- A New Journalist’s Suggestions for Daily Journalists
The following is an edited transcript of comments made by Gay Talese at the Nieman Narrative Journalism Conference at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on December 1, 2001.
I am a man who has never had a happier time in my life than when I was a reporter in the New York Times news room. I left the New York Times with a tear in my eye—more than a tear. I was thirty-two years old. I had been at the Times since I started at twenty-two, and I left not because of any disenchantment with the paper but rather because the limitations of daily journalism—space particularly and the time that one could devote to the indulgence of one’s curiosity—made it somewhat frustrating to stay on a daily newspaper. I wanted to spend more time with people who were not necessarily newsworthy. I believed then—and I believe now even more than then—that the role of the nonfiction writer should be more with private people, insignificant people perhaps, but people whose lives represent a larger significance than their own lives.
The fiction writer, playwright, and novelist deal with private life. They deal with ordinary people and elevate these people into our consciousness and give them names and give them a place in life because of the power of the writer, the power of the word. The world of the nonfiction writer, the writer of biography, primarily has dealt with people in public life, names that are known to us. But the private life that I wanted to delve into as a young writer for the New York Times was the life of the person who would not be worthy of news coverage. I thought that if we could bring those people into the larger consciousness, they could help us understand the trends in all the lives around us.
My father was a tailor; my uncles were tailors. I believe a man who is a tailor or who is a doorman at a fine hotel gets the sense of the flow of [End Page 457] life. It is a time in which a man who has a gift of observing can understand people. The men who entered my father’s tailor shop—who could afford a fine suit and there weren’t many of them—brought into that shop a sense of who they were, and my father was the man who measured them, who had a kind of relationship with them, who could understand a great deal about lives more broad than his own. He had come from a small village in southern Italy, but he was very fine with a needle and thread. He wanted to bring to the suits he made a sense of his own style. He had a great sense of caring about a perfect buttonhole, of measuring perfectly, of making a suit that would fit on the body and would elevate the presence. He was an artist with a needle and thread, and he didn’t care if he would make a lot of money. Each suit was a work of art in his definition. And he was an observer.
We are the people of the underclass—people who went out and observed and were not observed. My father was an eavesdropping tailor. He knew a lot about the people who came into his shop. I grew up hearing about the lives of people, ordinary people, and I thought they were interesting. One of the people that I heard about was a man named Garet Garrett, a funny name. He was an editorial writer for the New York Times. He worked directly with the great Adolph Ochs, the patriarch of the New York Times, whose family still is in control of the newspaper. In his retirement Mr. Garrett would come to the Jersey shore and go to my father’s shop to be measured. I was fourteen and in high school. I would eavesdrop on what Mr. Garrett was telling my father. My father learned the English language by reading the New York Times—particularly during World War...