So it turns out that Blake Bailey, the author of the latest Phillip Roth biography, has been accused by multiple women of sexual assault along with predatory behavior when he was a public school teacher. If the accusations are true, that’s bad. The biography had been getting good reviews, but his publisher, W. W. Norton, pulled it and cancelled all future printings based on the accusations.
So here’s the question: Was that the wrong thing to do?
I have my own bias on this particular situation: I don’t like Phillip Roth’s writing (and based on Claire Bloom’s description of their marriage, I don’t like Roth much, either), and the interview I’ve read with Bailey showed him (to me) to be patriarchal in general and dismissive of women in particular.
BUT I still think it was a huge mistake to cancel the book.
There are good reasons to cancel a book. It’s racist (hello, Dr. Seuss), sexist, homophobic, etc. in a way that endangers those groups (you don’t yell “DISCRIMINATE AND ABUSE” in a crowded bookstore). Or it’s plagiarized. Or it’s inaccurate, misleading, based on lies presented as truth. That is, there is something intrinsically wrong with the content, not a difference of opinion but something that makes it morally wrong to publish it.
But “The author is a predatory creep and therefore whatever he/she/they writes should be banned” is a very, very bad idea.
First, authors are human. I think a good, close look at most of us would probably reveal significant flaws. We tend to be anti-social and have a slippery grasp on truth; we make stuff up for a living so “improving” the truth often seems to us just like a rewrite. If you extend that assumption to actors and painters and musicians, sweet Jesus, art disappears from the world. The creator is not the creation and the two should not be confused. Of course there are nice people who make good art, too, but from my experience as both an artist and a writer, they’re not the majority. I’m pretty sure my rep in the romance world is as a grade A bitch (I’m okay with that), and I know there are writers out there who after personal interaction with me think I’m the devil’s whore (I’m not crazy about them, either). They’re probably right (well, not about the whore thing, I barely know Satan), but here’s the other thing about working in a creative field: only the strong survive, only the selfish make it big because making art, any kind of art, is a selfish act: “Give me your time and money so you can appreciate my genius.” This is why Mother Teresa didn’t paint and Gandhi didn’t do long guitar riffs. You need great ego to survive a creative career, and great ego seldom leads to great goodness. (With great ego comes great responsibility.)
The thing is, though, unless that ego, those toxic assumptions, seep into the work, most people will never know we’re lousy human beings. If the art, whatever it is, works, connects with people, makes those people’s lives better, even if only for a short while, then isn’t it a terrible loss to strangle the work because its creator is awful? If the book/painting/music/acting is good, shouldn’t that be enough?
I will admit to dismissing books (for myself, not publicly) by writers I have had bad personal conflicts with, so when I see their names on books, I tend to spit instead of buy, but I would never suggest that they shouldn’t be published or that their books should not be bought; in fact, I’d fight like hell to make sure their books were kept available. We never said we were good people, we said we were good writers. The fact that people often assume we must be as wonderful as our books is not our fault. This is one of the reasons that when complete strangers who are readers see something I’ve said and respond with “Jennifer, I’m so disappointed in you,” I get snappy. I never stopped by anybody’s house and said, “I promise I’ll never say anything you disagree with, I promise I’ll never do anything you don’t like, I promise I’ll always be the person you imagine me to be,” all I said was, “I wrote this story. Want to read it?”
So for all the people who are saying, “What a shame Bailey is such a creep, the biography was really good,” please note that these two statements have nothing to do with each other. If Bailey is a creep, don’t have dinner with him, cut him dead in the street, prosecute him if that’s appropriate, but leave his book out of it. Even if it is about Phillip Roth.
What do you think?