Early on, Talese studied fiction with the strange intention of writing nonfiction, of elevating real life to literary life. Taking note of his way of setting up scenes, his oddly angled story lines and realistic dialogue, Tom Wolfe credited Talese with stirring a revolution in reporting that Wolfe christened the “new journalism.” This pronouncement was neither fiction nor hyperbole. Gay Talese’s outré method of framing and developing his “factual short stories” (as Rosenwald describes them) was as groundbreaking as it is still arresting. As this marvel of an anthology makes manifest, Talese transformed sportswriting into literature that is both serious and delightful.
Talese wasn’t the first writer to apply novelist techniques to non-fiction–WC Heinz and John Lardner had been doing it for years. In a recent interview for the Paris Review, Talese explained:
My first job was on the sports desk, but I didn’t want to write about sporting events. I wanted to write about people. I wrote about a losing boxer, a horse trainer, and the guy in the boxing ring who rang the bell between rounds. I was interested in fiction. I wanted to write like Fitzgerald. I collected his work—his short stories and journals. “Winter Dreams” is my favorite story of all time. The good nonfiction writers were writing about famous people, or topical people, or public people. No one was writing about unknown people. I knew I did not want to be on the front page. On the front page you’re stuck with the news. The news dominates you. I wanted to dominate the story. I wanted to pick subjects that were not the ordinary assignment editor’s idea of a story. My idea was to use some of the techniques of a fiction writer: scene setting, dialogue, and even interior monologue, if you knew your people well enough. I was writing short stories, and there were not many people on the Times who were doing that. Once, at an NYU baseball game, I overheard a conversation between a young couple who were having a lovers’ quarrel. I wrote the dialogue and I told the story of the game through what they were watching and what they were saying. At the St. Patrick’s Day parade, I wrote about the last person in the procession, a little guy who was carrying a tuba, and behind him came the sanitation trucks. I followed the parade from the vantage point of this tuba player.
…I could not contain myself within the twelve-hundred-word limit of daily journalism. Wherever I was, I thought that there were stories that other people weren’t telling. When I was going into professional athletes’ locker rooms, for instance, I would just listen to the chatter and look at the bodies of these men who had been in locker rooms with other men since they were little boys. There’d be other sports writers there, and they’d be asking the athletes questions about their performance in that night’s game, but I thought, No, there’s a different story here. These men are fascinating not as performers but in the way in which they mingle together. They’re freer with each other than homosexual men in a bathhouse. These other reporters didn’t even see the story, they just saw their job. Yet because it was a daily newspaper I was always being pulled away from these stories. I couldn’t do them at any real depth. That was really why I couldn’t do the job anymore.
At the same time, in the mid-sixties, Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin were having fun at the Herald Tribune. They were able to write what they wanted to write and I wished I had that kind of freedom. I was getting a lot of freedom by the standards of the Times, but not compared to them. I wanted more room and I wanted to go anywhere I wanted.
Talese wrote memorably about Floyd Patterson and his Esquire feature on Joe DiMaggio remains a classic.