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Gay Talese and the Problem With New Journalism

The scandal surrounding the venerable journalist's new book illustrates the risk of mixing fact with fiction.

Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Gay Talese is living through every journalist’s nightmare. Since 1980, he’s been researching, off and on, the life of Gerald Foos, a Colorado hotel owner who claims to have spied on his guests for decades. Talese’s book on Foos, based on interviews with the hotelier and his diaries, is set to be released this month. But on the eve of publication of a book nearly four decades in the making, it turns out that Foos lied to Talese about basic parts of his story. Among the major facts Talese got wrong in The Voyeur’s Motel: Foos didn’t own the motel for an eight-year stretch in the 1980s and his son had not lived in an apartment later occupied by mass shooter James Holmes. An excerpt in The New Yorker already made clear that Talese knew Foos wasn’t perfectly reliable, but the extent of his fabrications seemed far beyond what Talese imagined. 

Confronted with evidence of Foos’s deception by The Washington Post, Talese seemed devastated. “I should not have believed a word he said,” Talese, the author of classic works such as The Kingdom and the Power, said. “I’m not going to promote this book,” he added. “How dare I promote it when its credibility is down the toilet?” Talese also told the Post, “The source of my book, Gerald Foos, is certifiably unreliable. He’s a dishonorable man, totally dishonorable. ... I know that. ... I did the best I could on this book, but maybe it wasn’t good enough.” (He has since tempered his initial statements, saying that he is “not disavowing the book.”)

Talese’s problems are largely his own fault. Having spent decades researching the story, it’s inexcusable that he didn’t nail down basic facts that undermine the major source of his book. But there’s a broader way to look at the Talese scandal. Because of classic works like his Esquire article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Talese is regarded as one of the pioneers of New Journalism, a movement in the 1960s in which writers like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Joan Didion brought the techniques of fiction to reporting. New Journalism has long been bedeviled by the very problem that has now entangled Talese: the tendency for fact and fiction to merge when novelistic narrative methods are applied to reporting. 

New Journalism emerged out of a dual crisis for both journalism and fiction in the 1950s. In journalism, the hegemony of a New York Times-style, view-from-nowhere objectivity led to the exclusion of non-elite voice. In literary fiction, the dominance of bourgeois domestic realism, promulgated by influential writing programs at the University of Iowa and elsewhere, led to novels that excluded social concerns. New Journalism offered a solution to the problems of both realms, allowing newspaper hands like Talese, who got his start at the Times, to work in a less arid voice, while also allowing novelists like Mailer and Didion to write about the social upheavals engulfing America in the 1960s, with an eye for gritty and abrasive details normally missing from novels about suburban adultery.

The problem was that by creating a middle space where journalism and fiction could meet, New Journalism also opened the way to journalism that was really just disguised fiction. Canadian journalist Robert Fulford noted in his 1999 book The Triumph of Narrative:

From the beginning, the books and articles of the New Journalism attracted criticism. Often, like urban legends, they sounded too good to be true. Truman Capote insisted that every word of In Cold Blood was precisely accurate, but doubters appeared. How could we be sure that so-and-so, now dead, said just those words to so-and-so, now also dead?  And in The Right Stuff, how could Wolfe understand the unexpected feelings on a certain occasion of, say, Lyndon Johnson, a man not known for his habit of passing on the details of his inner life? Weren’t the events that occurred before Norman Mailer’s delighted eyes just a little too convenient from the standpoint of the storyteller?

And as the years passed, more and more cracks began appearing. John Hersey, who was considered a precursor of the New Journalists for his book Hiroshima, wrote a lengthy critique of Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and concluded that much of it was imagined. Capote’s work, too, was increasingly scrutinized, and found to be full of material that could only have been made up by the author. When Wolfe was asked about this sort of criticism, he shrugged it off, as if it didn’t matter. On the one hand, the New Journalists preached a doctrine of truth shaped like fiction; on the other, they frequently seemed to acknowledge that the truth was being mixed, from time to time, with fiction.

But if the likes of Capote could get away with passing off their fiction as non-fiction in the past, it has become harder in the age of digital media. A search for Ryszard Kapuściński, one of the forefathers of New Journalism, instantly produces articles questioning the veracity of his reporting. A stray remark by Jonathan Franzen at a literary festival that David Foster Wallace fabricated some of his non-fiction work ricochets around the internet. And now we all know about Gay Talese, possibly dooming his book before it even comes out.

Fulford’s analysis also helps us understand that Talese’s problem isn’t just a failure of due diligence. Like other New Journalists, Talese found a story that was too good to be true, one that not only offered a window into sexual deviancy, but also resonated with his own lifetime of experience as a participant-observer. When he visited Foos, Talese became implicated in Foos’s acts by joining in a voyeuristic session. In the New Yorker excerpt, it’s clear that Talese sees Foos as a kind of mirror to his own practices as a reporter. “Most journalists are restless voyeurs who see the warts on the world, the imperfections in people and places,” Talese wrote in The Kingdom and the Power

Foos was a doppelganger who led Talese astray, since Foos himself had the worst tendencies of New Journalism. To put it another way, when Talese started off as a reporter for the Times in the 1950s, his dream was to bring to journalism the style and narrative powers of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. But in his last work, Talese has inadvertently written journalism that belongs to a different literary tradition, one created by Henry James and Ford Madox Ford and Vladimir Nabokov: the tale told by an unreliable narrator.