The seductiveness of sources
If you’re intrigued by public literary implosions, you’ve probably heard about the storm swirling around the legendary journalist Gay Talese, who has disavowed his new book The Voyeur’s Motel after discrepancies in its version of events were raised by the Washington Post. The book, which was given an eye-catching excerpt back in April in The New Yorker, revolves around the seedy figure of Gerald Foos, a motel owner in Aurora, Colorado who spied on his guests for more than three decades using a voyeur’s platform installed in the ceiling. Foos kept a detailed journal of his observations that served as Talese’s primary source, along with interviews and personal meetings with his subject. (At one point, Talese joined him in the attic, where the two men observed a sexual encounter between a pair of guests.) Yet according to the Post, much of the material in Foos’s diary is contradicted by public records. Among other issues, Foos sold the hotel in 1980 and didn’t regain ownership of it for another eight years, a period in which he claims to have continued his voyeuristic activities. When Talese was told about this, his response was unequivocal: “I’m not going to promote this book. How dare I promote it when its credibility is down the toilet?” And no matter how you slice it, it’s an embarrassing episode for a journalist who has deservedly been acclaimed for most of his career as one of our leading writers of nonfiction.
Even in the earliest days of their relationship, Talese had reason to doubt his subject’s reliability. Foos had written Talese a letter on January 7, 1980, offering to contribute “important information” to Talese’s work on the sex lives of contemporary Americans. Talese wondered from the beginning if Foos might be “a simple fabulist,” and when they met, Foos seemed unusually eager to talk about his experiences: Talese says that he’d never met anyone who had unburdened himself so quickly, which certainly feels like a warning sign. After Talese began to read the journal itself, he became aware of possible inconsistencies: the first entries, for instance, are dated three years before Foos actually bought the hotel. As time went on, the diary grew more novelistic in tone, with Foos referring to himself in the third person as “the voyeur,” and some of the incidents that it recounts seem an awful lot like his fantasies of what he wished he could have been. Talese was unable to corroborate Foos’s startling claim that he had witnessed a murder committed by one of the guests, which had suspicious parallels to an unrelated killing that occurred elsewhere around the same time, and he admits: “If I had not seen the attic viewing platform with my own eyes, I would have found it hard to believe Foos’s account.” But he trusted him enough to build much of his book around excerpts from the journal, for which Foos was paid by the publisher, although Talese hedges: “I cannot vouch for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript.”
So why was he taken in for so long? That’s a question that only Talese can answer, but I have a hunch that it had something to do with the seductiveness of Foos’s journal, even more than with the man himself. Talese writes:
My interest in him was not dependent on having access to his attic. I was hoping to get his permission to read the hundreds of pages that he claimed to have written during the past fifteen years, with the result that he would one day allow me to write about him…I hoped that Foo’s manuscript, if I obtained permission to read it, would serve as a kind of sequel to [the Victorian erotic memoir] My Secret Life.
At their initial meeting, Foos pulled out a cardboard box containing the manuscript, which was four inches thick, written on ruled sheets from legal pads with “excellent” penmanship. Foos agreed to send the diary in installments, copying a few pages at a time at his local library to avoid attracting attention. Later, he sent a full typescript of three hundred pages that included material that Talese hadn’t seen before. And it seems likely that Talese was inclined to believe his source, despite all his doubts, because the material seemed so sensational—and it was all right there, in his hands, in a form that could easily be shaped into a compelling book. A manuscript can’t refuse to talk.
I understand this, because I know from experience how the mere existence of a valuable primary source can influence how a nonfiction book is constructed, or even the choice of a subject itself. It’s so hard to obtain enough of this kind of information that when a trove of it falls into your lap, you naturally want to make use of it. I don’t think I would have pitched my book Astounding if I hadn’t known that tens of thousands of pages of documentary material were available for my four subjects: I knew that it was a book that I could write if I just invested enough time and care into the project, which isn’t always the case. But it’s also necessary to balance that natural eagerness with an awareness of the limitations of the evidence. Even if outright fabrication isn’t involved, memories are imprecise, and even straightforward facts need to be verified. (Numerous sources, for example, say that John W. Campbell graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Duke University in 1932, but Campbell himself once said that it was 1933, and he’s listed as a member of the class of 1935. So which is it? According to official records at Duke, it’s none of the above: Campbell attended classes from September 1932 through May 1934, a seemingly small detail, but one that plays a key role in reconstructing the chronology of that period in his life.) All you can do is check your sources, note when you’re relying on subjective accounts, and do everything in your power to get it right. Talese didn’t do it here—which reminds us that even the best writers can find themselves seduced and abandoned.