This weekend, I went to the Mayborn Writer’s Conference at UNT, where one Gay Talese was the keynote speaker. Talese is the reason I got into this business. It was thrilling meeting him, but ultimately disappointing hearing him speak.
He wasn’t the only writer there, though. Saturday morning, I sat through Skip Hollandsworth’s presentation on what happens after he files a story but before it appears in Texas Monthly. (A lot, it turns out. Each piece is pored over by a bevy of fact-checkers who sometimes demand of Skip about 60 pages of annotated notes. It sounds exhausting. FYI: At D, I call all the people who made it into my story, making sure facts and quotes are correct, then a fact-checker does the same.) After Skip came TM’s Evan Smith, who talked, and I’m not kidding you, about how great his magazine is. That’s it. But it seemed to work. A college kid in the back of the auditorium asked for a job. Evan snickered and said there were no openings.
The big deal, though, was Talese Saturday night, in the ballroom on the third floor of the Hilton Hotel where this whole shindig was held, not five miles from the airport.
Talese is a god to me. I refer to the book in which his 1966 profile of Joe DiMaggio appears, Best American Sportswriting of the 20th Century, as the gold Bible. (Because the book’s cover is gold.) In my more heretical moments, I refer to Talese’s story in this book as the Gospel. It is a flawless piece, beautifully crafted, capturing fully a somewhat sullen sports icon 20 years past his last at-bat, and still, it is not as good as Talese’s profile of Frank Sinatra, which Esquire called a few years ago, again, somewhat heretically, The Greatest Story Ever Told.
So I’m a big Talese fan. I shook his hand after Skip’s presentation and got chills. But Saturday night, Talese was a dissapointment. Oh, his speech was good; he speaks extemporaneously almost as well as he writes. But he was tedious, talking about the conversations he overhears in restaurants, what his mother’s friends and clients talked about in World War II in Ocean City, New Jersey, what he and the managing editor of the New York Times talked about in Talese’s job interview as a recent graduate of the University of Alabama. Parts of the address were charming, sure, and Talese can still capture the detail and the dialogue of a moment 40 years after it happened. But it was too much detail, too little overview.