two-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
23-July-Aug-2006
By: 
Gay Talese
user_rating: 
0

A-AWriter’sLifeIn 1999, the Chinese soccer player Liu Ying missed a penalty kick that would have awarded her team the Women’s World Cup. Her story so intrigued Gay Talese that he booked a flight to China to develop it further. His story was never printed; instead, it joined a long list of Talese’s journalistic false starts (a spiked New Yorker profile of the infamous Bobbitts; an inquiry into a succession of restaurants that failed in the same New York location). In A Writer’s Life the famed New Journalist opens his notebooks—rejection letters and all—on his life memories and notoriously protracted research techniques and reflects on the differences between good ideas and good pieces of journalism.
Knopf. 448 pages. $26. ISBN: 0679410961

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"The sprawling, stylish book is part memoir and part explanation of why it took 14 years to finish. Talese doesn’t suffer from writer’s block as much as writer’s detour. That’s a pain for him and his editor but a delight for patient readers." Bob Minzesheimer

Chicago Sun Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"A Writer’s Life will do nothing to diminish Talese’s legacy, but this new book is harder to categorize than his previous work. … This 400-page book is a collection of journalism outtakes, a sort of how-do for writers and, finally, a memoir." Stephen J. Lyons

Cleveland Plain Dealer 2 of 5 Stars
"See, he seems to be saying, this is a writer’s life— frustration, lack of access and ideas, unsympathetic editors, writer’s block. However, there are too many mentions of lunch at Elaine’s, the second house on the Jersey shore, and sets of tennis for Talese to garner much sympathy." James F. Sweeney

Wall Street Journal 2 of 5 Stars
"The Bobbitt tale and the Chinese soccer player’s story, both of which Mr. Talese hoped to publish in magazines, would indeed have made great pieces at the time—he has a tragedian’s gift for imbuing these noted losers with humanity. … Finally surfacing in print after several years, though, these stories now smell of the attic: By pop-culture standards, they’re ancient history." Kyle Smith

Dallas Morning News 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Rambling and unfocused, A Writer’s Life feels more like a writer’s leftovers." Charles Matthews

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Despite his book’s length, he has very little to say. … With rare exceptions, Talese’s prose and observations here and throughout A Writer’s Life are tired and flat, yielding little of the keen psychological insight that makes the best of his work so memorable." Mike Fischer

NY Times Book Review 1.5 of 5 Stars
"One’s instinct is to let him take his victory lap and applaud respectfully for the good work he has done. … He has simply recapitulated and redoubled his botches by aggregating old notes and manuscript pages and interlarding them with bits of autobiography and self-abasement. The whole is less than the sum of its mostly arbitrary parts." Kurt Andersen

Critical Summary

The disjointed feel of Gay Talese’s "memoir" provokes accusations of a "notebook dump" (Wall Street Journal), a sentiment all the more galling when considered against his sterling reputation as a founding voice of New Journalism. A few critics did think the Bobbitts’ story worth retelling, though most lauded the editor who refused to publish it. Esquire recently named Talese’s 1966 piece, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," the best piece of writing they’ve ever published, and his previous books (Honor Thy Father, Thy Neighbor’s Wife) were all best sellers. Perhaps the memory of past glory causes some critics to cherish this meander through the famed journalist’s methods. But most reviewers were hoping for a little more life from this vaunted writer’s pen.