Well-known suit-wearer Gay Talese is scheduled to release a book in two weeks. The book is about a man, Gerald Foos, who says he purchased and maintained a motel in Colorado for several decades specifically for the purpose of spying on his customers as they did such private activities as having sex and using the bathroom. Part of the book was adapted into a long New Yorker article published April 11, which revealed that Talese had, at one point, peeped along with Foos, and potentially concealed the existence of a murder that Foos said had taken place at the motel.
A lot of people loved the piece. It’s Gay Talese, after all. Show some respect! A lot of other people (me) hated it. The quality of, and moral justification for, Talese’s decades-in-the-making Peeping Tom story was debated ad nauseam on Twitter for exactly the span of one day. I hope you missed it. Then we all moved on to whatever else we moved onto—who can remember, it was several months ago.
Then, yesterday, some good reporting from the Washington Post: Foos had apparently not been in possession of the motel for almost the entirety of the 1980s, a fact that was not known to Talese, his publisher, The New Yorker, or, subsequently, his readers. The Post’s Paul Farhi called up Talese and received a startling quote:
“I should not have believed a word he said,” the 84-year-old author said after The Washington Post informed him of property records that showed Foos did not own the motel from 1980 to 1988.
“I’m not going to promote this book,” the writer said. “How dare I promote it when its credibility is down the toilet?”
(In a funny coincidence, Talese’s book offers Foos’ obsession with how, when, where, and why his customers used the toilet as one of America’s great secret anthropologic experiments. It’s unclear if Foos ever observed one of his subjects flushing their credibility down one.)
In its headline, the Post declared: “Author Gay Talese disavows his latest book amid credibility questions,” and you can see clearly why the paper would have drawn that conclusion.
One might figure that Talese’s publisher, as well as The New Yorker, would soon follow with their own mea culpas. But today brought a different tune. First, New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick told the Post’s Erik Wemple that the magazine would be standing behind the story because its subject matter was frivolous and anyway the reader had been warned that Foos was unreliable:
New Yorker's Remnick on new cred problems of Gay Talese story "Voyeur's Motel": "This is not an account of, say, national security. "— ErikWemple (@ErikWemple) July 1, 2016
Further, Remnick says motel owner's unreliability was cited repeatedly. It's a profile of a "peculiar character," not matter of nat-sec.— ErikWemple (@ErikWemple) July 1, 2016
“Gay is going to do all his planned promotion and publicity, and we’ll make any necessary corrections, as any publisher does,” Mr. Entrekin said in a phone interview on Friday. “Gay is an impassioned person and he takes what he does very seriously, and he’s frustrated dealing with this guy who isn’t completely reliable.”
Further, Talese fully recanted the quotes he gave to Farhi:
“I was surprised and upset about this business of the later ownership of the motel, in the ’80s,” Mr. Talese said in a statement provided to The Times by his publisher. “That occurred after the bulk of the events covered in my book, but I was upset and probably said some things I didn’t, and don’t, mean. Let me be clear: I am not disavowing the book, and neither is my publisher. If, down the line, there are details to correct in later editions, we’ll do that.”
What’s the net result of this big mess? Well, for one thing, everyone involved with the writing and publishing of Talese’s account is being forced to answer for the credibility of his source, which was called into question the moment The New Yorker published its story. This might seem like a bad thing for Talese et al, but in actuality it allows them to avoid a tougher and more tangled question: Is it morally acceptable to have concealed the actions of a man who was spying on the most intimate moments of unsuspecting hotel guests, so that eventually the author, the magazine he writes for, and his publisher could later publicize, promote, and profit off of that spying?
But—most importantly for Talese and his publisher—we’re now talking about Gay Talese’s book which is out in two weeks! Did anybody remember that Gay Talese’s voyeur biography was being released? No. Does Gay Talese disavowing but then not actually disavowing his dangerously unreliable Peeping Tom subject change how you would read the book you didn’t remember was even being released? Buy it and find out.