Writer Gay Talese Defends 'New Journalism'

Writing Narrative Journalism
Robert J Lemos

Literary icon Gay Talese, left, and Chris Jones, right, writer-at-large for Esquire magazine, lead a discussion on writing narrative journalism Friday in the Fong Auditorium.

Esteemed writer Gay Talese—considered one of the fathers of the “new journalism” style in the 1960s—spoke to a crowd of fans and writers about narrative journalism in Boylston Hall on Friday.

Talese has written several famous narrative pieces like “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” for publications ranging from Esquire to The New Yorker, and is credited with being one of the first writers to insert literary techniques into journalism.

Part of a lecture series that is usually organized solely by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, Friday's talk was co-organized with the Harvard Writers at Work lecture series to attract a broader audience.

Talese shared some of his quirky writing methods, such as writing notes on shirt boards. Talese also keeps nearly every piece of paper he comes across, he said, including notes from his wife, rejection slips, and interview notes. Talese collected 33 sets of notes from his interviews with Frank Sinatra.

Keeping things is important to Talese, he said, because he often revisits his notes and finds interesting pieces of the puzzle that he failed to notice before.

“You should know that the story never ends,” Talese said.

Talese also shared his disdain for modern reporting technology. He still writes on yellow notepads with pencil and uses a typewriter. Tape-recorders, Talese said, cheapen the relationship between the reporter and the subject.

“You tend to fall prey to the charm of that, the ease of ... those little, plastic, spinning wheels that give you everything, but give you nothing,” Talese said.

As the son of Italian immigrants, Talese said he always felt like an outsider. But Talese attributes his curiosity as a journalist to this feeling.

“I always felt like I was divided as a person, and that was perfect for a journalist,” Talese said. “You can’t be an insider.”

To catch the details that are essential in narrative non-fiction, Talese said, a reporter has to master “the art of hanging out,” or spending a lot of time with a subject.

Talese also emphasized the importance of dressing well to succeed in journalism. He wore a pea-green suit, a yellow silk tie, and a candy-cane striped dress shirt to the talk.

Talese, who started out writing for newspapers, began writing narrative non-fiction because he wanted to write about real people—a form he calls “stories with real names.”

“I was thinking, ‘Why can’t I do as a non-fiction writer what short story writers do, what dramatists do, what novelists do?’ which is write scenes,” Talese said.

Writing about individual stories of success, demotion, and perseverance, Talese said, is worthwhile because everyone experiences these same things.

Just having finished a New Yorker story on Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s collaboration, Talese is currently working on a narrative piece about Joe Girardi, the manager of the New York Yankees.

Talese did not always enjoy universal success. Many have accused him of writing fiction, but Talese said his goal was to move beyond the restrictions of news writing.

“I respected [news writers] because they got it right, but I didn’t want to emulate them in any way because they were boring,” Talese said. “It is getting it right, and then being a storyteller. And that means you have to have characters.”

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