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The art of talking to ordinary people

Bartleby and Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener
Forfatter: Gay Talese
Forlag: Harper Collins (USA)
JOURNALISM / Gay Talese unfolds in great detail his journalistic method, which most writers could learn a part from. He hates interviewing celebrities.


When Gay Talese collects his clothes from the dry cleaners, he always makes sure to save the pieces of cardboard around which the clothes are folded. The pieces measure 35 x 20 cm. Talese folds the cardboard in half and cuts it into five pieces. Then he trims the edges so that they are rounded and can slide easily into the shirt pocket in which he keeps them when he goes out into the world to find the story. When he is out there and the urge arises to take a note, he likes to step aside a little, perhaps to a toilet. Then he scribbles down a bit, but he doesn't linger too long. He didn't want to attract attention.

The ordinary

In a human age – and it really is, as he is 91 years old at the time of writing
– has Gay Talese been looking for stories. For many with an interest in media and journalism Talese will be one of the most significant names in New Journalism, i.e. the form of journalism that arose especially in the US from the 1960s and which is characterized by a more literary approach to journalism – where the writer makes use of stage presentations, dialogues , telling details, characters rather than sources and perhaps more subjectivity mixed with the factual. Talese thus belongs among names such as Joan Didion, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote.

Talese belongs among names such as Joan Didion, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote.

In the work here, Bartleby and Me, we get to wind up the entire prehistory, before Talese steps in and manifests himself as one of the significant writers in New Journalism. We hear how he works his way up the ranks from the day he walked into the New York Times and began working his way around the office. Here he uses his lunch breaks to get to know a special man, namely the man who was responsible for the iconic illuminated sign that proclaimed the latest news on the New York Times building as a headline. That acquaintance led to a small portrait that became Talese's first published story on November 2, 1953. And although it is the first story, it actually contains a distinctive ingredient that would go on to become Talese's trademark. One could formulate this as the art of talking to ordinary people, finding it extraordinary in the ordinary course, but such statements almost sound derogatory about the people who become central figures in Talese's journalism. It is perhaps more correct to say that Talese seeks out the people who do not normally get speaking time the media. He thus tries to avoid politicians, celebrities and powerful people, instead talking to the electrician, the stewardess or the man who writes the obituaries in the New York Times.

Gay talese

To go out and linger

I am writing this book review in Palm Springs, where I am currently serving on the jury of a film festival. Right now it's four in the morning and I'm lying awake. Not only jet lag has woken me up but also a violent sandstorm blowing outside. It beeps and howls. If I were Gay Talese, I would rise from my bed and head out into the storm. Not to find the drama and certainly not to find the fire chief, the governor or other powerful sources. No, I wanted to interview one of the employees cleaning up after the storm. Or one of the insurance salesmen who still go door to door and make a living selling insurance against just sandstorms. Shortly said; I wanted to find the people we don't hear from otherwise. This is part of Talese's fundamental approach to journalism.

Another and perhaps even more important element is what he himself calls «the art of hanging out», i.e. the art of hanging out. Early in his career, he is warned against conducting interviews over the phone because too much is lost if you only hear words through a telephone receiver – you don't get all the extras you get by going out. Therefore he sets out. And lingers. There is no doubt that there are types of journalism where desk work is essential. It could be heavy research or data-driven journalism, but there is hardly any doubt that much journalism is enriched by going out and hanging around. Because it is when you go out and hang around that you become wiser people: what do they think, what do they talk about and how, how do they see the world and what is the world they inhabit really like? All these relationships and interactions should be essential in journalism. Therefore, people should still read Talese.

Frank Sinatra Has a Cold

The work can probably be considered an autobiography, but the absolutely overriding focus is the stories and how they came to be.

Most of all, we hear about the famous Frank Sinatra portrait that was published under the title Frank Sinatra Has a Cold in April 1966 in Esquire magazine, which Talese joined after a stint at the New York Times. The Sinatra portrait was actually a task that Talese had asked him to do. He hates interviewing celebrities. They rarely say anything interesting and everything has to be approved in a heavy bureaucracy. So it was reluctantly that Talese went to the task, and Sinatra had that reluctance as well, which resulted in the main character refusing to participate. Therefore, Talese spent three months observing Sinatra in all sorts of situations and approaching many of the people who surround Sinatra: the bodyguard, the toupee woman, the make-up man and the many 'hangarounds'. Put another way, you can say that Talese departs from the center to instead dwell on the periphery, and through this dwelling he naturally also gets to say something about the center.

One can perhaps blame Talese for using just the right amount of space Bartleby and Me on the Sinatra story, especially because he has written better lyrics, such as the phenomenal book Thy Neighbor’s Wife (1981), which I would like to see treated in more detail. You can probably also blame Talese for being cocky and incredibly happy with his lyrics, but on the other hand: Who can blame him for that?

Steffen Moestrup
Steffen Moestrup
Regular contributor to MODERN TIMES, and docent at Denmark's Medie- og Journalisthøjskole.

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