Not long ago, I won a book award. (In fact, this award is so prestigious that the year after I won it, the award itself ceased to exist.) Upon winning, I was told that these awards would be distributed at a nationally televised ceremony hosted by a jovial morning-show personality. Now, I should say that winning an award is always an honor and a shock, especially since the books I was up against were both well-written and well-received, but we all know there is nothing more exciting in the televised universe than an awards ceremony celebrating a medium that most Americans find antiquated and obsolete.* My guess is that the broadcast finished fourth in its time slot, behind an Access Hollywood re-run, a Shamwow commercial, and something hosted by Byron Allen. My guess is that most of the celebrities who had been coerced into presenting discussed the viability of their current representation on the way home.
Anyway, here is my point: In the midst of this awards ceremony, I found myself standing backstage, with no idea of where to go. I had accepted my award from an ex-football player and an ex-model, and I had walked off, and I had assumed someone would tell me how to get back to my seat. But no one did. So I stood there and I waited, and I watched a former network news anchor schmooze with an actress from a show about New Jersey mobsters, and then a soft-spoken, white-haired man approached me and shook my hand and congratulated me and asked if he could look at my award. I gave it to him, and I thought perhaps this man looked familiar, and then I thought, "Is this man going to steal my award?" But he gave it back to me, and eventually I wandered through a back hallway, past a janitor's closet, and wound up locked outside the auditorium with the ex-model (who was actually quite lovely) and the head of a major cable network, while we waited patiently for the next commercial break to arrive.
When I returned to my seat, that white-haired man was standing on the stage, presenting an award. And at that moment, I realized that this was Gay Talese, the man who wrote the greatest magazine profile in the history of magazines, the man whose work I had been studying (and occasionally imitating) since college. So now I was an award-winner who also felt incredibly worthless. In fact, if I am being honest, I probably would have traded the award** to spend an evening downing stiff vodka-based drinks with Gay Talese.
I would have asked to see this man's writing bunker. I would have asked him about the overwhelming and intimate complexities of his marriage to a prominent New York book editor, and about what it's been like to live the kind of extraordinary writing life--both personally and professionally--that could never be replicated in the modern age.
Fortunately, Jonathan Van Meter did all of that here, in an astounding piece for New York magazine.
*Which is every medium, of course, except blogs.
**Though I should say it is a very nice, very heavy award.
(Photo: Mary Ellen Mark/New York Magazine)