Did Gay Talese just say that?
Speaking at a conference at Boston University on Saturday, the legendary journalist-turned-author struggled to answer a question about female writers who inspired him.
He mentioned Nora Ephron and Mary McCarthy, followed by an awkward silence. Finally the 84-year-old writer blurted out: “None.”
Talese went on to explain that women writers of his generation did not like to talk to strangers and that prevented them from taking on tough subjects.
The response seemed to stun many in the audience at BU’s Power of Narrative Writing conference. One person shouted out “Joan Didion” as a potential female author to admire, while others took to Twitter to criticize Talese.
“Very taken aback by Gay Talese’s comments on female writers. Educated women not comfortable covering non-educated subjects? Wow.#BUnarrative,” wrote Lauren Dezenski, a Boston-based reporter for Politico.
Anica Butler, an editor at the Boston Globe, tweeted: “Gay Talese not inspired by women writers? Fine. But don’t make generalizations about a whole gender. #narrativebu.”
Talese’s controversial remarks were soon trending on Twitter, as journalists quickly turned to the social media site.
About 550 people are attending the three-day conference, of which the Globe is a main sponsor. Talese, a former New York Times reporter and contributor to the New Yorker, is best known for his narrative nonfiction style.
Mitchell Zuckoff, a Boston University journalism professor who co-organized the conference, said Talese’s comments were not meant to disparage female writers.
“I interpreted Gay’s remark to be a comment more about what life was like as a writer in the ’50s and ’60s, a time when there weren’t opportunities for women to be doing narrative nonfiction at the level that would inspire him,” said Zuckoff.
Michael Rosenwald, who is the editor of an anthology of Talese’s sportswriting, said Talese talks often about being inspired by female scribes such as Carson McCullers, Alice Munro, and Katie Roiphe.
“It is preposterous,” said Rosenwald, a staff writer at the Washington Post of the reaction on Twitter. “He is a huge fan of female writers.”Shirley Leung can be reached at Shirley.Leung@Globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Leung.