I wasn’t planning to read Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth anytime soon. Despite their (to me) obvious male narcissism, I’ve enjoyed some of Roth’s novels a lot—The Ghost Writer, The Counterlife, The Plot Against America, and The Human Stain are favorites. There is something liberatory about the intensity of his commitment to his own id—“the fantasy of purity,” he wrote, in The Human Stain, “is appalling.” But I don’t share the emotional identification with his work felt by numerous literary men of my acquaintance, much less 900 pages’ worth of curiosity about the man himself. Still, when Norton announced it was suspending publicity and shipments of the biography’s initial 50,000 print run, and had dropped its plans to print 10,000 more, I called up my local bookstore and reserved a copy. I figure I’m a grown-up, I can decide for myself.
By now the whole world knows why Norton made its decision. Four former students from Bailey’s days in the 1990s teaching middle school have accused him of showering them with sexualized attention in eighth grade and after, and then pouncing on them as young adults. One has accused him of rape. (Another subsequently came forward to accuse him of attempted rape in 2005.) A few days later, Valentina Rice, a New York publishing executive, went public with a claim that he raped her in 2015.
In 2018 Rice had e-mailed her account of the event to Norton president Julia Reidhead, using a pseudonym and offering corroboration if her privacy could be protected. She says she never got a reply. Instead Reidhead passed the e-mail on to Bailey, who was apparently able to reassure his publishers that he was not that sort of man. (He also wrote to Rice, denying he had ever “had non-consensual sex of any kind, with anybody, ever.” He added, “Meanwhile, I appeal to your decency: I have a wife and young daughter who adore and depend on me, and such a rumor, even untrue, would destroy them.” I can’t begin to parse this strangely slippery sentence.)
Both Rice and one of the former students contacted The New York Times separately, but nothing came of it. Until now.
I have so many questions. Could the Times have dug deeper? It published multiple pieces around the book, including a laudatory profile of Bailey by Mark Oppenheimer, an affectionate guide to all things Roth by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a mixed review by Parul Sehgal, and an adulatory one by Cynthia Ozick (“a narrative masterwork”). As for Norton, of course they should have followed up with Rice, but beyond that, what? Rejected the book on the basis of an accusation? Hired a detective? I’m not making light of the women’s charges—I believe them—but I don’t know that publishers are equipped to adjudicate claims of wrongdoing by their writers even if they wanted to. And where does it all end? Rape is a crime, but “grooming” eighth graders and coming on to them after they turn legal is not.
Nor is being a misogynist or a creep. I heard Bailey speak recently, via Zoom, to the New York Institute of the Humanities and had no trouble picking up on his manly self-delight and nudge-nudge-wink-wink smutty “humor” (they bonded over Roth’s missed opportunity, as he claimed, to date Ali McGraw), complete with a Southern “gay” accent when he quoted Truman Capote. His hero worship of Roth was on full view: He clearly thought it was funny that Roth badgered a girlfriend into listening to him masturbate on the phone while she was at work. This was definitely the Bailey who could write, “One lovely sun-dappled afternoon I sat on his studio couch, listening to our greatest living novelist empty his bladder, and reflected that this was about as good as it gets for an American literary biographer.”
Now social media is replete with attacks on Bailey from well-known women writers: Parul Sehgal, Mary Karr, Moira Donegan, E. Jean Carroll, and many more. Ruth Franklin has tweeted her rightful anger at Bailey’s Wall Street Journal review of her biography of Shirley Jackson, which he accused of being excessively “feminist” and insufficiently sympathetic to Jackson’s flagrantly unfaithful husband. But this reversal of fortune comes after a long parade of hosannas. Of the early reviews, only Laura Marsh at The New Republic really took the measure of Bailey’s disdain for every woman in Roth’s life who didn’t behave exactly as he wanted when he wanted her to, beginning with his two wives, Maggie Martinson and Claire Bloom, whom he portrays as selfish harpies. “Women in this book are forever screeching, berating, flying into a rage, and storming off,” writes Marsh, “as if their emotions exist solely for the purpose of sapping a man’s creative energies.” No understanding for mentally ill Maggie, who was possibly molested by her father and definitely beaten by her brutal first husband. No sympathy for Bloom, who committed the cardinal sin of caring too much about her teenage daughter.
How could all these smart reviewers have failed to pick up on the sycophancy that now seems so obvious? Did they notice and set it aside as unimportant? Or was something else at work as well? Given Roth’s genius and stature, did reckoning with his biographer’s excessive masculine solidarity seem unsophisticated, too crude a reading, too “feminist”? At the Institute of the Humanities Zoom, no one asked a question that got within a hundred miles of women. I didn’t either. Sometimes I am tired of always being That Woman.
Where in all this is Philip Roth? If Bailey had written a biography of Henry James or President Eisenhower, it is hard to imagine his publisher discontinuing the book for any charge short of cannibalism. The accusations against Bailey sting because they rhyme so closely with the often-dismissed view of Roth as contemptuous of women, sexually exploitative, vengeful, and narcissistic. It is harder now to see Roth as analyzing misogyny, as his defenders have argued, exploring it through out-of-control protagonists like Nathan Zuckerman and Mickey Sabbath, rather than actually being, under all the masks and selves and wild comic energy and endlessly inventive prose, a misogynist himself. Despite his best intentions, Bailey ends up making the case.
For that very reason, readers should have the chance to buy the book and come to their own conclusions. It’s not a great book—sorry, Cynthia Ozick—but it’s fluently written and contains a huge amount of information. Still, the whole episode leaves me depressed and discouraged. Maybe there really are two literary worlds. There’s the public one of book talks, dinners, parties, prizes, events, in which most men are reasonably polite and respectful to women. And there’s the secret one, in which men, #notallmen but lots of them, do pretty much whatever they want to and with women, and defend each other whenever women protest.