CHAMPAIGN – Author Gay Talese has spent a half-century telling great stories – true stories about real people in detail as rich as the best short fiction.
He pioneered the genre of literary journalism, blending the tools of the fiction writer – scene-setting, dialogue, drama – with exhausting reporting to give readers an unprecedented look at his subjects.
Perhaps it's no surprise Talese has little use for the "blurb mentality" he sees in blogs and online reporting.
"The only way a society can endure as a democracy is to know the truth. The truth is not easily arrived at, because it requires work outside of a laptop – really going out and understanding from the point of view of many people what is relevant and what is honest and what is verifiably true.
"The quick, bottom-line, shortcutting form of journalism we now see on the Internet, which isn't journalism at all, is something that has to be avoided," he said in a phone interview Monday from his home in New York.
Talese, 78, will be honored by the University of Illinois this weekend in New York for his contributions to journalism. He is this year's recipient of the Illinois Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism, which carries a $10,000 stipend.
Talese has authored nearly a dozen acclaimed books, among them "The Kingdom and the Power," about the history and influence of The New York Times; "Honor Thy Father," the inside story of a Mafia family; "Thy Neighbor's Wife," an exploration of America's sexual landscape before AIDS; and "Unto the Sons," a memoir about his family's immigration from Italy to the U.S. in the years before World War II.
He has received numerous awards in his 50-year career but said the Illinois prize comes at an important time. He cited the work of the three previous winners, "60 Minutes" veteran Mike Wallace, former Washington Post editor Benjamin Bradlee, and noted investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. The award, he said, protects the standards of "journalism as we knew it, and still hope has a place in our society."
Talese decried "a certain recklessness" and emphasis on the sensational in today's 24-hour news cycle, particularly on the Internet. He said he grew up with journalism that served the public rather than being "self-serving," calling out The Drudge Report among others.
"It's sort of a me-me-me mentality, done by people who are chatting all the time and not saying very much beyond their laptop, not going out and having physical contact with what you're writing about.
"It's no substitute for being there," he said. Real journalism is "time-consuming and serious and not all self-absorbed with how one feels."
Admitting he's old-fashioned – he still answers his own phone – Talese relies on newspapers for news, preferring his "local paper," the New York Times.
"Someone has to be careful about information being imparted to a mass public that is not the truth, or not close to the truth, or not even an attempt to make it the truth," he said. "Society is not going to be protected by the government when it comes to lying. The government is most often lying. Society is made up of institutions that ... don't adhere to impartial truth."
The Illinois Prize honors individuals whose career contributions to public affairs reporting "represent the highest and best achievements of American journalism." The winner is chosen by UI journalism faculty.
Walt Harrington, professor of journalism and chair of the Illinois Prize committee, said Talese changed American journalism forever by recognizing that "artistry and factuality can coexist."
The "New Journalism" developed by Talese and author Tom Wolfe, among others, gained prominence in the 1960s and 1970s and is now an integral part of journalism training. Narrative journalism, as it's known, continues to be judged by the "gold standard" Talese set, Harrington said.
"He's still being read two generations out," he said.
Talese began his journalism career in high school, writing for the local Sentinel-Ledger in Ocean City, N.J. After graduating from the University of Alabama, he worked at the New York Times, first as a copyboy and then a reporter.
In an introduction to his latest book, a collection of sports journalism called "The Silent Season of a Hero," Talese talks about how he tried to incorporate the techniques of his favorite fiction writers, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Carson McCullers, into his early newspaper stories.
Those attempts were regarded with suspicion by Times editors who were used to more formulaic writing in the "paper of record," he said this week. "They wanted facts, not a turn of phrase."
He left the paper in 1965 and went on to write for Esquire, Harper's Magazine, The New Yorker and Newsweek.
His April 1966 profile of Frank Sinatra, published in Esquire, caused a sensation in writing circles, and in 2003 the magazine named it "the best story Esquire ever published." Talese couldn't get an interview with Sinatra but spent months following the singer and his entourage before writing the story headlined, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold."
The full story is here .
Talese, who is now writing a book about his 50-year marriage to editor Nan Talese, is pleased to see so many journalists incorporate storytelling in their writing today. He cited the work of foreign correspondents in Iraq and Afghanistan, including Jon Lee Anderson at The New Yorker and Dexter Filkins at the Times.