From The Increasingly Fantastic Annals Of The Great Stupid: Norton And The Philip Roth Biography

One more time I have to remark, “I don’t understand this at all.”

Last week, publisher W.W. Norton sent a memo to its staff announcing that it will permanently take Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth out of print, as a result of allegations that Bailey sexually assaulted multiple women and also behaved inappropriately toward his students when he was an eighth grade English teacher.

If that sentence makes sense to you, The Big Stupid has you by the brain stem.

“Norton is permanently putting out of print our editions of ‘Philip Roth: The Biography’ …Mr. Bailey will be free to seek publication elsewhere if he chooses,” the email said in part, and was signed by Norton’s president, Julia A. Reidhead. Reidhead later said that Norton would make a donation in the amount of the advance it paid to Bailey in a mid-six-figure book deal to organizations that support sexual assault survivors and victims of sexual harassment.

What’s the theory here? That the book is eeeevil? The late Philip Roth did nothing to justify banning his book, and besides, since when did we ban autobiographies of bad people anyway? Reviews of the biography were mostly positive: in The New York Times Book Review, novelist Cynthia Ozick called it “a narrative masterwork both of wholeness and particularity, of crises wedded to character, of character erupting into insight, insight into desire, and desire into destiny.” The Washington Post described it as “a colorful, confident and uncompromising biographical triumph.” The book quickly landed on the New York Times best-seller list.

As for Bailey, he is an acclaimed literary biographer of writers like Richard Yates, John Cheever and Charles Jackson, and the author of a memoir of his own. He received the Guggenheim Fellowship and was a Pulitzer finalist for his Cheever biography. Philip Roth handpicked Bailey to write his biography after meeting with him in 2012.

In addition, the allegations against Bailey have nothing to do with his profession as a writer or his professional output. It’s not as if he was running for President and was accused by a former staffer of raping her while he was serving as a U.S. Senator. More importantly, the allegations are unproven and untested. Bailey denies them, saying in a statement, “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.”

Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of the writers organization PEN America said that Norton’s action risked establishing a new, troubling norm that could narrow the range of ideas and information available to readers.

Gee, ya think?

“Bringing out a book should signify that a publisher believes there is something edifying, worthwhile or elucidating contained in the volume,” Nossel said. “It should not be construed as an endorsement of the ideas or narrative purveyed, nor of the personal conduct of the author.”

No, and readers and the subjects of books should not be punished because an author has engaged in bad conduct, or alleged bad conduct. I don’t care about the author of a book, except that I expect him or her to write well and produce something worth reading. Heck, I’m an ethicist: if it makes no difference to me, why should it matter to anyone else?

Here is what I think happened at Norton. A female head of a publishing house was being besieged by #MeToo activists—you know, hypocrites—including those on her staff, who wanted to see Bailey punished for the good of womankind, or something, at least now that Joe Biden was safelt elected. Bailey had already been paid, so Reidhead couldn’t demonstrate her woke credentials by hurting him (other than by tarring him as a rapist), so she decided to hurt the book, and by extension, Philip Roth. The announcement that the company would atone for paying an alleged sexual predator by donating the same amount to organizations devoted to the victims of sexual assault makes it clear what this was: crazed, extravagant virtue-signaling to the MeToo mob. So many writers are horrible people that if we decide to ban the works of just the worst ones, we’ll end up with inferior literature . (Roth himself was no prize: his second wife Claire Bloom published a memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House, that depicted Roth as a misogynist.)

There is no nexus or logic here; the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, and we’re not even sure there was a crime. There is no due process, no fairness, and most of all, no justification for removing the pleasures of a good book from innocent readers because an executive doesn’t have the courage and integrity to resist the Cancel Culture.

And The Great Stupid stumbles on..


Sources: New York Times 1,2

15 thoughts on “From The Increasingly Fantastic Annals Of The Great Stupid: Norton And The Philip Roth Biography

  1. It’s disgusting & makes absolutely no sense. We’re going to have to basically throw out all favorite artists (singers, actors, painters, writers, etc.) of the past & recent past and start completely anew if this is going to be the standard. You know what Amazon Prime just put on as available streaming? All seasons of The Cosby Show. I watched and idolized Bill Cosby growing up. When the allegations came out, I didn’t believe them. I held onto hope for YEARS…but he was tried, convicted, and in jail. They aren’t “allegations”. He drugged and sexually assaulted scores of women… and here Amazon has 200 eps of his landmark show in today’s lineup of “laughs needed” in the black community. WTH?!? It’s one big ethical wasteland right now and there’s no rhyme or reason for any of it.

    • I’m pretty sure I don’t object to them putting “The Cosby Show” on. It’s a cancellation of cancel-culture, and that gives me the warm & fuzzies.

      • Is it? Or is it ‘equity’? Will we cancel figures like Bailey to elevate Bill Cosby in the name of ‘equity’? Being anti-racist means not criticizing the crime and victimization in the black community and instead focusing on a few high profile cases of blacks being harmed in police custody by white officers. Wouldn’t ignoring Bill Cosby’s crimes while cancelling white artists for lesser misbehavior be similar?

        • I think you’re exactly right: the only reason Amazon didn’t pull The Cosby Show is because it has an all-black cast.

          If it turned out that Ted Danson was a serial rapist, you can bet your life they would put “Cheers” straight down the memory hole.

  2. Preposterous attempt to cancel Philip Roth by going after his biographer. I’ve read it, downloaded from Kindle, and it’s a great bio that does justice to Roth and his fiction. I felt the same way about his work on Richard Yates. It’s not a critical biography (i.e. of his writing) so much as a tying together of characters & events from Roth’s real life with those woven into his novels & short stories. I thought it fairly balanced; the sex & people were all there (sort of the same way in the case of Charles Bukowski), but how he transmuted them is the fascinating part. A sex addict or a writer ever in search of fresh material, I’m not sure, but no misogynist. I’m a Roth fan fiction-wise, though Roth the person leaves a lot to be desired. As far as the censorship goes, this is appalling. Two cancellations for the price of one. Goodbye Norton.

  3. When I was in high school, I was a terrible student. I was averaging a 2.2 GPA and had no desire to do anything other than the absolute minimum of what was required of me (I think that is why my grammar is so bad). Since I wasn’t doing too well academically and having failed a few classes, I was not on a good course to graduate until one day the head librarian approached me. Apparently, she was friends with one of the teachers I was pretty fond of, and they discussed a way to help me out. My sophomore year, I was asked to be a her personal Scout (kind of like a teaching aid). The library had lots of Scouts, but I reported directly to her, and not lady who ran the rest of the scouts.

    It was fun. I loved it. Then came the teaching. She gave me a book and wanted to know what I thought about it. She would tell me her favorite parts. She told me I reminded her of Sam. “Who’s Sam?” I asked. That was another book. That book turned into another book, which kept on coming. It was that year I discovered a passion for reading. Pretty soon, I was asking her for for new books and was leading the discussions.

    The next year, I gave up my Student Resource Time (Study Hall) to continue to be her Scout. The conversations died down because I was now a returning Scout and was tasked with training the other Scouts, but I still kept reading. One day she told me I she gave me a copy of The Giver. It instantly became my favorite book. It was the first time I ever imagined a dystopian world where people would be so blinded by the truth. It was a sad book, but I loved it. It left me with a lot of questions, all of which I hoped I would never have to answer, because I never wanted to see a society where those thoughts would become reality.

    However, I was given that book because the author (Lois Lowry) was coming to give a talk at our school and she wanted a chance to talk with some students afterwards. So after her talk, I got a chance to ask her two questions. My first was would that kind of would really happen? She replied that she really hoped it did not, however it has been a problem people have been writing about for years. It was there I learned about 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and Animal Farm. She commented that try or fail, all those books showed that despite all odds, people still tried to do the right thing. My second, was “What was going to happen to Jonas? She smiled, reached into her bag and gave me a copy of it’s sequel: Gathering Blue.

    I thought a long time about that first question. I read 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and the equally wonderful, but sad Gathering Blue (Never got around to Brave New World). The latter two stuck out the most because both seemed to have the major theme of books not being allowed. I never wanted to be in a place where that wasn’t possible. Then came my senior year.

    Our school received a rather large grant to place new books in the library. The librarian came up with this great idea of taking request from the student body and letting them place a name plate of sorts (if they wanted to) of book they would like to be in the library. I was assigned to the project and tasked with cross referencing the list with the books in the library (to make sure we didn’t already have it), organizing the list, and going to the store to pick them out from our local Barnes and Noble. One person wrote on the list “Hitler’s book.” No name attached to who requested it. I was pretty sure it was a joke, so I moved it to the discard pile (I think the only other item on there was Playboy or something like that.) When I finally gave the list to the librarian she frowned and wanted to know why it was on the discard pile. I told her it must be a joke. There can be nothing good to come from that book. She looked at me, and said, “I’m sure Jonas (the main character in The Giver) would disagree.” Not sure what she meant at the time, I put it back on the list.

    So we buy the books, I put the plates in the ones that requested them, and came to Mein Kampf. Then I did something I have never regretted: I signed my name. So somewhere, in a school library there is a copy of Hitler’s book with words “Recommended by John Paul S*******.” I always thought, if someone asked me why I did that, I would say say “For those who disagree.” It might be an awful book (I never read it) but I would never want it banned. I am more afraid that someday there will be no books and I will only have a partial memory of the Book of Ecclesiastes than some book that really can’t hurt me. 20 years later, having grown in wisdom and maturity, that fear has only become more and more concerning because each day, we are one step closer to that reality. The good news we can stop that. We just need more people like Guy Montag and Jonas willing to stand up and say, “I disagree.”

    • ” It might be an awful book (I never read it) but I would never want it banned. ”

      It’s largely unreadable. Part political manifesto, part autobiography. Most Germans never read it either; it existed only to sit on their bookshelves so the maid wouldn’t report them to the Gestapo.

  4. In The New York Times Book Review, novelist Cynthia Ozick called it “a narrative masterwork both of wholeness and particularity, of crises wedded to character, of character erupting into insight, insight into desire, and desire into destiny.” Sorry Cynthia, you lost me there. If that’s not authentic frontier gibberish, I don’t know what is.

  5. Cynthia Ozick is 93 year writer & was a good friend of the late Philip Roth. With a literary landscape populated by mostly positive & in-depth essays on the bio, it looks like she is trying to say something original. She could have just as well said it was an outstanding work, combining the general with the particular, where individuals (real & fictional) gain insight from their extreme experiences about what they want & then go for it. Or character is not a straight shot to destiny. I agree it is jargon-laden prose, but I’ll give her a pass, based on age & credentials. In lieu of reading the book, the excellent essays out summarize Roth’s background, career & key players to the extent you can easily understand what’s being discussed about his work without necessarily reading all of it or the biography. The assault on Blake Bailey is of course beyond the pale.

    Bailey’s book is the second great literary biography I read in recent weeks, the other being “Tom Stoppard: A Life,” by Hermione Lee. Interestingly, Roth first approached Ms. Lee, with whom he was friends, about doing the bio in 2012, but she turned him down. It seems like a scheduling commitment on her part, control which Roth wanted to exert, and conflict of interest re: their friendship were the deal breakers. Mr. Bailey was able to retain control, was free, and no relationship to the author at the time.

    Prior to this Roth’s life & work is nicely covered in an American Master’s series program of an hour or so. Another good female friend, Mia Farrow, is featured in it. Roth knew a lot about the acting process, how the actor presents him or herself in public & private life and also what they hide. Though not as well known as her takedown in “Leaving the Doll’s House,” Claire Bloom has credited Roth in the past for his work with her on roles (giving notes, advice, etc.) to the point it helped revive her career.

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