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Gay Talese: A Work in Progress

The Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 2006

On the morning of July 13, 1993, The New York Times published an article about a man whose wife had cut off his penis while he slept. Appearing in the Science section, surrounded by clinical diagrams and a discreet headline (“Artful Surgery: Reattaching a Penis”), it introduced its readers to the tabloid saga of Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt in the most tasteful, Timesean manner possible (“Hmm, let’s play this as a medical story,” you can hear the editor saying).

Soon after, a rumor circulated through the literary world that Gay Talese was writing about the incident for Tina Brown, who had a year earlier been named The New Yorker’s editor. New Yorker traditionalists were aghast. Could it be that the woman charged with revving up the venerable weekly had assigned an article about genital mutilation to America’s foremost journalistic chronicler of sex?

Like most rumors, it turned out to be true (“Okay, you’re on for the penis chopper,” Brown confirmed to Talese by fax). The summer passed with no sign of the piece, as did fall and winter. Knowing Talese was a famously dogged reporter, I dutifully scanned each issue for his byline. Tina eventually left The New Yorker, Lorena reclaimed her maiden name, and John reinvented himself twice: as a porn star, then as a Vegas act. But I never heard more about the article.

On a sweltering August afternoon, a decade after l’affaire Bobbitt, Gay Talese greeted me wearing a stylish, three-piece suit and led me to the office he keeps beneath the Upper East Side townhouse he shares with his wife, the book editor/publisher Nan A. Talese. I was there to interview him for my book, The New New Journalism. To my mind, Talese’s work prefigured much of the best of today’s long-form journalism. I had never thought he fit the description of the “new journalist” Tom Wolfe offered in his 1973 book on the subject. Sure, his work reads “like a story,” but unlike Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and other members of the movement, Talese (much like John McPhee) had dedicated himself to indefatigable reporting on, and understated writing about, the pedestrian, the ordinary.

Talese’s cool, well-appointed office looked more like one of the posh doctor’s waiting rooms on nearby Park Avenue than any writer’s garret I had ever seen. The air was infused with the pleasant fragrance of freshly cut flowers, and on our way to his desk, I spied a stack of file boxes leaning against a wall. Smack in the middle was one labeled: “The Bobbitts — a work in progress (1993-1994).”

Talese explained that he was in the thick of a new book, a “memoir” of sorts (he doesn’t like the word), in which he revisited his stories from the past forty years: the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama, a building on East Sixty-third Street through which had passed nearly a dozen restaurants, a female Chinese soccer player who had brought shame to her country by missing a crucial kick, and, yes, the Bobbitts, whose story he was still following.

Frankly, it sounded more like a train wreck than a memoir, although I didn’t say so. After all, the rare autobiographical passages in his earlier works were as formal and confining as the suit he wore that steamy afternoon. Maybe it was his decade at the Times or his fifties-era allergy to introspection (“I had never given much thought to who I was,” he confesses in A Writer’s Life). Whatever the cause, Talese was the last person I could imagine composing a memoir, filled with the requisite doses of false modesty and accounts of “adversity overcome.”

“I write about stories that are connected to my life,” he announced at the outset of our interview. In response to my puzzlement, he detailed the autobiographical roots of books like The Kingdom and the Power, Honor Thy Father, and, most recently, Unto the Sons. Chalking the statement up to a variation on the “write what you know” chestnut, I steered our interview toward other matters.

Almost three years later, having read A Writer’s Life, I think I finally understand Talese’s credo. It all hinges on the meaning of the word “connected.” What for some would be a severe limitation of scope (“stories connected to my life”) is for him a license to roam wherever his reporting takes him. Anything he reports on becomes a part of his life. In a sense, his philosophy is L’histoire, c’est moi.

The result is a kind of inverted narcissism. Whereas the classic self-obsessed narcissist detects traces of himself everywhere, Talese’s omnipresent “self” consists solely of other people’s stories. The result is what he calls his “Calabrian” sensibility. “My point of view is a point of view that sees many sides!” he says in The New New Journalism. More than many journalists, and perhaps even more than McPhee, he has an insatiable appetite for information. He is like the Times patriarch Adolph S. Ochs, who, comparing a story in that day’s Times to the version in a competing paper, is upset that his reporters have missed several details. Unsatisfied with an editor’s explanation that the missing facts were minor, Ochs glares. “I want it all,” he says.

“Wanting it all” has been a curse for Talese. Having to work his way through a story’s tangle of facts and connections has curtailed his output to roughly a book every dozen years. But the curse is also the key to his literary gift. The passages where Talese succeeds in translating his information-drunk sensibility into prose — when he discovers what he calls “the fictional current that flows beneath the stream of reality” — are some of the most captivating works of journalism I’ve ever read.

We see it in the magical opening section of Thy Neighbor’s Wife, in which the seventeen-year-old Harold Rubin ogles (and later masturbates to) a nude photograph of Diane Webber, who we learn went on to pose for Playboy, the magazine edited by Hugh Hefner, who becomes one of the book’s main characters. We see it in the third chapter of The Bridge, where Talese conjures up the first moments of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (“The bridge began as bridges always begin — silently”). The sixteen pages that follow are an elegant primer on the micro (the bridge’s towers are “one and five-eighths inches farther apart at their summits than at their bases” to correct for the curvature of the earth) and macro (“188,000 tons of steel — three times the amount used in the Empire State Building”) of bridge building. Reality may not always make sense in Talese’s hands, but it damned well holds together. Reading his oeuvre — from New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey through A Writer’s Life — I have a sense, however fleeting, of living in a coherent, ordered world.

Knopf risks violating the Lanham Act in its marketing of A Writer’s Life. Making a desperate attempt to recoup its enormous advance ($7 million for three books, of which this is the second), the publisher is trumpeting it as one of those grand literary memoirs, a journalistic giant’s amiable stroll through the triumphs of his career. A portrait of the handsome author, relaxed and confident, adorns the cover; the catalog copy is peppered with soothing banalities, describing the book as “luminous” and “dazzling.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

A Writer’s Life may be more a writer’s book than a reader’s. The stitching is more visible than in Talese’s earlier work; the stream of reality minus its fictional undercurrents. Deprived of a strong narrator’s presence, the four “books within the book” sit together a bit uneasily. Talese opens and closes with his quest to write the story of Liu Ying, the Chinese soccer-star-as-muse, a subtle reminder that some stories never come to fruition. In between, he revisits Selma in 1990 to see how the civil rights struggle he chronicled for the Times in 1965 has fared — memories of which segué into a section on the oppressive conditions of his complaisant Italian forebears. We learn the history of 206 East Sixty-third Street, and particularly about its restaurants. Restaurants evoke the most graceful writing in the book. Sitting in Elaine’s, he imagines a $29 plate of flounder meunière almondine “coming to life, jumping off the fork, wiggling along the floor,” swimming back in time to the Labrador Sea where it was caught. Restaurants are a potent metaphor for him. “I had two fathers . . . a residential father and a restaurant father. Only with the latter was I happy as a son,” he writes. As an adult, after a solitary day battling his demons, he finds his redoubt in a restaurant. These excursions are less interesting in themselves than they are for what they tell us about Talese’s struggles as a writer. They take us deeper and deeper inside his mind, which may be as daunting a trip as any of us has traveled.

Talese has always been a more exciting, difficult writer than either his critics or champions have given him credit for. He consistently confounds the stereotypes that have been foisted upon him. An Italian American whose mother hates to cook, he spends his childhood eating in mediocre restaurants and never cares to learn his father’s native language. Despite growing up in a summer resort, he seldom swims or goes to the beach. Honor Thy Father, his book about life in the mafia, is, essentially, a social portrait of an intergenerational business. Hardly a shot is fired: The Sopranos as channeled through Henry James.

A Writer’s Life is no different. Even its inviting title confounds our expectations. On the one hand it fits perfectly, for the book contains hardly a word about any aspect of Talese’s life other than his writing. Any reader who opens the book expecting tidbits about Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, or the Mafia will be disappointed. On the other hand, the title is spectacularly, deliciously, misleading: Talese’s book isn’t about writing; it’s about not writing — the painful, but necessary, stage of writing with which all veteran journalists are acquainted. Any real writer knows full well that one spends far more of his writing life “not writing” than writing.

A Writer’s Life is not merely an account of the author’s struggle, it is an homage, even a celebration of it. Talese’s lack of productivity isn’t the result of depression (as was the case with his friend William Styron, according to his memoir Darkness Visible) or indecision. No, he takes a more principled, Bartleby-like stand. “Am I blocked?” Talese wonders in a note to himself. No, he replies, he’s “demonstrating concerns for readers in not burdening them with bad writing. More writers should be doing what you’re doing — not writing . . . . It would be a good thing for the writers’ reputations, for the publishers’ production costs, and for the reading standards of the general public. There should be a National Book Award given annually to certain writers for not writing.” Displaying equal parts pride and self-loathing, Talese reports he wrote barely fifty-four-and-a-half typed pages between 1995 and 1999. Any fool can write, but only the wisest of writers knows when not to. Although he doesn’t come right out and say it, he implies that most writers’ worth is inversely related to their productivity.


A serious point is buried beneath all this humor. The dirty little secret of publishing is that most books — even from prestigious publishers and seasoned authors — are merely “product.” Not egregiously bad (which would at least make them interesting), but simply mediocre work written to fulfill an overdue contract for a once-promising idea.

Talese’s determination to avoid this fate may deprive Knopf of the bestseller it desires. But in writing an utterly original memoir, Talese has produced the least sentimental, most honest, unflinching account of the reality of the writing process I have ever read. No victory laps for him. The man who describes “producing prose with the ease of a patient passing kidney stones” is relentlessly self-critical, castigating himself for the kinds of venial sins all writers have at one time or another committed.

He rears back in horror after ingratiating himself with Norman Pearlstine, then Time’s editor in chief: “I was also appalled by the tone of false modesty in my final paragraph and the obviousness of my opportunism,” he scolds himself. He writes openly about his desperation to revive his career by appearing in The New Yorker; he debases himself by wooing Lorena Bobbitt with inscribed copies of his books, in a vain attempt to rescue his assignment from oblivion. When Talese refers to his “ridiculous life as a prolific author of unfinished manuscripts,” you don’t doubt the emotions are sincere.

I would argue that it is this very quality — sincerity with a confessional twist — that has fueled America’s love affair with the memoir. Our therapeutic culture enjoys watching someone “work out” his problems in public; it leaves the reader with something like a therapy “contact high.” Memoirs go down easy: one central character, facts that always fall into place, an uplifting resolution. The dark cloud hanging over the genre since James Frey (who, coincidence of coincidences, was published by Nan A. Talese) confessed to fabricating parts of his bestselling book, A Million Little Pieces, doesn’t seem to have bothered Frey’s readers, who continue buying copies at a furious rate. If they seem indifferent to the controversy perhaps it’s because they are smart enough to know that memoirs are routinely fudged, even to the point of being written by someone other than their “author.”

Reading memoirs has become so easy that we’ve forgotten that writing them should be hard. As philosophers and poets have told us for centuries, genuine self-knowledge is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to gain. In this respect, Talese is the anti-Frey, the reporter who acknowledges the challenge of the genre and is determined to surmount it. How? Well, by doing what he does best: returning to the scene again and again, interviewing and reinterviewing his subjects, conducting research, poring over his notes. Reporting, reporting, reporting.

In its fidelity to journalistic truth, A Writer’s Life joins Joseph Lelyveld’s Omaha Blues in what may be a new sub-genre: the reported memoir. For these writers, reporting the “story of the story” is as close to the truth as one can come. “I wondered whether there might not be ways for me to fall back on my trade and report out some obscure moments from earlier days that have lingered as pivotal,” writes Lelyveld, who credits Michael Holroyd’s “vicarious autobiography,” Basil Street Blues, with inspiring him. Perhaps such books aren’t as satisfying as literature, but at least you know what you’re getting.

It is a rainy late January evening when Gay Talese opens the door to his home and immediately apologizes for the fact that our conversation will be delayed by half an hour. He is helping his wife prepare for a last-minute flight to Chicago to join Frey and a bunch of journalists on a live segment of Oprah in the morning. The talk-show host had championed Frey’s book in the past. With its credibility in question, she wanted to revisit the issue of “truth in memoirs,” according to her booker. (The truth, however, is that she’s lured Frey’s publisher to Chicago so that Nan can be sandbagged and perform the quintessential Oprah-esque ritual: confess, apologize, and plead for forgiveness.)

As it happens, “truth in memoirs” is precisely the topic I’ve come to discuss. Not that I’m questioning Talese’s credibility. Far from it. In fact, my concern is the opposite. A Writer’s Life is so bizarrely, nakedly truthful that I feel the need to do some reporting of my own. What does it mean to write a book about not being able to write a book, to produce an “impersonal” memoir so devoid of intimate details that he reprints passages from a 1992 Vanity Fair profile rather than discuss his marriage in his own words? (“I must recuse myself and defer to another writer,” he explains.) A cynic might conclude that Talese had simply dumped the notebooks from his various works-in-progress. But he has too much integrity, and the book is too artfully constructed, for that to be the case.

After Nan’s limousine picks her up, Gay and I turn to the tangle of circumstances that have led to this moment: the obsessively accurate author of a nonconfessional memoir married to the publisher of a confessional memoir by an obsessive fabricator. The whole scene strikes me as Talesian, dense with contradictory meaning and suggestive coincidences. Perhaps it’s a Calabrian world after all.

The thing that most puzzles me about the book, I confess, is how someone so devoid of introspection would write a memoir in the first place. Nodding in thoughtful agreement, Talese goes on a digression — from Sinatra and the Times, through Liu Ying and the nineties (“the worst decade of my life”) — that lasts nearly half an hour. I finally see an opportunity to interrupt.

“But how could you never have given any thought to who you are? Weren’t you depressed by that?” I ask.

In response, he tells me about his psychoanalysis with Dr. Peter Neubauer, “one of the renowned Freudians in New York.” It was the mid-eighties, and Talese was having problems writing Unto the Sons. After several sessions, the analyst offered a diagnosis. “You know what your problem is,” he said, “you’re a perfectionist. You should just let it go.” Talese was incredulous. “I can’t just let it go,” he replied. “I’m a tailor. Stitch, stitch, stitch. Then rip it out and do it again. Just the way I saw my father do.”

He smiles at the memory, and we both chuckle at the notion of a control-freak like Gay Talese “letting it go.” The funny thing, though, is that in good Taleseian fashion, he returned day after day.

“But what did you talk about?” I ask.

“I was so involved in my book that I talked about that. I was paying him $260 an hour to tell him about my characters. I told him about Joseph Garabaldi and Napoleon’s brother-in-law, General Jaques Mourat. And he was very interested because he was learning a lot. Hell, I couldn’t even get to myself in therapy.”