Philip Roth’s biography pulped after its author is accused of sexual assault

May 2, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Well known author Blake Bailey‘s new biography of Philip Roth, which has received great reviews, has been pulled from sale by publisher W. W. Norton, though I notice it’s still on Amazon. If you still want to read it after you read this post, best to get it now, as the publisher, W. W. Norton, has decided to stop selling it.  The story can be read in the New York Times or, in shorter form, at the Washington Post Book Club page (click on the screenshots below):

The explanation from the NYT:

Now, allegations against Mr. Bailey, 57, have emerged, including claims that he sexually assaulted two women, one as recently as 2015, and that he behaved inappropriately toward middle school students when he was a teacher in the 1990s.

His publisher, W.W. Norton, took swift and unusual action: It said on Wednesday that it had stopped shipments and promotion of his book. “These allegations are serious,” it said in a statement. “In light of them, we have decided to pause the shipping and promotion of ‘Philip Roth: The Biography’ pending any further information that may emerge.”

Norton, which initially printed 50,000 copies of the title, has stopped a 10,000-copy second printing that was scheduled to arrive in early May. It has also halted advertising and media outreach, and events that Norton arranged to promote the book are being canceled. The pullback from the publisher came just days after Mr. Bailey’s literary agency, The Story Factory, said it had dropped him as a client.

Bailey denies the allegations, calling them “categorically false and libelous”. One of them is a flat-out rape accusation, the others involve him “grooming” or behaving inappropriately towards middle school students.

Now normally I would say that accusations alone are not sufficient to warrant this step: there must be either a conviction or convincing evidence. The presumption of innocence still applies. And, after all, publishers all have a “morals clause” in their contract that allow them to extricate themselves if an author is guilty of gross transgressions, even if not criminally convicted.  But absent a conviction, I’d normally say, “it’s not time to pulp the book yet.”

BUT.  . . .

There does seem to be something more here than a mere accusation. One involves an email that Bailey sent to Eve Peyton, the woman who accused him of rape when she was a graduate student at another school. And this doesn’t look good for Bailey:

In an email reviewed by The Times, Mr. Bailey apologized to Ms. Peyton for his behavior days after the encounter, and asked her not to speak to others about it. She last heard from him in the summer of 2020, when Mr. Bailey wrote her again, in a message also reviewed by The Times, in which he alluded to “the awfulness on that night 17 years ago” and said he was suffering from mental illness at the time.

If I saw that email, and I take the Times‘s word for its authenticity, that would be enough for me, for it’s a tacit admission of guilt. A conviction isn’t needed if there’s an admission.

In the end, then, I don’t see this as censorship based on a mere accusation, but a fairly credible accusation, and I think Norton did the right thing. (They’ve also said they’ve paused selling the book, leaving open the door that if he were exculpated, sales would resume.)

Others may disagree with me and argue that even the worst criminal’s book should be published if it contains something in it worth reading. There is, after all Mein Kampf, by one of the worst mass murderers in history (granted, Hitler doesn’t get royalties, but the book also provides an insight into a historical figure). Likewise, Bailey’s book is supposed to be a good account of Roth’s life and work. Should it be removed from sale because of the author’s criminality?  Surely the author should not be allowed to profit from his work if he did indeed do what he’s accused of, just as O. J. Simpson cannot profit from his creepy book If I Did It, for the proceeds go by law to the Goldman family.

Upshot: I would do what W. W. Norton did, but there should be some way to make Bailey’s work available to scholars and the public if he’s found to be guilty or is credibly guilty. I can’t envision scholarship being “disappeared” completely.

Any ideas?

42 thoughts on “Philip Roth’s biography pulped after its author is accused of sexual assault

  1. This is very different from the OJ book because it’s not about the author, Bailey, but about a very good, though imperfect, author named Philip Roth. I think Roth’s readers deserve to read Bailey’s scholarship, but perhaps Bailey should be forced to relinquish some of his profits to – I’m not sure who .

  2. I’m going to disagree here. The comparison to O.J. SImpson is apples and oranges. O.J.’s book was specifically about his misdeeds, so denying him the royalties makes sense. On the other hand, Bailey’s book has nothing to do with his misdeeds. He is a scholar who wrote a good biography of a famous man. Getting royalties from the book is not in any way profiting from his own misdeeds.
    I can understand the publisher canceling advertising and promotional events about the book, but they should continue to sell it. If he’s found guilty in court of sexual assault, then he should suffer the consequences.
    “[T]here should be some way to make Bailey’s work available to scholars and the public if he’s found to be guilty”. The way to do that is to continue selling the book.

    1. That would be my preferred remedy as well — though the publisher has the right to discontinue publishing the book (assuming the allegations against Bailey satisfy the standards for W.W. Norton’s invocation of the morals clause of its contract with Bailey).

  3. There are two options (but maybe more as others begin to comment). Some portion of Bailey’s profits could go to organization(s) that support women who are sexually harassed or organizations who help men who harass women because of mental illness. Not sure why we the readers who would profit from reading about Roth should not have the opportunity.

    1. The publisher, W.W. Norton, has a contract with the writer, Blake Bailey. I think the publisher is empowered to invoke that contract’s “morals clause” to refuse to continue publishing the book. But I don’t think the publisher has any legal right to continue to publish the book yet give some portion of the author’s profits away (though W.W. Norton could give a portion of Its own share of the profits to a worthy cause, should it so choose). And the women alleged to have been victimized by Bailey are, of course, free to pursue civil lawsuits against him seeking monetary damages (so long as the incidents at issue occurred within the statutory limitations period).

      1. I’ll do what I always do in these situations. (Assuming the validity of the accusations) Let my wallet be my voice. I just won’t buy it. (Pretending for a second that I’d have had an interest in buying this book, which I don’t) if I was conflicted about his guilt vs my interest in what he wrote, I might read it at the library, if they had it, but I would not wish to support the author financially. If the book is already printed, let the public decide to buy or not, but then sever ties with the author and don’t print any more. That seems to be the best option but others might have a better idea.

  4. The Atlantic has a typically thought-provoking article on this affair and on the content of Baily’s book. Interestingly, the author doesn’t call for the bio to be suppressed; rather, she finds it superficial and fatally flawed by the author’s ‘incuriosity’ about aspects of Roth’s life and work that, she maintains, a competent biographer should have studied in depth. I’m interested in what people’s take on her assessment is:

    1. Yes, the initial reviews for Bailey’s biography of Roth were generally favorable, but not universally so. See, e.g., here.

      1. Yes… somewhat different emphases, but overall, very similar conclusion and judgments.

  5. Surely the author should not be allowed to profit from his work if he did indeed do what he’s accused of, …

    The “work” is unrelated to his claimed misdeeds. Are you suggesting that anyone guilty of sexual assault or other serious misdeeds should never be allowed to work again (even in the absence of a criminal conviction) … and, what?, have to live on welfare for the rest of their lives?

    1. I don’t think the issue here is whether a publisher should be prohibited from publishing the writing of a miscreant author (much less whether such an author should be prohibited from ever working again).

      The issue is, rather, whether a publisher has the right to discontinue publishing an author’s book after learning of evidence that the author engaged in criminal or immoral conduct. Per the “morals clause” standard in most publishing contracts, the publisher has that right. (Nothing, of course, prevents another publishing house from contracting with the author to print his or her book, as happened with Arcade Publishing after the Hachette Book Group decided against proceeding with the publication of Woody Allen’s memoir.)

      1. Speaking of Woody Allen, we just finished watching the scathing four-part doc, Allen vs. Farrow, which I thought very convincingly depicts Woody as a sexual abuser of his daughter Dylan. Not yet sure about how I’ll feel about any new movies of his. Did love some of his old ones, as well as some of his written work.

          1. Thanks for this, Coel! It’s all so tawdry and so hard to know whom to believe. Ronan/Satchel Farrow, a very smart reporter and supposedly the only biological child of Woody +Mia (though he looks just like Frankie S. whom Mia was apparently still “seeing”), very much supports Mia and Dylan in all this. The prosecuted dropped the case against in the 90s because he didn’t want to put 7-yr.-old Dylan through the trauma of a trial. At the end of the doc, almost 30 years after the accusations, the same prosecuter sits down and talks to Dylan about why he chose not to procede, even though he had felt the allegations to be true. Who knows, and in some ways, who cares, except that Dylan to me (😬) was a very credible witness.

          2. PS I was living in London when Mia started dating Frankie. My best friend in 9th grade moved from the American School to Marymount in 10th grade. Mia was a couple of years older than we were and the Marymount girls were all aflutter when Mia started dating Sinatra.

          3. Thank you for the link, Coel – I had never read before what he has written. Two things stand out to me in Moses Farrow’s very sad account: that he was 14 years old at the time of the alleged assault compared to Ronan Farrow’s four years, and that there have been no other claims of child sexual assault against Allen by anyone else.

  6. I’m awaiting its arrival from Amazon today. I believe that the biography should stand on its own merits in spite of the apparent misbehavior of the biographer. However, I’m sympathetic to the view that a good portion of the proceeds should be donated to the organizations. For the record, indeed it has received great reviews and three ( at least ) bad reviews – two by women and one by a man. It is interesting that the authors of the bad reviews accuse Mr. Bailey of defending Philip Roth’s alleged maltreatment of women. There is another biography on the subject of Philip Roth that was published in March of this year:

    “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written. That is all.” – Oscar Wilde

    1. That was my initial reaction, but some portion of the price that you paid for the book goes to somebody who likely committed a sexual assault (I’m trusting Jerry’s assessment here). If the allegations are true, you are enriching a rapist. I can understand why a lot of people wouldn’t be comfortable with that. In fact, I wouldn’t although, I can’t lie, I was never going to buy this book anyway.

    2. I’ve read almost everything Roth has written, including his two memoirs — The Facts and Patrimony — and the collection of his literary criticism, Reading Myself and Others. But I have a limited appetite for another rehashing of where the fault lies for his unhappy, failed marriage to English actress Claire Bloom, so probably would’ve taken a pass on the Bailey biography anyway. I’d prefer to spend my limited reading hours on the novels of another, or on a biography of someone whose life has not already provided grist for so much public speculation and publicity (by himself and others).

      But, hey, à chacun son goût.

        1. Those are two great ones Merilee recommends. Or get the bound initial Zuckerman trilogy (a quadrilogy, counting the epilogue, The Prague Orgy, Roth wrote for the volume). Or the novel that made Roth’s reputation, Portnoy’s Complaint.

          Or, what the heck, start at the beginning, with his 1959 novella Goodbye Columbus and the five short stories bound into a single volume with it.

          He was the best of his generation, IMO.

  7. I enter a vigorous second to comment #2 by Publilius. In fact, I would like to see Mr. Bailey leave Norton, take his Roth biography to another publisher, and then see it become a record-breaking best-seller with the second publisher. This would serve Norton right, and provide a salutary object lesson about the fruits of pecksniffery in publishing.

    On the other hand, the publishing industry is sufficiently weird that there is no predicting what might happen. I am a co-author of a textbook which migrated from publisher A to publisher B to publisher C, only to see publisher C finally end up becoming a subsidiary of publisher A. If I still had the energy of my youth, I would consider writing a Stephen King-like horror story revealing that all American publishing houses are akin to haunted houses, only worse. [Oh, wait, that was already done in that very funny movie in which Jack Nicholson and James Spader, editors at a distinguished publishing house, were both werewolves.]

  8. Thanks to the stars Europe is behind in this deadly race to Torquemadaland and we will be able to buy this book, if we want, as we have enjoyed Polanski’s masterpieces despite the important moral flaws of the artist. Next stage, someone should burn Caravaggio, he was a thug and a murderer after all

  9. Mia Farrow is an ENORMOUS narcissist – which we don’t notice b/c she’s a) female (who comprise only 50% of narcists) and she’s pretty and talented. The worst sort. I don’t even say that as a Woody Allen fan (which I am) – but b/c of her life trajectory, her open public admissions, etc.

    When they mug for the camera, GRAB the camera in fact yelling “LOOK AT MEEEE!”, we get to put our $0.02 cent’s worth in, diagnosis wise. F’k the “goldwater rule” – designed ONLY to keep the AAPA out of being co-joined in defamation suits.
    I haven’t seen the latest movie series – I have better things to do.

    D.A., B.A.(Hon.) psych. and middle east politics, J.D.

  10. From what I’ve read, all of his victims were over the age of consent. Is this further infantalization of women?

  11. The book is about Roth and not Bailey so publish and be damned. And since Bailey did all the work he should get the royalties no matter what he may or may not have done. Let the public decide if they wan’t to buy it or not, the publisher have no right to decide for them.

    1. The publisher has no right to decide what is best for their own business? That’s an odd take. As others have mentioned the author can contract with other publishers who will make their own decisions, based on their own self-interest, just as the original publisher did.

  12. It seems that no charges, either criminal or civil, have been brought, so the whole issue, at a legal level, amounts at the moment to allegation and heresay.

    Bailey could even sue for libel, defamation or slander (he could possibly claim the loss of earnings as cause): this was the mistake made by Oscar Wilde, who sued for libel as a civil offence, failed to prove his case and instead the court was convinced that the substance of the accusations made against him were justified, these being accusations of criminal actions, for which he was then prosecuted as a criminal action and went to jail.

    Even convicted criminals have a right (in the UK at least) to publish and to make a legal living as they see fit. Bailey is not even charged.
    A good example is John McVicar who was given a 26 yr sentence, escaped several times, rehabilitated, took a postgraduate degree in prison, wrote an autobiography and had a film made about him (played by Roger Daltrey of The Who who produced the film).

    The business arrangement between the publisher and Bailey is just that, a business contract, including the morals clause.
    It is quite possible that the Bailey scandal might even boost sales, presumably via a different publisher.

    I would also comment that the U.S. recently had a presidential candidate against whom similar allegations were made: it didn’t stop him from continuing as candidate nor even from being elected.

  13. Assuming the existence of a morals clause in the Norton/Bailey contract, the publisher was within its contractual rights to stop investing in Bailey’s biography of Phillip Roth. Given the prima facie proof of the rape allegation, Norton could reasonably foresee its investment in Bailey was damaged, perhaps beyond repair. Norton runs a publishing business, not a pro bono public information service. It moved to cut its losses, for the time being. If Norton is wrong in exercising the morals clause, Bailey can sue for breach of contract. There he would have his opportunity for public vindication and receive the benefit of his bargain with Norton.

    Phillip Roth is an easy writer to love or hate. He was accused his entire career of being a misogynist and remonstrated frequently against that characterization. He was also one of the best fiction writers of the 20th and 21st Centuries. He objected to applying the biographical fallacy to his writing, although he relentlessly used real people and events to fashion his fictional worlds. Bailey’s biography shows the man as an artist who worked very hard to create his fictional worlds. Ultimately, I think Bailey’s biography needs to be judged by how well he explicated the life Phillip Roth lived inside his own head.

    1. @David
      I am not sure that there is any “prima facie proof”: that is normally what a judge considers during a primary hearing before taking the case further or that the public prosecutions office uses as a basis of bringing actual criminal charges.
      If there are no charges yet brought, either civil or criminal, there is no prima facie evidence. That remains heresay in the public arena.
      As you say, Norton could be breaching contract, depending on the nature of the morals clause.
      Bailey, by bringing the case to court as breach of contract, could provoke a legal investigation as to the truth of the allegations: that could blow up in his face.

      1. Maybe the right term is probable cause for further investigation of the allegation. If the allegation is categorically false as Bailey claims, he should sue for breach of contract.

  14. While it’s possible these accusations might be “credible,” there are plenty of cases of less credible accusations ruining people’s lives and careers. In addition, it’s not the public’s place to be the judge and jury. It’s my opinion that individuals who are falsely accused should be able to sue for libel/slander and attacks on their character if it results in financial or personal harm. While it is true that a private publisher can be choosy about what material it carries, the problem now is that big companies have decimated the competition. The field has been unfairly narrowed, and for this reason, even as a staunch libertarian, I can see the reason why the GOP is pressing for new anti-trust laws.

    Aside from that, there definitely is a societal benefit to learning about history that you find unsavory, and reading books such as “Native Son” or “Huckleberry Finn” which contain racist incidences and foul language.

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