Other People’s Stories: A great reporter disappears from his own memoir
No one who’s ever published a book should review one, because empathy for the victim—the author, rather—undermines objectivity.
Suppose you’re renowned journalist Gay Talese. You’ll soon be 74 and your memoir, A Writer’s Life, will be published in April. At the very moment your proofs go out to reviewers, your wife the famous editor is buried up to her bifocals in the James Frey-memoir scandal, the first in a chain of breaking scandals that promises, at least, to re-introduce truth-in-labeling to the literary marketplace—humble truth, a porous levee against the blood-dimmed tide of mangy, redundant memoir threatening to wipe out literature altogether.
Talese is not the first author cursed by wretched timing and cruel coincidence; a friend of mine published the best book he ever wrote on Sept. 11, 2001. So I feel Talese’s pain acutely. And I swear I opened A Writer’s Life with high hopes. But it’s one of the strangest damn books I’ve ever read.
Talese provokes none of my usual prejudices. He’s not an autobiographer who experiences his own life as an intoxicating epic. If anything he’s the opposite, a celebrity mildly surprised he’s someone from whom the public might expect a memoir. He leaves the peculiar impression that he was tempted to write one but lacked the stomach for it.
Still, he’s hardly shy. When he needs help with a story in Beijing, Talese calls Henry Kissinger—no response—and the president of Nike, Philip Knight. But like many celebrated reporters, he ?nds introspection intimidating, and admits it. “I had no idea what my story was,” he writes. “I had never given much thought to who I was. I had always defined myself through my work, which was always about other people.”
Bull’s-eye. With that gift of self-knowledge, Talese might’ve saved this book, or written another. Instead, good as his word, he ducks behind a dozen stories that belong to other people, and he stays behind them, all but invisible for 400 pages. Talese has written himself a supporting role, barely a speaking part, in the story of his life.
Ironically, the rare personal passages are some of his best; I love Talese in his Army uniform visiting his father’s native village in Calabria and recognizing—on a host of cousins—all the castoff suits and dresses his fashionable parents had sent “home” to Italy.
The workaholic, emotionally remote parents who raised him above their tailor shop in Ocean City, N.J., are more intriguing than many of the ephemeral figures who dominate A Writer’s Life. But not, apparently, to their son. He introduces us to many characters we might not choose to meet, who answer many questions we might not have asked them. Then it dawns on us—these odd, unpromising stories are writing projects Talese has previously aborted. Talese the memoirist seems less committed to validating his life than clearing his desk.
This sounds harsh. Yet a full fifth of his manuscript concerns John and Lorena Bobbitt, the trailer-park Jason and Medea whose grisly little story should never have escaped from the back page of one-paragraph wonders and horrors. (See the onion bagel that resembled Mother Teresa! Behold the image of Christ on a screen door!)
Talese once wrote a 10,000-word New Yorker profile on the Bobbitts that was mercifully euthanized by editor Tina Brown, who in this case served as a model of good taste and good sense. Her rejection must’ve been so tactful that Talese failed to hear the message—“Don’t do this to yourself, Gay, for God’s sake.” The entire embarrassment, or most of it, is published here at last.
It’s more painful than you can imagine. Talese is disarmingly candid about his struggles and false starts in recent years—only one book of new material, Unto the Sons (1992), has appeared since 1980. But with Nan Talese and Tina Brown to counsel him, why has he chosen to publish his mistakes?
Respectful attention must be paid to a tireless, conscientious reporter, one of the most influential journalists of his generation. Here, Talese is no casualty of the metastasizing memoir industry, fueled by tabloid voyeurism and the Oprah cult of personal redemption, mass-producing material for non-readers. He may embody a more radical critique of the memoir, one embraced by great writers like Beckett and Borges, who hold that the details of a writer’s life are of no interest whatsoever; a writer exists only as the sum of the stories he creates, collects, embellishes and passes along.
Maybe. Whatever else, the storyteller bets all his chips on his judgment—and dreads that day when the good stories, the thin ones and the lame ones all begin to look alike.