Twitter Storm Spatters Elderly Writers Talese and Trillin

By Stan Persky | April 13, 2016

An Old People’s Review of Books Special Investigation.

Here at Old People’s Review of Books (OPR) we like to define our terms: “Twitter Storm” (a.k.a., Twitter Shitstorm; a.k.a., Twitter Bullshit Storm) – usually a fake controversy fomented by self-righteous, truly-or-falsely outraged, psychologically distressed people. The foofarah is frequently rooted in a simple-minded misunderstanding; occasionally based on a minor gaffe, gurgle or burp of some prominent lost soul; always undergirded by layers of resentment and sheer malevolence; and expressed in internet “tweets” of 140 characters or less.

Case in point:

The journalist and author Gay Talese, 84, one of the inventors of the “New Journalism” (and “literary non-fiction”) in the 1950s and 60s, was invited to Boston University’s “Power of Narrative” conference in early April 2016 as a keynote speaker and interviewee. In case the name’s a bit fuzzy for Millennial readers, Talese is the author of The Power and the Glory (1969, a history of the New York Times) and various other books, including Thy Neighbor’s Wife (1981), and Frank Sinatra Has a Cold (2011, a collection of his best-known journalistic pieces), as well as a long chunk of reportage in the current New Yorker (Apr. 11, 2016) from a forthcoming book, “The Voyeur’s Motel.”

Gay Talese.

Gay Talese.

In the course of an interview at the BU conference, Talese was asked, or apparently asked, what women writers had inspired him. He replied, “None.” Cue the Twitter Shitstorm: imagine a giant wind-tunnel-sized fan fed a large amount of human excrement, blowing it in digital form across the internet, and you have an image of the nether regions of the news cycle.

In addition to the hashtags, outrage, condescension, and death wishes, there were recommendations concerning women writers that the obviously  female-illiterate Talese was advised to read. In short order, the Guardian newspaper book pages published a lengthy “listicle,” “10 Inspiring Women Writers You Need to Read” (the list began with Doris Lessing… and, it might be noted, the Guardian ship increasingly lists toward listicles). The paper egged on its readers to add their own testimonies, and hundreds of reader- commenters piled on to suggest additional woman writers that Talese and the rest of us must read, and there were lots of comments from which Guardian censors mercifully shielded our eyes with the notice that the comment had been removed for failing to meet the civility standards that the paper requires of its commenters. We don’t even want to think about what those foaming-at-the-mouth censored bits might have contained.

Sporadic ageist remarks (“he’s pretty much a dinosaur”) were added to spice up the stew. Similar listicles dotted our Facebook pages, courtesy of smart-ass FB acquaintances (misnomered as “friends”). Lots of people with time on their hands. One FB poster recommended some women writers for Talese to “check out,” and another poster, an ageing wannabe Millennial suggested that Talese “perhaps, just check out entirely.” Like, get off my planet, dude. About the only person around who was doing her job was Shirley Leung, book columnist of the Boston Globe.

Talese at BU conference.

Talese at BU conference.

Journalist Leung “reached out” to journalist Talese that night. What happened? she wanted to know. “I misunderstood the question,” he wrote back to her in an e-mail. Explained Leung, “He thought he was being asked whether any female journalists made an impression on him as a young man.” “His answer: ‘None.’” “My answer was ‘no.’ And it remains ‘no,’” Talese wrote. “I say this as a senior-senior citizen of 84, and if there had been a woman reporter who influenced me during my upbringing,” he noted, she would now be a figure of ancient history, which is how many rabid critics and commenters think of Talese.

If Talese’s interviewer, Tom Fiedler, Dean of BU’s School of Communication, had stepped in and asked, “So there weren’t many women you looked up to during your formative years, but what about later in your career?”, Talese says he “would have clarified that he greatly admired female fiction writers growing up, especially Mary McCarthy and Carson McCullers. Talese also would have gone on to say that he holds many female journalists of today in high regard.”

“I was not,” Talese wrote in his e-mail, “commenting on contemporary women who practice journalism: Susan Orlean, Larissa MacFarquhar (I wrote her a fan letter two weeks ago, praising her piece in The New Yorker on the Ford Foundation), Lillian Ross (whose new collection I blurbed enthusiastically), Katie Roiphe (ditto) and the late Nora Ephron (whom I described with adoration in the new HBO show directed by her son, Jacob Bernstein).” As for all those helpful people who suggested that Talese should have known Ida Tarbell, Dorothy Parker, Martha Gellhorn and Janet Flanner, forget it. He didn’t.

Gay Talese (photo: David Shankbone.)

Gay Talese (photo: David Shankbone.)

But he added, “As a reporter, covering a span of more than a half-century, I always made it clear to interview subjects what we were discussing; but on the stage of Boston University… my reputation was tarnished by the irresponsible form of journalism on the internet these days that reaffirms my lack of respect for what and how things are being reported there,” Talese wrote. “In my case, the truth concerning me and my journalism was distorted and widely circulated.” (Cf. Shirley Leung, “I heard from Gay Talese. Here’s what he really meant,” Boston Globe, Apr. 4, 2016.) End of story, agreed? Even if, as Shirley Leung aptly notes, “It’s hard to tell the whole story in 140 characters or less.”

Second case in point:

Calvin Trillin, 80, is best known as a humorist and writer of light verse, but he’s also a novelist, journalist, and food critic. His first book was An Education in Georgia (1964, about racial integration at the University of Georgia); for years he wrote a column, “Uncivil Liberties,” for the leftist magazine The Nation, eventually collected into a volume of that title; and among more recent dribblings, there’s Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: 40 Years of Funny Stuff (2011, winner of the 2012 James Thurber Award for American Humor).

Calvin Trillin.

Calvin Trillin.

In the Apr. 4, 2016 issue of The New Yorker, Trillin published a poem satirizing “foodies,” people who devote themselves to eating the currently most fashionable food available. The poem, about Chinese cuisine, titled, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” begins,

Have they run out of provinces, yet?
If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.
Long ago, there was just Cantonese.
(Long ago, we were easy to please.)
But then food from Szechuan came our way,
Making Cantonese strictly passe.

Trillin works his way through the successive popularity of food from the Chinese provinces of Shanghai, Hunan, Fukien, Uighur, and Xi’an, before arriving at:

Now, as each brand-new province appears
It brings tension, increasing our fears:
Could a place we extolled as a find
Be revealed as one province behind?
So we sometimes do miss, I confess
Simple days of chow mein but no stress
When we never were faced with the threat
Of more provinces we hadn’t met…

You got the drill by now? Within minutes (okay, days) the Washington Post headline read, “Calvin Trillin and the New Yorker slammed for ‘casually racist’ poem about Chinese food.” The New York Times stuck to puns: “Calvin Trillin’s poem on Chinese food proves unpalatable…” Turn on the Twitter Storm:

As the Post’s Justin Moyer put it, “The Internet outrage machine was
soon aimed at poesy decried by one critic as ‘light white verse’.” Literary analyst Rich Smith, writing for the Seattle alternative paper, The Stranger, declared, “The poem announces its regressive ideologies in several ways, starting with the title’s employment of the othering ‘we/they’ binary, where ‘they’ are ‘foreigners’ who have a seemingly endless number of those whatsits — Provinces? — and ‘we’ white Americans are the stately realists who have a comprehensible number of states and cuisines.” For readers who find “the othering ‘we/they’ binary” too deep, Smith also calls the poem “casually racist.”

Twitter user and author Mindy Hung complained, “It’s about not having an editor on staff who says, This is a terrible headline/poem/etc… It’s about passively accepting juvenile pieces bc you always pub that writer.” (“bc” and “pub” are Twitterese shorthand for “because” and “publish.”) Another offended author, Celeste Ng, conceded, “Some people have suggested we’re supposed to read it as satire and not take it at face value,” but chided New Yorker editors who, she argued, “should have stepped in and said, ‘Is this piece of art doing what it’s supposed to do?’”

Other experts in identifying what are currently known as “micro-aggressions” – subtle racist, sexist, homophobic and transgender attacks that don’t amount to Islamic State-like macro-aggressions — weighed in. Karissa Chen double-tweeted: “this calvin trillin poem isn’t only offensive it’s also just… bad.” On second thought, Chen added, “like what is it, a nursery rhyme about chinese food as experienced by a white person? Dude, china is not yours for the columbusing.” We like that “columbusing.” Get it? You can’t make this stuff up. To ensure that we don’t think that such tweets are fabricated, many papers have now taken to reproducing tweets as “visuals,” complete with the tweeter’s pic and text. (The OPR will spare you such page enliveners.)

In due course, Trillin, (also) author of The Tummy Trilogy (1994) and the doggeralist of a 2003 poem, “What Happened to Brie and Chablis?”, told the Guardian newspaper that the poem “was simply a way of making fun of the food-obsessed bourgeoisie.” Nuff said, eh?

Here at HARC (Home for Almost Retired Critics), the light verse we’re paying most attention to, as we sit in our rockers on the enclosed front porch, is by the master of the form, Ogden Nash, who once scribbled,

Old Men

People expect old men to die,
They do not really mourn old men.
Old men are different. People look
At them with eyes that wonder when…
People watch with unshocked eyes;
But the old men know when an old man dies.





  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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