Over the weekend, legendary nonfiction writer Gay Talese stirred up a bit of controversy at Boston University’s Power of Narrative writing conference. When asked which female writers inspired him by poet Verandah Porche during a Q&A session, Talese replied,
I’d say Mary McCarthy was one. Of my generation … None. I’ll tell you why. 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 offbeat characters. I didn’t know any women journalists that I loved.
(The above quote is from journalist Amy Littlefield, who was present during the “Conversation With Special Guest Gay Talese”; different people in attendance have reported slightly different versions of the quote.)
The male moderators of the conversation failed to ask Talese to clarify or justify his statement, and several audience members walked out, stunned that a journalist of Talese’s caliber could be not only so ignorant of women’s writing but also stupid enough to admit it in public. Later, Talese told the Boston Globe’s Shirley Leung, “I misunderstood the question”—he thought he was being asked which female writers inspired him when he was a young man. (Talese is 84.) But the manner in which Talese had brushed aside “educated women” (including Joan Didion, who he said “doesn’t deal with antisocial people”) left plenty of doubt about his intentions.
Now, Littlefield, writing for Rewire (formerly RH Reality Check) has uncovered another incident from the Boston University conference that eradicates any doubt about Talese’s opinion of women and, particularly, women of color. According to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times Magazine staff writer who delivered the conference’s opening keynote address, Talese interrogated her about how she got her job during a private luncheon. From Littlefield’s interview with Hannah-Jones,
“He asked again if I was actually a staff writer. And I said yes,” Hannah-Jones told me by phone on Monday. He asked her how she got hired for that job. “I said they called and offered me a job,” she recalled. “He asked me who hired me, why was I hired?”
Hannah-Jones, who is black, said, “I feel like I’ve been explaining why I’m in a room where apparently people think I’m not supposed to be most of my life, so I know when someone is asking me that question.”
Later, at the end of the luncheon, while Hannah-Jones was talking to another female journalist about which session they would attend next, Talese asked Hannah-Jones if she was going to get her nails done.
If it’s not clear why this is offensive, I’ll explain: Talese was implying that Hannah-Jones, who writes primarily about racial segregation for the Times Magazine, was predominantly concerned with her appearance, not her work. It was a way of signaling to Hannah-Jones that, because of the way she looked, Talese didn’t take her seriously. (Plus, her nails were already done, according to Littlefield, so why would she skip out of a conference to get them re-done?) “It was a hard moment for me to realize that even at this point in my career I could still be silenced,” Hannah-Jones told Littlefield.
There’s an argument that we should all just ignore past-their-prime luminaries who say intentionally provocative things instead of rewarding them with our outrage. After Talese claimed his comments at the Q&A were just a big misunderstanding, Jezebel’s Jia Tolentino made that argument, writing, “part of removing old men like Gay Talese from their positions of extreme prominence is caring less about the dumb, ungenerous, anachronistic things they tend to say.” It’s true that none of us should care much about whether an 84-year-old with fading cultural influence reads or likes female writers. But Talese’s treatment of Hannah-Jones points to an additional solution for conference organizers, who have an obligation to make their guests feel safe and welcome: If Talese is in the habit of demeaning women to their faces at writing conferences, then he needs to stop getting invited to writing conferences.