A polite, regretful email from a stellar bookstore, Books and Books, informed me that a virtual event – the 28 April conversation I’d agreed to have with Blake Bailey about his new Philip Roth biography – had been canceled.
This was the first I’d heard about what the email termed the “recent developments surrounding Blake Bailey”. But it took just two key strokes to learn that several women have come forward with extremely disturbing allegations about the biographer. These range from accounts of reckless behavior with female students he’d taught in a New Orleans junior high school (dirty jokes, encouraging girls to write about their sex lives) to more recent and highly believable accusations of rape. No charges have been made. Bailey has denied all allegations. His publisher has cancelled a second 10,000-copy printing of the book and halted its distribution, ending all publicity and promotional events.
Until then, Bailey had been having the kind of publication experience of which every writer dreams. The dense, eventful 800-page book had gotten serious attention – everywhere, it seemed. Cynthia Ozick praised it as “a narrative masterwork” in an eloquent, impassioned review in the New York Times Book Review. The more negative responses criticized Bailey’s failure to say much of interest about Roth’s actual writing, but rather to focus on advances, royalties and prizes. Bailey’s refusal to censure (or even express a twinge of disapproval) of Roth’s odious mistreatment of many of his lovers was interpreted by other critics as a sign of moral failure or complicity. The devastating way in which Roth broke up with one woman who adored him – telling her to leave his house keys on her way out – is no more than a punchline that ends one of Bailey’s chapters. But even the less admiring reviews were, as they say, ink, and Philip Roth: The Biography was already appearing on several bestseller lists before the dream publication imploded.
By the time the email arrived, I’d nearly finished Bailey’s book, and the truth is: I enjoyed it. Perhaps I hadn’t expected much. I’m a huge fan of Roth’s greatest novels (American Pastoral, Operation Shylock, The Plot Against America, The Ghost Writer) and have thought about them a lot, so I wasn’t sure if I’d benefit from Bailey’s literary analyses. I naturally assumed that Bailey was telling Roth’s side of the story, and that its villains – most notably, Roth’s ex-wife the actor Claire Bloom – would likely have told a very different version. (Indeed, Bloom did tell it, in a memoir that Roth found enraging.)
I wasn’t disappointed by Bailey’s lack of “objectivity”, because (again to be honest) I wasn’t looking for a historical record or a moral reckoning with Roth, but rather for gossip, preferably sordid – and there is plenty of that. The world-famous writers! The movie stars! The artists and critics! The beautiful women! People I actually know! Spiced with plenty of sex, betrayals and nasty professional feuds, it’s the perfect celebrity bio for readers who might feel a little déclassé committing to an 800-page celebrity bio.
But even as I tried to read it uncritically, for entertainment, certain sentences jumped out at me, details that seemed unnecessary, excessive, prurient or simply strange. The odd claim that childbirth had withered Roth’s first wife’s vagina; the suggestion that Roth was more excited about having dinner with Robert Penn Warren and Eleanor Clark, both important writers, when he learned that their daughter was home from Yale; the description of Roth’s particular sexual acts with women mentioned by name. I wondered: was this a biography of a great writer – or of a guy turned on by a woman who let him play around with a vibrator?
Bailey describes Roth’s firing of an earlier biographer, Ross Miller, who thought Roth was a misogynist. And much of the recent publicity has surrounded the care with which Roth chose the more simpatico Bailey – whose previous books included biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever – to write his life. In light of the allegations against Bailey, and his neutral responses to Roth at his worst, one can’t help thinking: they found each other.
Meanwhile there is a parallel narrative to the one about two guys with serious problems with women. And that is the story of Bailey’s book having been pulled from circulation. It’s all perfectly legal, thanks to a clause that is now standard in many publishing contracts, added over the objections of the Authors Guild and many writers and agents. Such provisions – the so-called morals clause – permit publishers to terminate a contract and even demand the return of an advance if the author is accused of “immoral, illegal, or publicly condemned behavior”. The idea is to protect the publisher in cases like Bailey’s, but the slippery slope is obvious. It’s easy to imagine the Twitter storm of unproven rumors destroying years of work. And how can we ask publishers to be our arbiters, to distinguish the moral from the immoral? Plenty of books have been written and published by politicians with blood on their hands.
It’s true that many people might hesitate to spend $40 on a book, knowing that part of the money would go to a man credibly accused of rape. In an ideal world, the book would continue to be distributed, and the profits put in escrow. In the event that Bailey was found guilty of the more serious charges against him, the author’s share could be donated to a charity that significantly improved the lives of women. But this isn’t an ideal world, as evidenced by this tale about a biographer, hired partly for being permissive – and bringing more attention to his subject’s cruelty to women because, or so it seems, he understands it all too well.
Francine Prose’s new novel, The Vixen, will be published in June
• This article was amended on 26 April 2021. The book’s second print run was due to be 10,000 copies, not 100,000 as an earlier version said.