That inclination has resulted in many surprising pieces of journalism from Talese. But it meant that when teaching, he missed an opportunity to inspire a new generation of writers.