On Blake Bailey and Philip Roth

One morning in April, I was a quarter of the way through the new Philip Roth biography, contemplating Blake Bailey’s take on Roth’s first marriage. I had been a huge fan of Bailey’s work for years — I’d read all his previous biographies, I’d read Richard Yates’s novels largely because he had been Bailey’s subject, and I’d long believed that that Bailey’s life of John Cheever was one of the four or five best biographies I’d ever read. But the Roth book was beginning to unsettle me. As best I can tell, neither Roth nor his first wife covered themselves in glory during this marriage. Still, I was beginning to be a little annoyed that Bailey seemed to not quite understand how unkind and self-centered Roth’s behavior toward his wife was. He seemed much more forgiving of Roth’s excesses than his wife’s. The perils of an authorized biography, I thought. But I was beginning to actively dread the Claire Bloom section.

Then–that very morning–this news broke. Credible accusations against Blake Bailey — that he’d groomed his middle-school students, that he’d harassed and assaulted them when they were older, that he’d raped two women. I felt sick. But the news explained so much! More than that, it cast an entirely different light on Bailey’s depiction of Roth’s first wife, and it made me question the portrayal of all the other women in all the other biographies. I found myself in the perverse position of wishing to reread and reevaluate all of Bailey’s books, and yet also not wanting to read another word by him.

I’ve seen some people argue that Bailey’s sins have nothing to do with the book he wrote. A stranger posted a grumpy Oscar Wilde quote on my GoodReads commentary on Roth and Bailey: “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” That may be true as far as it goes, but when you are looking for someone to offer an analysis of an author’s life — and especially when that author has had, let’s say, contentious relationships with women — surely his own attitudes toward women are relevant. How can you look at the very plausible accusations against Bailey, and think, yeah, this is the guy I want to declare that Philip Roth is not misogynistic? How can you trust Bailey when he assures you that Roth’s first wife was an unreasonable shrew?

W. W. Norton dropped the Roth book within days of the accusations. But Bailey’s found a new publisher: Skyhorse Publishing, the house that has also brought you the memoirs of Woody Allen and Roger Stone. One wonders what Bailey thinks of being among such illustrious company–certainly being published by Skyhorse won’t do much to burnish Bailey’s destroyed reputation among the literary elite; all hope of a Pulitzer seems to be gone, and it’s unclear whether Bailey will ever again have the opportunity to write another of his magisterial biographies.

For myself, I haven’t read a word of the Roth bio since that morning in April. But I think it should be read, though not right now, and perhaps I will even finish it myself one day. Roth was, despite his many faults, an important writer of the twentieth century, and Bailey did have access to sources that no one may ever see again, or at least not for a very long time. Still, Bailey’s take on Roth can never again be thought of as definitive, and in the future it should be read with an eye toward what we are willing to forgive of men we consider geniuses, and how we determine who these geniuses are in the first place. Because it seems to be the case that the gatekeepers who anoint our brilliant writers are often themselves men who treat women very badly indeed. It is just possible that this clouds their judgment when they come to consider misogynists who happen to construct sentences well.

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