Gay Talese said some stupid things lately, especially that he was never inspired by women journalists, but we’re not supposed to throw him under the bus, because he’s old, and he has written some good stuff. Both statements are true, although it’s not clear how these passes give anyone an out, or much more importantly, when you get them. Is this like the discount you get at the Sizzler for having an AARP card? You’re over 50, so you get 10% off the all-you-can-disgorge gaffe buffet?
But I agree, he should not be thrown under the bus for not reading or enjoying women writers. I suspect he was just being honest — he doesn’t. Was he supposed to lie and say he loved Diablo Cody and Lena Dunham? No! He’s a man of a certain age, uninfluenced by women’s words, and that is who he is.
Although, we might suggest that exploring the wider world of human experience might have been good for him, given his other remarkable publication lately. He’s written a story called “The Voyeur’s Motel”, and it is very well written — you’ll read the whole thing. The one problem is that there is an absence of humanity at its center. It’s as if the person writing it had so mastered the motions of clinical objectivity that he could calmly watch and participate in gross ethical violations of other people’s privacy because he was following a higher calling, the crystal clear rules of journalism, and could then dispassionately describe these activities as just things that happened. A sequence of events. Nothing more.
A man, a motel owner, tells him that he has customized his motel with crawlways and carefully designed grills so that he could sneak about at night and watch his customers. Talese notes this. The man asks him to sign an agreement to not disclose his secrets, and in return, he’ll tell him more. Talese signs it. He invites Talese to see his clever passageways and peepholes. Talese flies to Colorado to witness it. He invites Talese to join him in his nightly spying. Talese dutifully crawls through the ceiling, and watches two people having sex. The motel owner gives him his notebooks, in which he describes all of the activities that went on in his motel after hours, including one murder, which he witnessed, but did not testify to the police. Talese does not judge. He writes it all down. He sells the story to the New Yorker. He writes a book.
The motel owner, Gerald Foos, is sublimely creepy because he buys an entire motel explicitly for exercising his voyeurism, which he carries out very professionally and thoroughly, and pretends to be doing a scientifically objective study of human sexuality. It’s the disconnect that is disturbing, that he abuses the rights of his customers all the while confident that he’s committing no crime, that while he knows they would be upset if they found out, by being careful and meticulous he voids any personal moral failing.
Gay Talese is doing exactly the same thing. He has no moral failing, because he’s abiding by the rules of his craft, staying aloof from his subject, not judging, just describing. And he succeeds in becoming just as creepy as Gerald Foos.
It’s rather disturbing overall, actually. Does he even know what human experiences are like any more? Does he just watch people, like they’re ants on the sidewalk?
I also have to admit that when I started reading his story, he just says it was in a motel near Denver, and I thought…what, we stayed in an older motel near Denver for my daughter’s wedding, and my mother and sisters stayed in a different one. I was trying to remember the names of our motels, and reading through looking for clues — fortunately, it was not where we stayed, and the motel had been torn down by the time we were there anyway. Still, now I’m going to check future hotel rooms for mysterious vents, and maybe I should bring plastic garbage bags and duct tape to cover over any dubious openings.