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5 May 2021

This book has been cancelled

Blake Bailey’s new book on Philip Roth has been withdrawn by its US publisher after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against the biographer. Should the work be judged by the standards of the life?

By Leo Robson

One of the most striking elements of the allegations against the celebrated literary biographer Blake Bailey was the speed and fervency of his denial. Over the course of recent weeks, Bailey, 57, whose biography of Philip Roth was published last month, has been accused of multiple acts of grooming and sexual assault. The allegations encompass a 20-year period, from the mid-1990s when Bailey started teaching an eighth-grade English class at Lusher Charter School in New Orleans, until 2015, when Valentina Rice, a publishing executive at Bloomsbury USA, claims that he raped her at the house of the New York Times book critic Dwight Garner. Bailey was immediately dropped by his agent, and his American publisher, WW Norton (which, it emerged, had previously been made aware of Rice’s account), halted a second printing of his book on Roth, which was a New York Times bestseller.

A statement from Bailey’s lawyer emphasised that Bailey had never “received any complaints about his time at Lusher”. In the post-#MeToo age, such a defence carries little weight; Bailey was in a position of power, and there have been a number of allegations of him engaging in overfamiliar behaviour in a school setting. Though he has dismissed all of the recent claims against him as false, Bailey has admitted in the past to having relations with former students.

Until the details of Bailey’s contract are known, Norton’s withdrawal of the Roth biography seems an odd or at least arbitrary decision, since the book does not advocate sexual violence and its writing was not dependent on, or facilitated by, its author’s alleged crimes. (One explanation may simply be that the publisher made the decision in light of the revelation that it already knew of Rice’s allegations.)

As a literary scandal, the story recalls that of Paul de Man, the Belgian critic known for his work on the indeterminacy of language who, it emerged after his death, had published a series of articles in pro-Nazi newspapers in the early years of the Second World War. It is clear from Bailey’s writing and his spoken comments that he stresses the existence of fallible memory, cognitive dissonance, self-blindness, denial and disavowal, and the co-existence of appalling conduct with positive traits or simply a genial exterior.

This is because, as a writer, Bailey specialises in the putative paradoxes of human character – how someone can be wise or emotionally intuitive or charming and also aggressive, cold, violent, unaccountable. On first appearance, it seems obvious what unites the subjects of Bailey’s first three biographies, Richard Yates (2003), John Cheever (2009) and Charles Jackson (2013): they were all, in a favoured phrase, “colossal alcoholics”. Bailey’s older brother, Scott, was multiply addicted and a sexual predator – he assaulted Bailey at least once – who spent time in jail and eventually killed himself. (He was once diagnosed as schizophrenic but it seems more likely he suffered from a personality disorder.)

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Bailey was himself an alcoholic during his twenties and thirties, and he has said the fact that Yates and Cheever wrote about “outwardly prosperous, happy suburban families who are actually blighted by alcohol and mental illness and so forth, might have something to do with why I was attracted to their work”. He has also remarked that “what really appeals to me is compartmentalised personalities”. If the attraction to the first category has its origins in the facts of his experience, then the appeal of the second surely relates to Bailey’s sense that “there are aspects to my nature that are despicable”. (He added, “But I am not the sum of my despicable qualities.”)

He has described John Cheever as “kind of my quintessential subject”, adding that he had a “very compartmentalised personality”. Cheever fancied himself, Bailey has said, as “a Massachusetts Brahmin” who played the role of a “Westchester County paterfamilias”. He was “a closeted gay man who liked keeping very raffish company”, and, as Bailey said elsewhere, was “terrified all the time” that people would discover the truth. Cheever was “charming” and “a shameless liar”. Bailey said he liked “solving that puzzle”: how does one component of a personality relate to another that seems diametrically opposed? He has said that “monsters are fascinating”.

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[See also: Mank and the long, troubled history of Hollywood and politics]

Bailey’s portrait of division carries an ethical dimension. He has revealed that he heard things about Cheever from his detractors that would “absolutely make your hairs stand on end”. But he tends to look for “the extenuating stuff”, and that to know all is to forgive all. “I have never remotely hated my subjects,” he said not long ago. “Indeed I have always felt a warm affinity… I take a pretty dim view of myself as a human being, so it’s really not my place to cast aspersions.” Bailey has cited Albert Goldman’s method in his vicious biography of Elvis Presley as the “opposite of how I work”. (He praised Michael Mewshaw’s memoir of Gore Vidal for revealing him as a “boozy gargoyle” but also a “generous, steadfast friend”.)

But there’s a slippage in Bailey’s comments between trying to understand bad behaviour and deciding that it wasn’t bad behaviour after all. Bailey has often pointed to the case of Cheever’s protégé, a short-story writer called Max Zimmer. In Bailey’s Cheever biography, there’s a moment when Cheever takes his penis out of his trousers. Zimmer said, “Here I was. With a man in his [VW] Rabbit, in a totally alien place to me. A man I’d pretty much staked everything on in this case.” Zimmer worried that if he declined, Cheever would “raise hell” – Bailey claims this was “hardly” his style – so “I jerked him off. And it was a gruesome thing to have to do.” But Bailey later saw from Cheever’s journal that the writer was “terribly tormented” about the relationship: “It wasn’t mean-spirited or exploitative. He was in love with Max.” Bailey doesn’t say that Cheever thought he was in love with Zimmer. Cheever’s reading of the situation is given the same weight as the agony it caused. (What if he’d encountered the perspectives in reverse order?)

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The charge of misogyny against Bailey’s writing goes at least as far back as 2016, when his angry review of Ruth Franklin’s biography of the writer Shirley Jackson was published in the Wall Street Journal. He took issue with what he called Franklin’s “main thesis” – that Jackson had been exploited and mistreated by her husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. The story of “a pioneering feminist”, he wrote, “needs a male heavy”. There’s one especially telling passage. Franklin describes as “unkind” a passage from Brendan Gill’s memoir Here at the New Yorker in which he refers to Jackson as a woman whose “fat girl’s air of clowning frivolity” masked her “unexamined self-loathing” – an observation Bailey defends as “astute”. But he then strongly resists the suggestion that Hyman colluded in Jackson’s overeating. No, he says, they simply relished eating together: “It bonded them more tightly than literature.” Bailey is eager to apply a psychological framework that accommodates female insecurity, but one that introduces male aggression or abuse is a step too far.

Bailey’s book on Philip Roth reveals his animus in similar ways. Laura Marsh in the New Republic wrote that Bailey’s animosity towards Roth’s first wife Margaret Martinson was “something more than a matter of taking sides in a bitter divorce” and noticed a “bizarre aversion to the idea of men running errands”. (Parul Sehgal in the New York Times was also strongly critical: “At just under 900 pages, the book is most thoroughly a sprawling apologia for Roth’s treatment of women, on and off the page.”) There’s frequently an evil or party-pooping woman in Bailey’s account of Roth’s life and career. Towards the end, in a very strange passage, Bailey argues that the prominent feminist Carmen Callil, who opposed Roth as the winner of the 2011 Man Booker International Prize on artistic grounds, went out of her way to praise the female character in the novel American Pastoral so as to appear unbothered by Roth’s “alleged misogyny”.

[See also: Gwendoline Riley: “I’m interested in a person’s helplessness, how people are incorrigible”]

The problem with the Roth book – easily Bailey’s worst – is that he skews too much towards sympathy, or exoneration. He is rankled by the idea that Roth was a misogynist, presenting it as largely a reaction to Leaving A Doll’s House (1996), Roth’s second wife Claire Bloom’s excoriating (and certainly in places unreliable) memoir of her relationship with Roth, or a perverse misreading of Roth’s fiction. Bailey suffers from the biographical equivalent of Freud’s dictum that the psychoanalyst can only take the client as far as he has taken himself. He never, for example, raises the possibility that Roth vindicated his own misogyny by embarking on relationships with women with addiction and mental health problems, or that Roth’s acts of munificence were controlling, say, or were offered in place of emotional intimacy. Again, Bailey’s notion of balance, the desire to understand or forgive, blurs into a tendency to let people off the hook.

In an interview, Bailey simply couldn’t recognise the legitimacy of the objections to his portrayal. If Roth came across as a monster, how could the biography also be soft or censoring? The answer is that Bailey often appears not to appreciate the valency and import of what he is recounting. The strength of Bailey’s biographies is based in his intuitive connection with his subjects – something he emphasises. But there is an unconscious attraction too, and this is no less revealing.

***

Bailey’s own life story, as he tells it, traces a familiar arc. He was raised in a dysfunctional family, and went off the rails. He has called himself “a very confused and stunted young man” but gives no details of manipulative conduct or aggression towards women, even in a confessional warts-and-all spirit. Bailey claims that in his early thirties he was largely saved by meeting his future wife, Mary, who was an undergraduate at the time, and discovering his vocation as a biographer. He still has scars and bad memories and remains, he has said, “wired pretty tight”.

He has said that in his family memoir The Splendid Things We Planned (2014), he was asking, “How did I make it?” Referring to his brother Scott, he asked: “Why did I go this way, and why did he go that way?” Scott’s tragedy, he said, is the story of “what I might have been, and at least, not yet, didn’t become”, though the reference is to Scott’s self-destructiveness more than his treatment of others. Scott, for his part, told Bailey, “You’re gonna be just like me. You’re gonna be worse” – speculation offered as absurd. When Bailey’s mother tells him that Scott just needs to stop drinking, he replies that it wouldn’t help; he would simply be “a sober lunatic”. The same conclusion does not occur to Bailey about his own recovery.

In a 2020 email seen by the New York Times, Bailey wrote to one of his alleged victims, Eve Peyton, a former student, about “the awfulness” of a night in June 2003, on which, she claims, he raped her. He told her that he was suffering from an unspecified mental illness at the time – nearly a decade after, according to his memoir, he started to get his “shit together”.

But then Bailey’s own account of his personal progress contains worrying signs – notably, a brazen disregard for boundaries that remained evident at the time of writing. As he explains it, he first met Mary at Lusher when she came by to pick up her 13-year-old sister’s homework. “This was during my planning period,” he wrote, “so I had time to flirt with her.” When he bumped into her again, she mentioned she had been doing part-time work as a teacher’s aide, so he invited her to guest-teach one of his classes – “after which I took her out for drinks”. (Bailey, in his memoir, recalls telling his brother that he had never had relations with his students; he also told an interviewer that the opening and closing lines of Nabokov’s novel Lolita, a text he often taught at Lusher, “make my dorsal hairs quiver”.)

At one point in the book, Bailey recalled an earlier moment at which he believed, wrongly, he had turned a corner: he had a new job, as a school teacher. In the same scene, his father tells him: “You are a very serious alcoholic. You will disagree. I am right; you are wrong.” By the time he wrote the passage, Bailey knew that his confident dismissal of his father was ill-founded. Similarly, Bailey has described a moment where, listening back to an interview with Roth, he found that Roth’s response was in fact quite different from the one he had been expecting to hear: “And this was only a couple of months ago!” He said: “All I can say is, that’s how I genuinely remember it,” adding, “I have a very selective memory.”

In an interview, Bailey talked with rapture about Chekhov’s story “The Lady with the Lapdog”, emphasising the lesson that appearances are false. He gave, by way of example, the “received version” of Cheever’s later years, which John Updike called a “redemptive fable” where Cheever recovered from alcoholism, came to terms with his homosexuality and had a couple of bestsellers. “Nothing could be more false,” Bailey said. “The surface life was successful and the inside life was more tortured than ever. What you basically do is you hold that received version up to the mirror – and there’s the truth.”

[See also: Patricia Highsmith’s psychopath heroes]

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This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?