Updated at 10:39 a.m. ET on April 30, 2021.
Last week news broke that Blake Bailey, the author of Philip Roth: The Biography, had been accused of sexual crimes and that his publisher, W. W. Norton, would halt promotion of the book. I had just reviewed it. Bailey’s transmogrification didn’t change my basic opinion of his work—not because it’s that good, but because it’s that bad. However, the scandal did help explain the nature of its badness.
The questions raised by the Bailey affair are timely and timeless. Obviously, if he raped women and groomed students for sex, as he is alleged to have done, he deserves no sympathy. But if an artist is a bad person, should that change the way audiences interact with his art? In this particular case, if the author is a rapist, should that change the way we read Philip Roth: The Biography? Arguably, no. A book has an existence apart from its author, a truism that is extra true in the case of biography. When the biographer turns out to be a contemptible human being, his subject comes under suspicion too: What drew the biographer to this guy and not someone else? We owe it to this guy to be fair-minded.
Untangling the opprobrium from the work is tricky, though, and especially so in this instance. Roth was serially enraged at the women who came in and out of his life, with very rapid turnover, and he represented many of their fictional counterparts as sexual playthings. Roth’s rancor toward women is part of the story. Moreover, Bailey has said publicly that he thought “not taking too prim or judgmental of a view of a man who had this florid love life” was a prerequisite to the job. So maybe Bailey’s alleged behavior with women has some bearing on how he wrote about Roth’s behavior with women and how he assessed the relationship between Roth’s behavior and Roth’s books.
Mediocrity pervades the entire biography, not just the parts that have to do with women. Bailey credulously takes Roth’s side in fights with wives and lovers, but Roth had baggage in all domains of life, and Bailey, an eager bellhop, carries the whole load for him—the unhappy marriages and contentious divorces and relationships and affairs and everything else as well.
Bailey is tone-deaf about Jewishness, too. Unfamiliar with the subtleties of Jewish ambivalence about Jewish particularism, he doesn’t realize that Roth’s insistent rejection of the “Jewish writer” label is no simple claim. It requires unpacking. And Bailey doesn’t know how little he knows about Jewish history. Bailey uses Roth as his main source on the generations that came before Philip, even though Roth had only hazy knowledge of his Polish-born forebears and how they lived before they emigrated, and rarely wrote about the surely painful transition from Old World to New that would have shaped the childhood Roth idealized and rebelled against.
Roth’s lack of genealogical curiosity is curious. Here was a self-reflexive, confessional writer—or rather, meta-confessional writer, since he created alter egos to do the confessing for him—yet he didn’t start soliciting details about his grandparents from living relatives until late in life. Bailey’s incuriosity is curious too. What a reader wants from a biographer is to have blind spots like that pointed out. What didn’t Roth want to see, and why? And why didn’t Bailey realize that those were precisely the questions he was supposed to answer?
Incuriosity doubled is twice as curious. It bespeaks an alignment between the two men that goes beyond Bailey signaling that he wouldn’t be schoolmarmish. Roth didn’t seek out Bailey, even though he was looking for a biographer; Bailey approached Roth. But Roth was quick to hire him. Maybe the men recognized in each other the same will not to know. Bailey’s part in this compact of mutually assured denial would have been not to grapple with whatever Roth had relegated to the realm of the unreal, since to address it would have been to make it real.
What I gleaned from Bailey’s book, despite its shortcomings, is that Roth’s woman problem was fundamentally a reality problem. Bailey quotes Roth talking about women as if they stood for something, which is very different from being somebody. Roth dated and married women who represented a place or class that was out of his reach and that he wanted to learn about or escape to. The most disastrous emissary from this fantastical out-there was his first wife, Maggie Martinson, a working-class single mother from small-town Michigan who told tales of childhood incest and had divorced her previous husband on the grounds of physical cruelty. Martinson brought him closer to “goyish chaos,” Roth said. After Martinson, Roth dated her opposite, a Pittsburgh socialite.* Both women appealed to him, he later wrote, because they were estranged “from the very strata of American society of which they were each such distinctively emblazoned offspring.” To turn that around, what they had in common was that, alienation notwithstanding, they served as emblems of exotic worlds. The trouble started whenever these “emblazoned offspring” piped up with actual human needs and desires.
Bailey may also regard women—his alleged victims, anyway—as unreal, though their stories suggest that his process of derealization overshoots misogyny and arrives at sociopathy. Only a profound callowness could have produced Bailey’s plea to Valentina Rice, the publishing executive who sent W. W. Norton a letter accusing Bailey of rape that Norton then forwarded to Bailey. (I’m sure Norton’s lawyers will explain that decision one of these days). According to The New York Times, Bailey wrote to Rice, “I appeal to your decency: I have a wife and young daughter who adore and depend on me.” Bailey’s comeback to his former students’ complaints—that his behavior was deplorable but not illegal—indicates a Humbert Humbert level of narcissistic detachment. As it happens, Bailey taught Lolita at the New Orleans middle school where he is said to have groomed his students.
Bailey’s incuriosity made him an indifferent biographer. How Roth saw around his own blind spots well enough to produce a few great novels and memoirs (the rest range from good to terrible) is a mystery someone else will have to solve. I’m glad I got the chance to read the biography before Norton pulled it, because I have no doubt that if I were diving into it now, I’d mix scandal and biographer and biography into one confounding mess. But reading my suspicions about Bailey into the book now does make it easier to imagine how biographer and subject could have tapped into the worst parts of each other to construct a collective monument to un-self-awareness. And that, in turn, gives me a glimpse of how men collude to deny women reality and reduce them to inviting targets. In that sense, Bailey did this reader a service, though probably not the one he meant to perform.