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..