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.