"I wanted to write like Fitzgerald," Gay Talese says in the middle of a great interview with Katie Roiphe in the summer issue of the Paris Review. It's an odd declaration for a journalist to make. Roiphe asks him, "Do you feel competitive with novelists?" "Yes, I do. Journalism is not given much respect," Talese responds. "This is a craft. This is an art form... nonfiction writers are second-class citizens... And yes, it pisses me off."
It's easy to forget about Gay Talese in the hyperwired media age. He produces one book every decade; he never got the hang of the internet; and he's 77 years old, so his most productive years are behind him. But every time you rediscover Talese, you're forced to remember all the quality we've sacrificed in the name of the 24-hour news cycle. The Paris Review interview touches on Talese's fact-gathering style—he fastidiously maps out his books before he begins writing, and he has kept intensive notes on every single day of his life. So thorough is his reporting that Talese begins his books with a note to the reader that has a now-rare reassuring quality: "The names of the people in this book are real, and the scenes and events described on the following pages actually happened."
Earlier this year, Harper Perennial reissued two of Talese's best books, and together they tell the story of America since World War II: When we're not too busy fucking, we're trying to kill each other. Honor Thy Father from 1971 chronicles a mafia war that erupted after a mob boss's kidnapping in 1964, marking the end of a golden age of American organized crime. Talese befriended murderers and extortionists, gaining their trust and logging thousands of hours of interviews, but Father isn't his most courageous book.
That would be Thy Neighbor's Wife, Talese's 1980 examination of sex in America. It's arguably his best book, and it's a sprawling monster, jumping every few pages from interviews with Hugh Hefner to a porn shoot to a wife-swapping community inspired by the works of Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein. At the end of the book, Talese writes about himself in the third person, documenting his extramarital affairs with massage-parlor prostitutes. It was a daring, and genius, move—it's impossible for someone to write about sex without acknowledging his own identity as a sexual being. It also exiled Talese from the literary community for years. "I didn't have much dignity after that was published," he tells the Paris Review. But nearly 30 years later, Talese has assumed his place at the forefront of American literature. His body of work shames practically every journalist at work today.