Blake Bailey, Philip Roth, and the Biography That Blew Up

Blake Bailey.Photograph by Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times / Getty

Philip Roth has not had much luck with biographers. Late in his life, furiously aggrieved after the failure of his marriage to the actress Claire Bloom and the publication of Bloom’s incendiary memoir of their years together, he asked a close friend, Ross Miller, an English professor at the University of Connecticut, to take on the task. Roth sent Miller lists of family members and friends he wanted to be interviewed, along with the questions that he felt should be asked. (“Would you have expected him to achieve success on the scale he has?”) It didn’t work out, for various reasons. Roth had wanted Miller to refute a familiar charge, “this whole mad fucking misogynistic bullshit!” that he felt flattened his long erotic history into one false accusation. But Miller came to his own conclusion. “There is a predatory side to both Sandy and Philip,” he told a cousin of Roth’s. (Sandy was Roth’s older brother.) “They look at women—I’m not gonna write about this—but they are misogynist. They talk about women in that way.”

This anecdote is recounted by Miller’s successor, Blake Bailey, in “Philip Roth: The Biography,” his eight-hundred-page account of Roth’s eighty-five-year life, which was published earlier this month. Talking about women “in that way” didn’t seem to be a problem for Bailey. Roth had read and admired Bailey’s biography of John Cheever, but Bailey was offered the job, by his own account, after enthusing with Roth over the qualities of Ali MacGraw, who starred in the film adaptation of “Goodbye, Columbus.” Readers of Bailey’s book will encounter a lot of that sort of thing, to an often voyeuristic degree. (“Locker-room chummy sex talk,” a male writer friend texted me, of a passage in which the young Roth’s girlfriend Maxine Groffsky, the model for the “Goodbye, Columbus” character Brenda Patimkin, is described as “slipping into his cabana, say, and blowing him” while Roth changes into a bathing suit. “Who is he writing that sentence for? It sounds like he’s bantering with Roth.”) But the book’s readers are now limited in number. On Wednesday, after allegations surfaced that Bailey had groomed and harassed female students in the nineteen-nineties, when he was an eighth-grade English teacher at Lusher School, in New Orleans—and that he had raped two women, including a former student—his publisher, W. W. Norton, halted distribution of the biography. Bailey was dropped by his literary agency earlier in the week.

This turn of events is so shocking, so disturbing, that it is hard to know where to begin. But, since this is, among other things, a story about a profound and sinister failure of accountability in the publishing world, let’s start there. In 2015, according to a report in the Times, Bailey met a publishing executive, Valentina Rice, at the Times book critic Dwight Garner’s house, in New Jersey. Both guests were invited to stay overnight. After Rice had gone to bed, she says, Bailey came into her room and raped her. (In an e-mail to me, Bailey denied these and all other allegations. Rice declined to comment.) Rice confided in a friend; as is exceedingly common in such situations, she did not involve the police. Three years later, encouraged by the #MeToo movement, Rice e-mailed the president of Norton, Julia A. Reidhead, from a pseudonymous address. “I have not felt able to report this to the police but feel I have to do something and tell someone in the interests of protecting other women,” she wrote. “I understand that you would need to confirm this allegation which I am prepared to do, if you can assure me of my anonymity even if it is likely Mr. Bailey will know exactly who I am.”

No one from Norton replied to the e-mail, but it was forwarded to Bailey, an act that speaks, at best, of catastrophic negligence. Bailey then wrote back to his accuser, both to deny the allegation (“I can assure you I have never had non-consensual sex of any kind, with anybody, ever, and if it comes to a point I shall vigorously defend my reputation and livelihood”) and, somewhat paradoxically, to demand her silence: “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.”

The fact that Norton was presented with such an accusation and apparently did so little to investigate it is a stain on the publisher’s own reputation, one that will be difficult to erase. (In a statement, Norton said, “We took this allegation very seriously. We were aware that the allegation was also sent to two people at Mr. Bailey’s former employer and to a reporter at The New York Times. We did take steps, including questioning Mr. Bailey about the allegations, which he categorically denied. We never knew the identity of the email’s sender, and we were mindful of the sender’s request for a guarantee of anonymity.”) There has been much scrutiny, lately, of corporate publishing’s awkward stumbles in our polarized age. Last week, Simon & Schuster took the unusual step of announcing that it would not distribute a book written by one of the Louisville cops who shot Breonna Taylor; the book had been signed by a conservative affiliate, Post Hill Press, and the prospect of its publication was met with public outrage. Just as the cop had the right to write a book, the publisher had the right to decline to distribute it; how you feel about either decision will depend on your politics, and your moral compass. Norton, by contrast, is lunging to protect itself from its own failure to look more deeply into a serious allegation. This isn’t a case of censorship, which implies the suppression of ideas but, rather, a scramble at damage control.

A different kind of suppression is of greater concern. Bailey, as Roth’s authorized biographer, was granted exclusive access to certain papers and materials that may never again be shown to other researchers. If his book is to disappear, Roth’s estate should make sure that other scholars can have their chance.

How will the allegations against Bailey change our reading of his book—if we read it? In a sense, they already have. It is more than a terrible irony that a biographer of a man so dogged by claims of misogyny should himself stand accused of violence against women; it besmirches the whole enterprise. A number of women who spoke out against Bailey said that they were moved to do so after reading the book and feeling that it condoned Roth’s mistreatment of the women in his life. (“My behavior was deplorable,” Bailey wrote to a former student, in an e-mail obtained by the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate. “But I did nothing illegal.”)

What may be more damning, though, is what the Bailey revelations don’t change. “It wasn’t just ‘Fucked this one fucked that one fucked this one,’ ” Roth once told Miller. Yet Bailey’s biography gives the impression that it was exactly like that: a long life spent writing book after book, and pursuing, then fleeing from, woman after woman after woman, lovers whom Bailey likes to describe by body type and temperament—the “brainy, gorgeous, young and wealthy” Groffsky, who refused to be interviewed by Bailey; the sweet and boring Ann Mudge, a devoted companion of Roth’s thirties and one of an astonishing number of his lovers who attempted or threatened suicide when he left; and Maggie Martinson, Roth’s first wife, a “bitter, impoverished, sexually undesirable divorcée” who is so relentlessly impaled on Bailey’s prose that his depiction borders on an act of personal vengeance.

It was not Bailey’s role as a biographer to pass judgment on his subject. He needed only try to understand him, and to make us understand him, too. “Why shouldn’t I be treated as seriously as Colette on this?” Roth had asked Miller, of the sex question. “She gave a blow job to this guy in the railway station. Who gives a fuck about that? . . . That doesn’t tell me anything. What did hand jobs mean to her?” So what did sex mean to Roth? Bailey’s book is so caught up in its obsessive cataloguing of paramours that the forest gets lost in an endless succession of trees. The place where Roth found insight into his own character was on the page. Over and over, in the novels, he transformed the life. Bailey’s prurient, exhaustively literal version of that life reverses the effect, and the result is sadly diminishing. What he never grasps is Roth the artist, with his powers of imagination, of expression, of language—what made him worthy of biography at all.

The biographer’s sins are not those of his subject. Nevertheless, Bailey’s situation seems sure to expose Roth to the misogyny question afresh. Was Roth a misogynist? I have always found that label too neat and summarily dismissive for a novelist as capacious, inventive, and playful as Roth. But maybe I avoid it because it hurts me, too, to use it. When you read a novelist seriously, with absorption and commitment, you find yourself bound to him, pressed together in a mental dance. You have the right to argue with the work, to praise it, to love it, and also to criticize, even revile it; the seriousness of the engagement is a mark of respect, one that you imagine the novelist returning. That respect is the unspoken contract that binds writer to reader, and when it is suddenly taken away, it is a slap, a brutal shock. That is the contract that Bailey’s alleged criminal behavior has ruptured with his own readers, though readers are hardly the true victims of this awful affair. We are used to contemplating the ways that an artist’s life inflects the work; there is poetic justice to the fact that, here, Roth’s work snared his biographer. It’s tempting to imagine what Roth, in his metafictional mode, would have made of the writer who is exposed after insinuating himself into his subject’s story. But this is real life, not fiction, and the facts can’t be redeemed by art.

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