Why the Other Philip Roth Bio Never Took Off

Despite obvious drawbacks, authorized versions of an artist’s life are more compelling.

An illustration of a person made up of words,
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

About the author: Randy Boyagoda is a novelist and professor of English at the University of Toronto.

Ten years ago, at Philip Roth’s urging, his agent, Andrew Wylie, informed the literary critic and academic Ira Nadel “that he didn’t have permission to quote from Roth’s work, nor would any of Roth’s friends and associates cooperate in any way” with Nadel’s planned biography. When Nadel’s Philip Roth: A Counterlife came out in March, it received very few and generally indifferent reviews. The Wylie item comes from the other new Roth biography, the one that has been generating public attention: the “authorized” version by Blake Bailey. As is well known, that attention has come in two segments—before and after several women came forward with detailed allegations that Bailey had sexually assaulted them.

Outrage, disgust, finger-pointing, and justice-seeking all make sense as responses to the ongoing Bailey-Roth scandal. But why did Bailey’s biography take off in the first place, while Nadel’s has struggled? Why did we lend so much credence to the person Roth chose to tell his life story? I come not to lament or scold but rather to admit that, as sticky and integrity-compromising as authorization may seem, it provides the public with insights that we can’t get otherwise, whether from poking around in archives or reading the subject directly. At least, this is the case with artists.

In general, we are skeptical of and distanced from authorized biographies when the subject is a politician, religious leader, celebrity, businessperson, or other such figure. We tend to assume that in authorizing someone to access and in turn present their personal lives for scrutiny, such people are trying to control their image and standing in service of securing or extending power, or to establish a defensive, partisan version of themselves for posterity. From such authorized biographies we mostly expect concealment, evasion, burnishing, and more generally an orchestrated playing-up and playing-down of details to ensure that readers vote, trust, buy, watch, follow.

I was invested in reading Bailey because Roth had collaborated with him, and not at all interested in reading Nadel; given the broader, starkly divergent reception of their biographies, I’m not alone in absolutely preferring the authorized version of a writer’s or an artist’s life over the alternatives. Such versions of biography speak to us in consonance with the writer’s mindset and intentions, promising some substantively credible correspondence to what we already know about the writer: the work. As such, beyond the obvious chance to connect the dots between what was lived and what was created, an authorized biography occasions, even forces, a reckoning with what begins to show, more deeply, about the person precisely because of what he allows to be told about him. (I use he and him intentionally: Often enough, the show-and-tell tensions of authorized biographies involve male subjects.)

For instance, the V. S. Naipaul who emerges from his writing is a vicious, misanthropic genius. The Naipaul who emerges from Patrick French’s 2008 authorized biography, The World Is What It Is, challenged me even more as I read about his life and thought about what he had freely chosen to reveal. I shuddered upon learning how Naipaul treated his first wife and his longtime mistress, as well as other women in his life, including prostitutes, and his attitudes toward them all, and I shuddered that Naipaul had decided to reveal this part of himself to readers and even to profess, in retrospective interviews with his biographer, no regrets. I finished French’s book with the unexpected knowledge that Naipaul was, comparatively speaking, kinder and more attentive to the brutalized and degraded characters of his works than he was to the people closest to him.

Likewise, William Feaver’s recently concluded two-volume biography of the British painter Lucian Freud reveals in minute detail a temperamentally volatile, voraciously appetited, supremely uncaring artist with an immaculate conscience about the choices and consequences of his life, during which he fathered anywhere from 14 to several dozen children by a number of unknown women, rarely seeing any of them. The book wasn’t explicitly authorized, but it was written with Freud’s knowledge and close cooperation, by someone who knew him well and worked directly with him for decades. Freud agreed to Feaver’s effort on the understanding that whatever Feaver ended up writing wouldn’t be published until Freud died. Knowing that the biography was developed on these terms suggests what Freud cared about while alive—not being bothered by all those children he neglected and never acknowledged—and what mattered to him in death: that we know his work counted above all else, including the prospects and quality of any human life except his own.

Bailey’s authorized—or, really, enabling—presentation of Roth undermines the very promise of the book itself: At last, behold, the licensed life in full of a titan of a man and titan of a writer! In fact, Roth emerges from this exercise as a fundamentally smaller-minded person and lower-stakes artist than I expected from years of reading his fiction, never mind by comparison to French’s Naipaul or Feaver’s Freud. This act of magisterial self-diminishment begins with the epigraph: “I don’t want you to rehabilitate me. Just make me interesting. — Philip Roth to his biographer.” Bailey failed to fulfill Roth’s wishes by fulfilling Roth’s wishes: He made Roth interesting only on Roth’s terms, as has been roundly noted—before and after the allegations—detailing without much criticism and with much delight his barbed treatment of women in life and fiction, his seek-and-repel-and-seek-again approach to publicity and notoriety, and his ego-driven sex life.

But if you look past the seamy public controversies and related bawdy counts, you’ll learn much more about Roth in the passing events that Bailey chronicles, like Roth’s attending William Styron’s funeral in late 2006:

Among the more than eight hundred mourners, at least one continued to view Roth as persona non grata—Bill Clinton, who gave him a look of stern warning when he started to approach. The former president had, Roth surmised, read certain passages in The Human Stain where the Lewinsky scandal is discussed in luridly scurrilous terms. “I was just trying to capture what people at the time were saying, Bill,” Roth wanted to say, but didn’t.

Only he did. He told Bailey, years later, who obediently reported as much in his, their, book. Whether the event happened as it did, whether Clinton actually cared or not, is secondary to the main event: That Roth chose to share it, and make sure he could finally say what he wanted. Pleasing and humoring and puffing up Roth, the authorizing biographical subject, was more important to Bailey than making sense of Roth the man and writer. But because this all happened under the explicit auspices of authorized biography, we can now make much more definitive sense of Roth.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, poor Nadel describes his book as an effort “to penetrate the fortress of Roth’s protective self, to peer over the ramparts to see the multifaceted person, and to uncover some of the secrets.” What fortress, what protection, what multifaceted person and secrets?

Roth was not so complex or barricaded or secretive, nor just a man and writer of steroidal self-focus, ambition, desire, prurience, and pettiness, all of which was well established, or at least presumed, before the biography games started and descended into the present chaos. Only now, because of who and what Roth authorized for the telling of his life story, I no longer read him as he may have wanted, but instead, on his own authorization no less, as he really was: a beta male stained with alpha-male stylings. He needed to have the pointless, impossible, sterile final word about himself—on and off the page, in life and in death, in print and now, at least beginning with Blake Bailey’s authoritative flight of sycophancy, out of print.