#women gay talese should read

Ah, how dangerous is a little myopia. At a recent conference in Boston, Gay Talese, journalist icon and keynote speaker, named four male writers who inspired him as a young man (Frank O'Hara, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Irwin Shaw). In the Q & A, poet Verandah Porche asked him if there were any women writers who played the same role in his literary life. He first named Mary McCarthy, then after a disturbingly long pause corrected himself: “Um, none.” That registered with a jolt. What might have been an interesting discussion quickly became a kerfuffle, as he did not, and was not asked to, expand on his original answer. Then, when USC journalism prof Sandy Tolan called out “Joan Didion?” Talese used the present tense to say that “educated women” prefer not to get into the trenches with unsavory or “anti-social” characters. Uh oh. Audience members took to Twitter and soon #womengaytaleseshouldread was trending. Accounts of the incident and its aftermath appeared in many newspapers, but I thought that one on Rewire, by Amy Littlefield (who actually attended the Power of Narrative conference) was one of the best. Hell hath no fury like a (journalist) woman scorned, but anger isn't the point. Edification is. Here are two lists of women writers who might enlighten Gay Talese. The names come first from the Twitter users—including writer Susan Orlean, Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffery, and me—who joined the fray. The lists are amplified by other lists (inspired by the hashtag or not) and put together by The Cut at NYMag.com, Buzzfeed, and the New York Public Library: The first offers the women Talese really should have been able to cite:
Renata Adler Shana Alexander Svetlana Alexiyevich Isabel Allende Hannah Arendt Margaret Atwood Nellie Bly Katherine Boo Taffy Brodesser-Akner Edna Buchanan Janet Campbell Hale Rachel Carson Iris Chang Virginia Cowles Sara Davidson Joan Didion Annie Dillard Maureen Dowd Elaine Dundy Barbara Ehrenreich Lucy Eisenberg Gloria Emerson Nora Ephron Oriana Fallaci M.F.K. Fisher Frances FitzGerald Barbara Grizzuti Harrison Martha Gellhorn Natalia Ginzburg Veronica Guerin Alma Guillermoprieto Patricia Highsmith Lynn Hirschberg Maxine Hong Kingston bell hooks Molly Ivins Flora Johnson Moira Johnston Jane Kramer Janet Malcolm Katie McCabe Jan Morris Toni Morrison Zora Neale Hurston Debby Miller Flannery O’Connor Mary Oliver Susan Orlean Gayle Pemberton Charlotte Perkins Gilman Mary Roach Marilynne Robinson Lillian Ross Loretta Schwartz Gail Sheehy Mimi Sheraton Rebecca Solnit Susan Sontag Alice Steinbach Gloria Steinem Sara Suleri Dorothy Thompson Elizabeth Vorenberg Sarah Vowell Alice Walker Ida B. Wells Rebecca West Edith Wharton Ellen Willis Virginia Woolf
The second list offers some exciting contemporary writers (and a few hard-core journos) who may not yet have written the classics (or mere bestsellers) penned by the women above, but whom we should all be watching, and citing as inspiring models:
Rania Abouzeid Joan Acocella Atossa Araxia Abrahamian Jill Abramson Christiane Amanpour Anna Badkhen Kim Barker Eula Biss Wendy Brenner Connie Bruck Katy Butler Rukmini Callimachi Gail Collins Pamela Colloff Helene Cooper Jennifer Egan Amy Ellis Nutt Mona Eltahaway Sonia Faleiro Kiera Feldman Sheri Fink Angela Flournoy Jean Friedman-Rudovsky Rivka Galchen Michelle García Roxane Gay Elizabeth Gilbert Melissa Gira Grant Brooke Gladstone Michelle Goldberg Jennifer Gonnerman Lucy Grealy Cynthia Greenlee Vanessa Grigoriadis Paula Gunn Allen Nikole Hannah-Jones Melissa Harris Perry Anna Holmes Anne Hull Charlayne Hunter-Gault Leslie Jamison Margo Jefferson Kathryn Joyce Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah Louise Kiernan Naomi Klein Elizabeth Kolbert Brooke Kroeger Adrian Nicole LeBlanc Jill Leovy Jill Lepore Louisa Lim Larissa MacFarquhar Alia Malek Jane Mayer Mary McGrory Rebecca Mead Mac McClelland Stephanie McCrummen Laura Miller Janet Mock Michelle Nijhuis Joy-Ann Reid M.R. O’Connor Alexis Okeowo Lynn Povich Lisa Pollak Samantha Power Claudia Rankine Katie Roiphe Hanna Rosin Elizabeth Rubin Dale Russakoff Aisha Sabatini Sloan Delphine Schrank Ellen Schultz Erin Siegal McIntyre Asne Seierstad Somini Sengupta Rebecca Skloot Claire Vaye Watkins Danyel Smith Tracy K. Smith Zadie Smith Megan Stack Susan Stamberg Elizabeth Strout Meera Subramanian Mimi Swartz Jen Szalai Hannah Tennant-Moore Sarah Topol Rebecca Traister Katrina vanden Heuvel Lindy West Marjorie Williams Penny Wolfson Frances Wright Sheryl WuDunn Karla Zabludovsky Rafia Zakaria
In an afternoon session of the conference, journalist-historian Adam Hochschild was prepared when he was asked, in the Q & A after a panel discussion, about women writers he admired. He began to praise one writer in particular for her insights on the Spanish Civil War (the subject of Hochschild’s just-published Spain in Our Hearts). I was sure it would be Martha Gellhorn, the often-overshadowed third wife of Ernest Hemingway, herself considered one of the 20th century’s greatest war correspondents. Instead he named someone he considered even better: Virginia Spencer Cowles. Born in 1910, she was an American who spent her long career covering first fashion, then the Spanish Civil War, then the turbulence in Europe in the late 1930s, then World War II. After the war, she published a number of critically acclaimed biographies of historical figures. Another name on the list, and a positive outcome from the conference controversy. Happily, I'm publishing this on the Web, and I can add subtract, amend, or append names to this list. Who would you add? The #womenbywomen project from The Washington Post will give you more names, too. (as suggested on Twitter by @e_vb_). And for another argument about how this topic matters, check out an essay by Caroline Paul, the author of Gutsy Girl, about why boys should read “girl” books.  

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12 Responses to #women gay talese should read

  1. SC April 9, 2016 at 9:05 am #

    When Joan Didion was asked the same question as Gay Talese, she gave pretty much the same answer.


    Have any women writers been strong influences?


    I think only in the sense of being models for a life, not for a style. I think that the Brontës probably encouraged my own delusions of theatricality. Something about George Eliot attracted me a great deal. I think I was not temperamentally attuned to either Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf.


    And please check how many women writers Didion mentions as an influence in this other interview:


    Perhaps in both cases, Didion’s and Talese’s, the fact that they weren’t influenced by women writers in their formative years says something about these years, rather than about themselves.

  2. Constance Hale April 9, 2016 at 10:20 am #

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply, SC, and the links.

    I would say that Joan Didion’s answer in the first Paris Review interview is much more nuanced than Talese’s. First of all, she doesn’t say “None.” Second, she had clearly read the Brontes, Eliot, Austen, and Woolf and she says they *did* influence her. She also mentions Carson McCullers, Jane Bowles. Flannery O’Connor. Quite different from Talese, actually, despite that the two of them are contemporaries and were fed the same stuff by English teachers, librarians, et al. (Talese, remember, listed four male fiction writers as early influences, and when asked for women who influenced him, said “None.”)

    The second focuses on nonfiction, and there she does indeed list almost exclusively men. But she wasn’t asked specifically about women in that interview, whereas Talese was, and indeed was asked about Didion, and suggested in his answer that all “educated women” prefer writing about “educated people,” which doesn’t even apply to Didion, much less others.

    The point about what authors writers are encouraged to read in middle school and high school–and how women are asked to identify with male writers and male protagonists where men, generally, are not–would be a worthy subject for another discussion.

    (By the way, I prefer comments that are not anonymous, but this one is valuable to the conversation. Please feel free to send me your byline and let me know whether you’d like to share it with our readers here.)


  3. Michelle McCleese April 9, 2016 at 5:28 pm #

    Rather than indict a man for having male influences on his writing, perhaps the question ought to be examined. What was the purpose for asking the question? Why be offended that a male writer expressed honesty in being influenced by members of his own sex and not women? Why MUST a man be influenced by women or be condemned?

    These questions are important in understanding the anger and affront so many women felt at his answer and is indicative to me of how far astray the feminist movement has gone in demanding equality. Tit for tat is not appropriate and influences on an individual’s writing career are just that: individual and quite personal. As a woman, I find the exaggerated response to Talese’s answer embarrassingly defensive and hostile for no valid reason.

  4. Carol Cancro April 10, 2016 at 5:10 am #

    @Michelle: Have you seen this?


    As a woman, I find the response to Talese’s answer enormously uplifting and empowering. To each her own–

  5. Constance Hale April 10, 2016 at 1:48 pm #

    Hi, Michelle,

    Were you at the event in question? Carol has provided the link to the best account of it. The context is key here.

    It bears mentioning that Talese had spent much of his talk focusing on voyeurism and sex. Somehow when the question period opened and he told us in the first answer that 1) no women were influences then 2) that Joan Didion was an “educated woman” only interested in reporting on “educated people” (which really ignores so much of her work, whether Needle Park addicts or kids dropping acid in the Haight), and then 3) made blanket statements about women journalists *in the present tense* it was hard to feel that he wasn’t at least a little sexist. Or preoccupied with the Y chromosome. And, as a tough-minded female journalist, it was hard not to feel insulted.

    In my post, though, I was trying to take the next step–ie, compiling a list of strong women writers who should be assigned in high school and college and read by anyone who considers himself or herself a writers or literary denizen. Part of the problem is that women grow up reading male writers, and taking them seriously, and often identifying with their protagonists, who are most often men, and the reverse is sometimes not true. (Read Caroline Paul’s excellent TED essay for more on that.) So that many male writers, and some female writers, as SC indirectly pointed out, are woefully unaware of the great work done by women.

    BTW, it was actually Talese’s boorish statement about how women journalists operate that offended me far more than the fact that he hadn’t read or been influenced by women writers. (Despite that the novel was essentially invented by them, or that Virginia Woolf was exactly the kind of literary “explorer” he seemed to be excited by.) It was just depressing to hear him say–in the face of overwhelming evidence, not to mention the two other impressive keynoters, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Mary Roach–that “educated women” aren’t interested in reporting on “anti-social types” or characters in the margins of society.


  6. Constance Hale April 10, 2016 at 2:36 pm #

    The Guardian has a good piece on this, quoting two men who added their own personal lists to Twitter, as well as Jodi Picoult and Tina Fey:


  7. Anna Winter May 3, 2016 at 7:28 pm #

    I was saddened by the absence of J.K Rowling from those lists of affluent women writers. Yes, you can find faults with her writing craft, but you can’t deny that she rekindled the love of reading in millions of children. Her books instill and will continue instilling the most admirable values in generations of readers. Before her I wouldn’t have thought that literature promoting high-level human morals could be so popular. She made me believe in the goodness of the human race again. Sorry, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and many women too but the writer’s worth is in the effect his/her books have on people’s minds. Because of Rowling’s work our children will be better people; and I hope they will live in a better world. I wish more people thought it worthy learning from her.

  8. Anna Winter May 3, 2016 at 7:54 pm #

    Huh, I belatedly realized that I had used the word affluent meaning influential. Some kind of Freudian thing? Aging brain? Or the fact that English is my fourth language? In any case – sorry.

  9. Bob Seawright May 18, 2016 at 11:03 am #

    The lists offered are excellent starting points but I am astonished that Marilynne Robinson is nowhere to be found. I am far too old to have been inspired by her when I was young but she would be my first mention if asked about writers who inspire me today.

    • Constance Hale May 18, 2016 at 11:32 am #

      Ach! You are so right about Marilynne Robinson.

      And–I once asked the New Yorker book critic James Wood why there were so few women on the syllabus of his Harvard undergraduate course, Postwar American and British Fiction. Muriel Spark was the only woman (for “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”) on a list that included Henry Green, Saul Bellow, V. S. Naipaul, Ian McEwan, and even Joseph O’Neill (for Neverland).

      His reply: The first one he’d add would be Marilynne Robinson.

      • Bob Seawright May 18, 2016 at 1:35 pm #

        For my money, she’s our greatest living writer (your mileage may vary). Plus, she has a wide and deep non-fiction catalog to go along with her fiction.

        Thanks for the timely reply. I enjoy the site.

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