If anything, the Gay Talese contretemps shows how men are from Mars and women are from Venus.
In that, I mean the whole episode of whether you think Talese respects women breaks down on gender lines in a way I haven’t seen before.
And I write about this stuff for a living. Whether it’s about female soccer players who deserve equal pay or female executives who should be serving in boardrooms.
Talese’s comments about female writers at a Boston University writing conference on Saturday drew polarizing reactions from the opposite sexes whether you were among the 550 attendees or followed the controversy on Twitter.
The 84-year-old author and journalist, in a moment of brutal honesty, said he could not think of one female journalist of his generation who inspired him.
Men, for the most part, don’t see why this is a big deal. He’s 84. There weren’t that many women in journalism back then. Women, on the other hand, not only took offense to his answer but what he said as way of explanation. Coupled with a tepid response from BU, women see this as another example of how sexism can persist a half century after the feminist movement.
But rather than just rehash the debate, judge for yourself.
Here’s the transcript, courtesy of BU, of the controversial part of Talese’s talk. It’s only about three minutes long and comes at the end of his appearance during the audience question-and-answer session.
I provide annotation with some help from Amy Littlefield, a New York journalist who also attended the conference and wrote an eye-opening piece for Rewire about Talese.
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Verandah Porche , a poet from Vermont: “That was wonderful. 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.”
Mary McCarthy is a critic and novelist who started writing in the 1930s. At this point, Talese has been on stage for about an hour riveting many with his sordid tales and unorthodox reporting skills. He shuns technology and doesn’t like to take notes or use a tape recorder. He prefers to observe and hang out with subjects.
Talese: “I’ll tell you why. I’m not sure it’s true, it probably isn’t true anymore, but my -- when I was young, maybe 30 or so, and always interested in exploratory journalism, longform we would call it, women tended not, even good writers, women tended not to do that.
Because being, I think women, educated women, writerly women, don’t want to, or do not feel comfortable dealing with strangers, or people that I’m attracted to, sort of the offbeat characters, not reliable. Like this voyeur. I can’t imagine a woman wanting to be chronicler of a voyeur, or the gangsters I hung around with, or the aforementioned ‘Thy Neighbor’s Wife,’ you know, porno stars, or directors of such films as ‘Deep Throat,’ or swingers.
I think that the educated woman wants to deal with educated people. Well-educated men are, like me, or almost despite education, would be comfortable with a lot of undereducated, or rather antisocial figures.”
At this point, some people are shaking their heads a bit shocked by what they’ve just heard. People are picking up their phones to tweet, including myself. Some get up to walk out.
I thought Talese was talking about women of his generation, but even so I was upset about his stereotyping of women. Other female attendees pointed out that Talese switched to the present tense and was characterizing the behavior of women writers today. This being a writing conference, I guess people pick up on that.
Now ask the men on the stage, and they’ll tell you that Talese to their ears was talking about female writers of his era. In an e-mail to me Monday, moderator Tom Fiedler, who is dean of BU’s college of communication, wrote:
“I remain convinced that, lacking this broader context, his response was widely misconstrued, though understandably if some of those who were upset weren’t familiar with the reporting methods Gay had employed in doing ‘Thy Neighbor’s Wife.’ These involved running a massage parlor (with ‘massage’ being loosely interpreted), participating in group sex, joining a nudist colony, and more.”
Talese: “I think fiction women are great writers. George Eliot didn’t use the right name, or sex, but she was a great writer. One of the great books is ‘Middlemarch,’ that I loved. But I didn’t know any women journalists that I loved. I didn’t know any women, I mean nonfiction writers.”
The audience is still stirring over the remarks, and from the balcony we hear a shout from Sandy Tolan, an author and journalism professor at the University of Southern California.
Tolan: “Joan Didion?”
Talese: “Um, Joan Didion is a good. ... yes, of course, I’m glad you reminded me. But she doesn’t deal with antisocial people. She’s an educated, beautiful writer, fiction as well as nonfiction, as you all know. Um, but I think I was more drawn to nonfiction because it indulged my curiosity and I liked to deal with different kinds of people.”
Sitting there, I was thinking of all the female writers of his generation who not only talked to strangers but trampled barriers: the late Mary McGrory, the pioneering Washington correspondent; Gloria Steinem, who went undercover as a Playboy bunny; Edna Buchanan , dubbed the “queen of crime” who never met a violent murder she didn’t like.
So maybe he wasn’t inspired by them, but don’t generalize that women shy away from grittier subjects.
If Talese had a senior moment, women on Twitter filled the void with #womengaytaleseshouldread.
In a couple of e-mails to me Sunday night, Talese clarified that he “misunderstood” the question. He thought he was being asked about female journalists who influenced him during his formative years. Talese explained that when he was a rookie reporter in the 1940s and ’50s, many female journalists were relegated to covering “women’s subjects” like food and society, and very few covered labor, politics or other meatier beats.
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Five days later, Talese and his comments are still lighting up social media and stirring controversy, the latest being a New York Times article Thursday in which he calls a female
Times reporter who criticized him as “duplicitous.”
Turns out the Times might not have given its own reporter a fair shake to comment on that remark, which prompted the paper’s public editor Margaret Sullivan to write: “This story has characteristics of something driven too much (and possibly too fast) by ‘wanting to be part of the conversation.’ What seems obvious is that a deeper kind of conversation is required.”
For those of you who might think this is much ado about nothing, think again. This is not just about what Gay Talese said or did not say. It’s about our collective response to it.