Talese and Trillin and The New Yorker


When I enlarged this “free image of the New Yorker” for this post, it got a little blurry. Maybe the magazine I’ve loved for its short fiction isn’t, lately, standing up to the closer look.

If you’re a member of the Twitterverse, you’ll know both stories:

1. Gay Talese, 84-year-old author and journalist, had an essay, The Voyeur’s Motel, in the April 11 New Yorker, about a voyeur who for years observed (but apparently did not record) all manner of his guests’ activities through peepholes, without their consent. Talese knew about the voyeur’s ongoing practice for a very long time (like upwards of 20 years) but kept the information secret until 2013. Talese also, only a week or so before, said in a Boston University conference on journalism that he could not think of one female journalist of his generation who inspired him. Apparently there are a couple of versions of what he said, word-for-word, although I found a pretty damning transcript on a Boston Globe website.

2. Calvin Trillin, 80-year-old journalist, food writer, poet memoirist and novelist, wrote a poem, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” published in the April 4 New Yorker. It seems he thought he was giving a light-hearted look at food fads, but many people took offense to what  I perceived as a peculiarly ethnocentric and dismissive-of-Chinese-just-about-everything poem. Yesterday there was a response to Trillin’s poem on the Asian American Writer’s Workshop called “We’re in the Room, Calvin Trillin.”  In it, 13 Asian American writers respond to “Have They run Out of Provinces Yet?”, some in the form of other poems, and some in short essays.

One essay in “We’re In the Room, Calvin Trillin” by C Dale Young says his friends tell him he ought to lighten up about perceived affronts. In another essay Lee Herrick says,

It is important to realize just how little many people care about racism. They could not care less. It has never been part of any concern in their lives—not school, not work, not goals, not trouble. They cannot fathom it, in any context or kind of severity, so when a person or group who has experienced it deeply for decades speaks up against it, it jolts them out of a comfortable slumber and seems irrational or sensitive. I would say to those people: allow people their anger. Allow people the right to their trauma. Trillin apologists may have experienced war, or divorce, or cancer. If they were angered by something connected to their own trauma or difficulty, I would never tell them to lighten up. To do so would be arrogant and dismissive.

I’ve grown, I think, toward an understanding of this assessment. I also think that maybe if there were a few Asian American writers in the editorial room at the New Yorker, some of this could have been hashed out immediately and the poem likely would never have been published. I don’t think it would have been any great loss to the poetry world, and it would have indicated at least a kind of baseline sensitivity to issues of racism on the part of the magazine.

And if there were more women in the room, would it have less likely the voyeur essay would have been published? I get the magazine at home and stopped reading after a page or two because I found it so unsettling. On reflection, I do think that Talese overstepped some boundary in keeping this information private and that the New Yorker shouldn’t have published the essay. What’s really ironic is that Talese went on at that Boston University conference about how women just don’t have the knack for telling the stories of “anti-social types,” presumably like voyeurs. I’m thinking we’d tell the stories just fine, but also lock the predators up.

I had an interesting Twitter conversation on Saturday night with some long-time Talese fans who were disappointed in his comments about women journalists (we didn’t talk about The Voyeur’s Hotel) but didn’t feel like these few words from an accomplished writer in his twilight years should damn his entire career. I get that, but as an older person I’m wary of giving people a pass just because they’re older. Read, and listen, get a little uncomfortable and you’ll learn a few things, even when you’re old.

Another issue is more problematic to me: What would have been my response if I loved Talese, or Trillin? I don’t, but I DO love Anne Tyler who sometimes, it seems to me, can be a little tone deaf re: race. Writers, including me, put a lot of words out into the world and I cannot imagine how awful it would feel to be the object of the Twitter wrath that’s been going on this week. I hope to God I never am, and I’m guessing I’ll usually tend toward sympathy for any writer who is. But it’s a tough call when people we admire let us down with a careless remark, or, worse, a prejudiced or entitled point of view. In the end, I found satisfaction with a comment of a woman joining our Twitter conversation: “We can’t control who inspires us. We can widen our view.”


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