Gay Talese arrived as a revered keynote speaker at the Boston University writing conference last weekend, but he left with his reputation tarnished.
It would be funny to brush it off as another case of Bostonians not liking New Yorkers, but that’s not what happened here. The legendary 84-year-old author and journalist told an audience filled with women writers that female scribes of his generation did not inspire him.
OK, he’s entitled to his opinion, but what got tongues wagging at the conference is that Talese proceeded to dig himself deeper into a place that no man – or woman, for that matter – should ever go. By way of explanation, Talese said that women do not like to talk to strangers, and by implication do not take on grittier subjects.
“I think the educated woman wants to deal with educated people,” Talese said.
In that moment, BU’s Power of Narrative conference ceased to be a vanilla gathering debating dangling participles and misplaced modifiers. Some 550 attendees, many of them women, spent the rest of the weekend taking to Twitter to stew over Talese’s comments and the lack of a response by moderator Tom Fiedler, BU’s dean of the College of Communication.
It was as if the ghost of John Silber — the late BU president who once called the English department “a damned matriarchy” — decided to visit.
It was as if we discovered we had a sexist amongst us, but nobody did anything.
Now that’s the view through the lens of social media and quite a few women who attended the conference, for which the Globe was a sponsor. Here’s what Talese says happened.
“I misunderstood the question,” he wrote in an e-mail to me Sunday night.
The question, the rest of us heard, was whether any female writers inspired Talese. He thought he was being asked whether any female journalists made an impression on him as a young man. His answer: “None.”
“My answer was ‘no.’ And it remains ‘no,’ Talese wrote. “I say this as a senior-senior citizen of 84, and if there had been a woman reporter who influenced me during my upbringing she’d have to be more than a hundred years old.”
He goes on to explain that when he started out in journalism, there were very few women working at big city newspapers. Those who were usually covered softer subjects like society and food and rarely ventured into substantive topics like crime and politics.
With the audience stunned at the conversation, I wished Fiedler acted like a trained journalist he once was.
Fiedler, a former editor of the Miami Herald, could have stepped in and told Talese, “Hold on. So there weren’t many women you looked up to during your formative years, but what about later in your career?”
If he had done that, this is what Talese would have told him. The author would have clarified that he greatly admired female fiction writers growing up, especially Mary McCarthy and Carson McCullers. Talese also would have gone on to say that he holds many female journalists of today in high regard.
“I was not commenting on contemporary women who practiced journalism: 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 wrote in an e-mail.
For his part, Fiedler tells me he didn’t press Talese further because it was the audience question-and-answer portion of the program. Sitting on stage next to Talese, Fiedler did not sense a controversy in the making, but knowing what he knows now, he would have probed further.
“Had I anticipated that his remark would create the stir that it did, I may have been able to defuse the situation,” Fiedler wrote in an e-mail to me Monday morning.
But what was said on the Internet haunts Talese, who was among the early pioneers of a nonfiction narrative style known as new journalism.
“As a reporter, covering a span of more than a half-century, I always made it clear to interview subjects what we were discussing; but on the stage of Boston University on Saturday at noon, the existence of my reputation was tarnished by the irresponsible form of journalism on the internet these days that reaffirms my lack of respect for what and how things are being reported there,” Talese wrote. “In my case, the truth concerning me and my journalism was distorted and widely circulated.”
Talese was being honest, perhaps brave in his response not succumbing to what’s politically correct. This much we know: He was born in an era when women were routinely relegated to lesser roles not only in journalism but in many other fields. Not all memories fade, and sometimes a truth slips out.
But it’s hard to tell the whole story in 140 characters or less.
Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @leung.