WW Norton pulled the authorized biography of Philip Roth from the shelves because both Roth and his biographer have been credibly accused of being sexual predators. It’s coming out Tuesday under another imprint.
The recall was no big deal, really — for the late Mr. Roth or for Blake Bailey, whose book has been picked up by Skyhorse for June 15 release. I’m sure the brouhaha will help drive sales, and most writers I know — in fact, all the writers I know — would surely trade $1 million for a few blots upon the escutcheon.
This has nothing to do with the First Amendment. That tablet, chipped into porous stone, restrains our government (though not really) from stifling speech in these disunited states. It does not obligate publishers to publish things they don’t wanna.
The real issues are:
• Should an author’s personal conduct influence our judgment of his works?
My answer: a) Of course it should; but b) what if we don’t find out about the author’s conduct until we’ve read the books?; and c) then what?
• Will an author’s personal conduct influence our judgment or the value of his works, and does it actually have anything to do with the value of his or her works?
My answer: a) Beats the hell out of me; b) sometimes; and c) who was Homer?
I do not excuse, nor will attempt to ameliorate, Roth’s and Bailey’s treatment of women — alleged or otherwise. In their relations with women, they appear slimy. Talented? Sure. But slime.
Nor do I excuse myself from this. In my younger days, I transgressed many a time what I today presume to call my standards upon which to judge others.
Many years ago I visited one of my brothers’ houses, and neglectfully left a copy of Roth’s “Sabbath’s Children” in the bed I had slept in, which was his daughter’s, who was off at college. When I realized I had forgotten it, I called my bro on the instanter, to tell him to get it out of there. I didn’t want him to think I had left pornography on his daughter’s bed.
That’s what I think it is. “Sabbath’s Children” revolted me. I didn’t get past the first 50 pages. Yet if you can believe Bailey, it was Roth’s favorite of his books.
Roth was a terrific writer. His American Trilogy — “American Pastoral,” “I Married a Communist,” and “The Human Stain” — is one of the three best fiction trilogies by U.S. writers in the 20th century, along with John Dos Passos’ USA, and Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy.
Does it matter that Roth and his biographer may have been sexual predators? Today it does. But many great writers were creeps, and horrible to women.
Knut Hamsun’s “Growth of the Soil,” which sealed his Nobel Prize of 1920, is one of the great novels of the 20th century. Yet Hamsun became a Nazi.
Louis Ferdinand Celine’s “Journey to the End of the Night” (1932) was really something, yet if he was not, formally, a Nazi, he might as well have been.
Moving along: Most of our country’s great writers were alcoholics — in fact, I’d venture to say, so were most of the great fiction writers and poets of the past century and more: Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, Poe, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Dylan Thomas, Dostoyevsky.
Every human being suffers pain. Most of us, sad to say, inflict more pain upon ourselves and others than Nature inflicts upon us. Literature grows out of that pain. As a writer myself, I think that alcohol helps to dull the pains that propel us to write — and so makes it possible to write. And often makes the writing worse.
Charles Dickens was rotten to his wife. Dostoyevsky too. Sartre was a jerk. The only great novelists I’d like to spend an evening with were Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut. Maybe Max Frisch.
But this doesn’t answer my two questions. Fortunately, I read Roth’s American Trilogy before I stumbled upon “Sabbath’s Children.” Had I picked it up first, I never would have read the trilogy.
The only point I’m sure of is that this week’s biography brouhaha has nothing to do with the First Amendment. If you disapprove of an author’s personal behavior, or politics, or anything about him, don’t buy his books.
I don’t care whether Bailey’s biography of Roth is a masterpiece or a potboiler; I ain’t going to read it. Life is too short for me to spend hours in the company of buttheads.
However, I admit that when the first volume of Henry Kissinger’s memoirs came out, I wanted to know what he said, but I didn’t want him to get a penny of royalties from me. So I took the high road: I stole it.