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.”

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