Sex, Lies, and Audiotape



Republishing Talk, fifty years later.

tape 2 001

tape 1 001

The author with her tape recorder. Photos: James Dugdale

Even before its publication, my book Talks salacious reputation preceded it: a highly respected editor rejected the manuscript with the words “repellently raunchy.” After a long trail of less colorful rejection letters—later enclosed in plastic and strung together into a kind of mobile by an artist friend—the book finally saw the light of day in the spring of 1968.

The day after she received her copy, my mother, traumatized, made a beeline for the nearest therapist’s office. My father, on the other hand, viewed the book only as an object, something he could show off to his colleagues in the garment district—Fink the Mink Man et al.—but he never opened it. And when any of them asked him, “Do you realize what’s in this book?” he just shrugged and pointed out the pretty picture of me on the back cover.

But my mother continued to bemoan the fact that I hadn’t written the “beautiful” book she had always dreamed I would write. She was very much on the side of the Reverend Charles Sellars of St. Mary’s Parish Church in Hampton, England, who organized petitions to get this “sex book” taken off public display at local libraries.


First edition cover

In the meantime, I’d spent many sleepless pre-pub nights panicking about the possibility of losing my job at a prestigious New York auction house; it had been taken over recently by a venerable British company, run by somewhat intimidating young men in nipped-in blue-pinstriped suits and spiffy Turnbull & Asser shirts. (As it played out, the chairman of the company, when he did read it, asked if it was possible for him to buy the original manuscript.)

So, to explain. Talk is a book—I’m leery of the word novel—that consists of conversations among three friends taped over the summer of 1965 in East Hampton. Although these were tapes of actual conversations—they took me more than a year to transcribe, and another year to whittle down from about fifteen hundred manuscript pages to the final 250—the original publisher, wary of possible legal ramifications, played it safe by presenting it as a completely fabricated work of fiction.

As much as I delighted in its eventual publication and savored the praise of (name-drop alert) such admirers as Harold Pinter and Leonard Cohen, I knew that I had been essentially complicit in the betrayal of the book’s mandate—which was to present raw reality, with only my editorial red pencil to shape it.

This was, remember, 1965, a time when Rauschenberg talked of “narrowing and working in the gap between life and art”; when painters, rebelling against the abstractions of their fathers, were inventing Pop Art and working from photographs; when Warhol was filming the Met curator Henry Geldzahler sitting still and smoking a cigar for ninety-seven minutes and the Empire State Building for eight consecutive hours; when the Maysles brothers were documenting the day-to-day narrative of Bible salesmen on film. This was the era of New Journalism and Nouvelle Vague. Exploring reality, exposing it, was very much in the zeitgeist.

Flash forward fifty years—whaaat?—and Talk is making a return appearance, at a point when the concept of reality has been redefined and distorted to a degree I could never have imagined. And raunchy? Lena Dunham in Girls, Abbi and Ilana in Broad City, and Amy Schumer have turned that negative positive. More than acceptable, it’s often outright acclaimed.


Photo: James Dugdale

So why am I still feeling a bit queasy, looking at this new edition of Talk? Two reasons. This time around, the book is finally being presented as true to that original mandate, leaving no doubt that one of these three taped “characters” is moi—I’m a prime participant in the raunchiest of the raunch. But now, rather than worrying about the older generation being shocked, it’s young people who give me pause.

Which leads me to reason two—the age thing. After all, anyone can do the math, leaving me with the key 2015 question: Do I have to stop using fifteen-year-old photos of myself on Facebook?

In the end, though, I can only concur with what Philip Roth said recently about Portnoy’s Complaint, which came out one year after Talk: “Rereading Portnoy’s Complaint forty-five years on, I am shocked and pleased: shocked that I could have been so reckless, pleased that I was so reckless.”

Linda Rosenkrantz’s Talk is available now.