What happens to Philip Roth’s legacy now? Controversy around authorised biography raises questions for author's estate
Accusations of sexual misconduct and assault against Blake Bailey, the author of Roth’s single authorised biography, have intensified a parallel conversation about Roth’s treatment of women, adding fuel to the questions of whether Bailey’s account of the prolific author’s sexual and romantic relationships was overly sympathetic and oversimplified.
Late in his life, Philip Roth occasionally joked that he had two great calamities ahead of him: death and a biography.
“Let’s hope the first comes first,” he said in a 2013 interview.
Roth, the author of American Pastoral, Portnoy’s Complaint and 29 other books, didn’t live to read the biography that he authorised Blake Bailey to write. But he went to enormous lengths to shape his literary legacy. In the years leading up to his death in 2018, Roth sat for hundreds of hours of interviews and conversations with Bailey. He also gave him exclusive access to a treasure trove of documents and unpublished writing — a richly detailed, intimate road map that Roth hoped would inform the definitive account of his life.
But Roth’s efforts to control his posthumous reputation may have backfired. In April, weeks after the publication of Bailey’s book, several women accused Bailey of sexual misconduct and assault, leading his publisher, WW Norton, to halt shipments and then take the biography out of print. (Bailey has denied the allegations.) In May, an independent publisher, Skyhorse, acquired the book and announced plans to release it in paperback this month.
While Bailey has found a new publisher, his biography is now inextricably linked to controversy. The accusations he faces have intensified a parallel conversation about Roth’s treatment of women, adding fuel to the questions of whether Bailey’s account of Roth’s sexual and romantic relationships was overly sympathetic and oversimplified.
Several of Roth’s friends said they are distressed by the way the controversy around Bailey has spread from author to subject.
“It’s a shame for Philip that he has to be associated with what occurred,” said Joel Conarroe, a writer, decades-long friend of Roth’s and his former executor. “What troubles some of us is that this affects Philip’s reputation.”
Other acquaintances expressed disappointment that his authorised biography focused so heavily on his private life and less on his fiction.
“It will probably stain his name, sadly, for some time to come,” said Claudia Roth Pierpont, a friend of Roth’s (they are not related) and the author of Roth Unbound, a 2013 study of his books that drew on their extensive conversations. “We’d love to have a good biography of Philip Roth that was responsible and took in things that I’m not sure the Blake Bailey biography took in anyway.”
Some who were close to Roth say the book missed the mark in more specific ways. Caro Llewellyn, a writer who met Roth at John Updike’s 2009 memorial service, said Bailey misrepresented her platonic friendship with Roth.
In the biography, Bailey identifies her by the pseudonym Mona. He describes how she and Roth were attracted to each other and were physically intimate but never had sex because he was unable to, even after taking Viagra. But Llewellyn said the scene Bailey described never occurred.
“Philip and I never fooled around,” said Llewellyn, who wrote about her relationship with Roth in her 2019 memoir, Diving Into Glass.
Llewellyn — who declined to be interviewed by Bailey — said she was more upset by what was left out of the biography, which gives the impression that she was a marginal figure in Roth’s life, a fling that didn’t work out.
“My intimacy with Philip didn’t conform to the story Blake was trying to write,” she said.
In an email, Bailey said that he based the description of their relationship on information from Roth, who “tended to be truthful,” adding that “the information was harmless enough, and besides, her identity was protected by a pseudonym.” He disputed the critique that his book was overly focused on Roth’s intimate relationships and diminished the women in his life.
Bailey’s book will not be the last word. In addition to an unauthorised biography by literary critic Ira Nadel that came out in March, there are more books on the way, including a biography by Stanford University professor Steven Zipperstein, and The Philip Roth We Don’t Know, by Jacques Berlinerblau, a Georgetown University professor.
But scholars and writers are concerned that nobody else will have access to the personal papers that Bailey was able to read and draw from. In May, 23 of them released a statement imploring the estate not to destroy the papers, as it has said it might, and to make them “readily available” to researchers.
“A writer of Mr Roth’s stature deserves multiple accounts of his life in keeping with the nuance and complexity of his art,” the statement says.
“Roth’s work speaks for itself, but it’s always going to be footnoted with the Blake Bailey story,” said Aimee Pozorski, the co-executive editor of the academic journal Philip Roth Studies, who authored the statement with Berlinerblau. “If the estate was committed to protecting his legacy, then more people should have access to these materials to add layers to the conversation, so that it doesn’t stop with the idea that Roth was a misogynist,” she said.
It’s unclear what will become of the material Roth gave to Bailey. Roth provided hundreds of documents, attaching detailed memos explaining the significance of each file. He shared tapes and CDs of interviews conducted by close friends, among them Judith Thurman, Janet Malcolm and Ross Miller, Roth’s first authorised biographer, who worked on a book for years until Roth took him off the project for taking too long and failing to conduct key interviews.
Roth also gave Bailey copies of two unpublished manuscripts, Notes for My Biographer, a 295-page rebuttal of his ex-wife Claire Bloom’s 1996 memoir, and Notes on a Slander-Monger, a response to the notes and interviews Miller had compiled.
Some of the material will likely go to the Library of Congress, where the bulk of Roth’s archives are already collected. Others, including Notes for My Biographer, may never be seen again.
In a 2012 interview, Roth said he had asked his literary executors to destroy his private papers after Bailey completed his book.
Julia Golier, one of the executors, told The New York Times Magazine in March that the estate might indeed do that. Since the release of the biography and the ensuing scandal, however, the estate has been quiet. Golier and literary agent Andrew Wylie, a co-executor of the estate, declined to comment on the plans for the papers.
Roth was invested in preserving much of his own paper trail. He began giving his papers to the Library of Congress in the 1970s, and the institution has amassed some 25,000 items from 1938 to 2001, including correspondence with Bloom, Updike, Saul Bellow and Cynthia Ozick. After Roth’s death, the library acquired more papers, including correspondence, drafts, research notes, autobiographical notes and other personal effects.
The more recent acquisitions — roughly 15 boxes of material from 1945 to 2018 — can only be viewed with the permission of the Roth estate, until 2050, when the papers will be open to anyone, according to Barbara Bair, the literary specialist in the library’s manuscript division.
“We are hopeful that any additional materials held by Mr. Bailey or others will be consolidated at the Library, but specific arrangements have not been finalised,” she said.
Meanwhile, the estate has moved aggressively to control access to Roth materials held independently at Princeton University, which the university purchased in 2018 from Roth’s friend Benjamin Taylor. The cache includes a copy of Notes on a Slander-Monger, unpublished essays on such subjects as money, marriage and illness, and a list of his relationships with women, with commentary.
Normally, access to materials in archives is governed by an agreement with the donor, not the person who created the documents. In 2018, Princeton announced that the collection was open to researchers, but it subsequently closed it and removed the guide to the collection from the internet.
Scholars researching books on Roth were stunned by the abrupt closure. A spokesman for the university said it is in “ongoing discussions” with the Roth estate regarding the collection.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Alexandra Alter and Jennifer Schuessler c.2021 The New York Times Company
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