In an episode of “The Office,” a pizza delivery guy calls Michael Scott a “loser.” Dwight, Michael’s deputy and wingman, sticks up for his boss:
Pizza guy [to Michael]: You’re such a loser.
Dwight: What did you just call him?
Pizza guy: A loser.
Dwight: What did you say?
Pizza guy: A loser.
Michael: Alright stop, stop making him say it! You just made this worse, a whole lot worse.
And that, dear reader, is Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth in a nutshell.
The biography was supposed to be one of the big books of the spring, until women came forward accusing Bailey of grooming students for sex when he was a middle-school teacher. The publisher of the Roth biography, W.W. Norton & Company, said it would stop promoting and distributing the book, which quickly disappeared from bookstores before being picked up by another publisher.
The episode has raised questions about the relationship between an author’s personal life and his work – about as Rothian a topic you can imagine. Should the book still be sold, read and discussed on its own merits despite the sordid allegations against its author (which Bailey denies)?
And of course, this is a book about Roth, who was dogged by charges of misogyny for years – in his life and his work. Some readers asked whether Bailey could have dispassionately weighed such allegations, or if perhaps Roth chose him as his authorized biographer because he knew or suspected that Bailey would be on his side. Roth’s friends lament that he has been tainted by his biographer’s downfall.
I got my (digital) copy of the bio through the New York Public Library. In the book, Bailey indeed comes off as a highly indulgent interlocutor. When it comes to Roth’s priapic adventures and mistreatment of wives and lovers, Bailey is invariably on his subject’s side.
But like Dwight, Bailey also makes things a “whole lot worse” for his friend by just getting others to repeat the questionable things Roth said and did. Roth is often aggrieved, callous and, even when it comes to lovers of whom he was obviously fond, caddish and worse. He had a rock star’s appetite and apparently a rock star’s appeal to women, from college students to Jackie Onassis (he shared a kiss with the former First Lady, apparently, and nothing more). Women come and go, seemingly just long enough for Roth to turn them into characters in his fiction. Bailey often quotes Roth on his exes, and Roth’s comments are often scathing and objectifying.
And like Michael Scott, Roth can be a wildly self-incriminating narrator. Bailey invariably takes Roth at his word when the novelist talks about the women in his life – and that word can be pretty self-incriminating, even if Bailey doesn’t try too hard to see things from the women’s perspectives.
On the other hand, most of the women in his life found Roth funny, charming and sexy, and if there any questions about consent or abuse I haven’t come across them. When it comes to reading Roth, I am with Taffy Brodesser-Akner, who dismisses the idea that we shouldn’t read “any work by an important and influential writer because of a person’s bad but probably not criminal behavior.”
The challenge with Roth, however, is that even if you ignore his behavior, you have to deal with his work. And Roth made it both easy and hard by writing obsessively about male characters that seemed suspiciously just like him, while denying that his books were autobiographical. But even taken on its own terms, readers in the post-#MeToo era will find a lot of his work cringe-worthy and worse. In his own forthcoming book on Roth, Jacques Berlinerblau also finds “a disturbing racist undertow in his prose.”
The challenge with Roth, however, is that even if you ignore his biography, you have to deal with work.
And yet Berlinerblau concludes that Roth is “a writer of substance and vision whose body of work merits serious contemplation.” For those who might find his fiction unappealing, he offers a compromise: read Roth’s “unsexed” works, which “steer clear of cultural politics.” An unfamiliar reader might start with “The Ghost Writer,” “Indignation” and “American Pastoral.”
Bailey’s biography is engaging, especially if you care about late 20th-century literature, publishing, celebrity culture and Jewish striving. But the best place to encounter Roth is in his writing: funny, dark, scabrous, lyrical, loving, angry. No one writes sentences that are more propulsive, or that can turn so quickly from jewel-like precision to burlesque. His work is a cumulative portrait of American Jewish life that you don’t need to admire or condone, but which contributes incalculably to our understanding of one version of who we were and are in a post-Holocaust world.