If Good Authors Are Bad People Should They Be Published?

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?

+20

96 thoughts on “If Good Authors Are Bad People Should They Be Published?

  1. Totally agree. Not to mention that smear campaigns have been known to happen, where none of the accusations are true. Not saying that’s the case here, because I expect smear campaigns are rare and that the majority of accused scuzzbutt people are truly nasty people totally guilty of what they’ve been accused of.

    +7
  2. Generally speaking, I agree with you. I think there’s nuance in this specific example, though, that comes from the fact that it’s a biography & that it was getting a huge marketing push. This is a ridiculous example, but if Trump were to write a biography of Nixon and completely gloss over Nixon’s lies because they were business as usual to him, it shouldn’t be presented as truth to the reader. It would be a rather gaping hole in the history, right?

    For the publisher, the controversy that comes with “Here’s this book that we’re presenting as truth (and supporting with vast amounts of marketing dollars) and, oh, by the way, it’s not really the full truth because the author was incredibly biased in a specific (politically incorrect) direction because of his personal predilections, aka grooming 12 year olds for sex,” probably looked pretty untenable. It might be a well-written book, but it’s no longer a good biography if it omits and glosses over major parts of the truth. Especially major parts of the truth that a huge part of the reading population, aka women, would actually care about knowing.

    If it wasn’t a biography, I’d still think it was time to stop pouring marketing dollars in that direction, because why support that author/that subject that way? There are thousands of great books that don’t get any kind of marketing dollars, much less NYTimes advertising campaigns, and hundreds of good authors who haven’t slept with their former middle school students who could use a little of that support. And it definitely perpetuates the “Publishing is a bunch of white men investing in books about white men written by white men” impression. I wanted to call that a stereotype, but I’m not sure that something that seems so accurate can actually be called a stereotype. But maybe “high-brow/prestige publishing is a bunch of white men, etc” is closer to the truth.

    If a book is being strangled by not getting major marketing dollars from a traditional publishing company, then there’s an awful lot of us out here whose work was strangled at birth or before. Including, probably, an incredible number of women whose work would be about subjects more interesting, more worthwhile, and intrinsically more historically valuable than Philip Roth. Who ever declared him a great author anyway? Just a bunch of old white men who found his work valuable because it spoke to them. It definitely doesn’t speak to me.

    +13
    1. Yes, but “truth” in a biography is always relative. I’m not sure Claire Bloom’s autobiography that included twenty-seven years with Roth was “true,” either. I don’t think it’s possible to write without bias. Aside from scientific or mathmatic truth, I think it’s all filtered through the writer (artist, painter, whatever) and is bound to be somewhat biased.

      As for publishing being controlled by white men, hell, yes, but that’s the history of the world. I think there’s a difference between strangling a book by not giving it any marketing (aka most of publishing) and strangling a book because people don’t approve of the author; one is neglect and the other is a kind of moral censorship.

      Also, the fact that Roth’s audience is mostly white guys isn’t really a condemnation; that’s his audience (not sure that’s true anyway). My audience is mostly women, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a great author (g). “Great” is subjective and always based on the self-selected readership.

      +14
      1. Many (many) years ago I was in a seminar on Hawthorne and one of our tasks was to each read a separate biography on him and present a report to the class. We expected some differences in perspective. What we got was wildly diverging views of every aspect of the man’s life. Factual overlap, sure, but interpretation of not just his work but the man’s character was as opposite as opposite could be. It was where I learned just how subjective biographies are — which is to say, intensely so.

        +8
  3. I agree. He’s not profiting from a crime he committed, he’s not glorifying Hitler, he wrote a book. People have the option of not buying his book and W.W. Norton has the option of never buying a manuscript from him again.

    I wouldn’t hold Mother Teresa and Ghandi up as examples of good people, many of their actions paint a lot of what they did in a very selfish light. I think they both had ego to burn; you don’t force your will on other people without it.

    I think this is different from an actor losing a role because of an accusation like this. Actors are physically linked to their jobs in a way that few other artists are because they literally embody that role. It usually doesn’t work but roles can be recast. projects can be reworked like Roseanne/The Connors a couple of years ago. Also, very few movies/shows are pulled completely from circulation because of the actions of a cast member, even though one of the English networks just did that with the final episode of that show staring Noel Clarke, but they did make it available on their website so people could finish watching the series.

    We’ve all heard about actors who have used their fame and the recognition factor of their characters to lure in victims who mistake the actor for the character. Frankly, most people don’t really pay attention to who the authors of non fiction books are, they are more interested in who/what the subject is.

    +7
    1. It’s a funny thing about that confusing the actor with the character: that’s often what people want to do. They don’t want to sleep with Ratso Rizzo, they want to sleep with that guy from Tootsie. I’ve seen it work with male authors, too; the people who pick them up at conferences, etc. want the fantasy, not the reality that they’re human beings with vulnerabilities and flaws. I think that kind of thing is often both sides using the other. But then I am old and jaded.

      I knew I’d get into trouble with that Mother Teresa and Gandhi thing.

      +12
  4. I wouldn’t be the audience for this because both men sound like awful human beings anyway, but I think the reason they pulled this is simply that a lot of people aren’t going to want to buy the book now. Once you find out that someone is that level of awful, you feel bad, guilty, what have you at the idea of giving a known abuser money. A lot of people have problems enjoying Harry Potter now that they know JKR is a bigot against trans people. Joss Whedon shows were My Shows back in the day, but will I ever be able to enjoy those shows again? I can’t recommend them to anyone ever again because they’re going to say “But he’s an abusive asshole.” And god knows nobody’s going to be able to watch The Cosby Show again either.

    At some point, some people are just so awful that their awfulness taints their products. And I’ll note that someone being “canceled” like that takes a whole lot to bring that reaction on. This isn’t happening with every single person quite yet. It’s usually something extreme that brings this level of reaction on.

    Really, it just boils down to making money. If enough people don’t want to spend money on this person because they can’t enjoy the product without thinking that its creator is horrendous and they don’t want to give them money, then you might as well cancel their publishing contract now.

    +10
    1. You know, I almost think it’s situational for actors (which is awful).
      Yeah, it’s going to be hard to see some of these abusive assholes in hero roles; I really don’t need to see Gibson, Hammer, etc. being a romantic lead ever again and Timothy Hutton broke my heart (NATE! How could you?).

      I haven’t read the Potter books in ages, but since she didn’t bash a trans character in those, I’m probably okay. No interest in buying anything else by her. Joss Whedon, again, I can separate him from the excellent work Sarah Michelle Geller did, so I remain a Buffy fan, and I always thought Firefly was problematical, so the news about Whedon just confirmed what I’d thought. I think the Cosby show is different because Cosby was the face of it, a rapist pretending to be a good dad, whereas Joss’s face is nowhere on Buffy (except for that one scene dancing in the distance).

      As for people not wanting to buy the book, some of them will want to buy the book BECAUSE of the uproar. I think it was a PR decision, not a financial one.

      +10
      1. What did Nate (I mean Timothy Hutton do? As for writers I had a horrible time when Joyce Maynard wrote her memoir of her time with J.P. Salinger, who I adored until I read her book. I was never a “ Catcher in the Rye” fan but his short stories enthralled me. I finally decided I can love the writing and loathe the man.

        +5
        1. Google for it. It’s pretty awful, bad enough that they were going to (still going to?) reboot Leverage without him.

          +3
          1. Yup, they appear to be booting away. Lots of fun photos from the cast online.

            +2
      2. I can’t find a statement by the publisher about why they decided to pull it (possibly any explanation would have left them open to a lawsuit because it would have been so negative).

        What I assumed was that they felt the allegations against the author indicated that he wasn’t a reliable reporter on Roth—apparently the heart of the book is his problematic relationships with women . So it’s not just “he’s an evil man”. It would be interesting to know if tbey would have printed it if his evil was unrelated to the book—for example he spread lies about how COVID 19 wasn’t dangerous when he had inside information on how bad it was. I think a publishing house does have some responsibility for ensuring that it’s publications are factually accurate .

        +8
      1. I hate to be that other person, but Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was an Indian lawyer. Saying, “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.” seems redundant. 😉

        +5
  5. I don’t see that the publisher had much of a choice considering our current culture.

    My partner and I actually talk about this a lot, how extreme and virulent the public outcry can be. When Crazy Rich Asians came there was an outcry because they only showed one type of asian; light skinned and wealthy. When Wonder woman came out there was a call to boycott because of Gal Gadot’s politics. Same for Mulan. The main character made a statement supporting the police in China and a faction wanted to boycott the movie.

    It feels like the liberal end of the spectrum is very quick to anger, and overlook a lot of good. It doesn’t feel productive a d is frustrating because I am liberal, or at least want to be.

    Anyway, I don’t think the publisher could move forward without being tarred with the brush of supporting a child molester, so pulling it was their only viable option, right or wrong.

    +7
    1. I think it’s on both sides of the political spectrum: Tucker Carlson just told people that if they see a child wearing a mask, they should call CPS because that’s child abuse. Of course, that’s also Tucker Carlson who is a pandering asshat, but the whole outrage thing has always been on the fringes, and it seems as though it’s moving to the middle.

      Norton had a lot of options here, including not marketing the book any more and not doing any more print runs.

      Wait, somebody complained that Crazy Rich Asians only had rich Asians in it?
      Next: Boycott Little Women because it’s only about young girls (Laurie doesn’t count).

      +14
      1. Lol. That’s what I thought about Crazy Rich Asians too.

        And I agree that the outrage is definitely on both sides and extremism is usually unhealthy in any form. I guess I am just disappointed in “my side” for not behaving better.

        +6
    2. I don’t know. I think there’s a separation between the work and the person (although I take the point above about the person colouring the work and being aware of biases), so pulling the work is one thing, but deplatforming the person is another.

      There’s a long standing radio show host here who multiple times expressed and supported really racist positions, on air. The station finally pulled his show. And I’m way ok with that – this is the process of society deciding where the line is, it’s just that line is shifting. It used to be. Or major sports stars who are vocally homophobic. That had so much potential for harm…

      +10
      1. In the case of the radio show host, his content was harmful, not just his personal actions/views.
        Same with major sports stars giving interviews with harmful content.
        I have no trouble pulling content that hurts people; my country improved overnight once Twitter shut down Trump’s malevolent feed.

        +17
  6. I agree. I still listen to Morrissey, my kids will/do still read Harry Potter, etc.

    I like Nick Cave’s take on it (via https://pitchfork.com/news/nick-cave-questions-morrisseys-politics-defends-his-music-and-free-speech-in-open-letter/)

    “Personally, when I write a song and release it to the public, I feel it stops being my song,” he states. “It has been offered up to my audience and they, if they care to, take possession of that song and become its custodian. The integrity of the song now rests not with the artist, but with the listener.”

    And echoing your point, Jenny:

    “Perhaps it is better to simply let Morrissey have his views, challenge them when and wherever possible, but allow his music to live on, bearing in mind we are all conflicted individuals—messy, flawed and prone to lunacies. We should thank God that there are some among us that create works of beauty beyond anything most of us can barely imagine, even as some of those same people fall prey to regressive and dangerous belief systems.”

    So, don’t remove the work, but maybe also don’t give him any further platform…

    +7
  7. LeVar Burton was on The View, I think, and refused to engage with calling it cancel culture but said it was misnamed and that we have a consequence culture and consequences were finally encompassing everybody in the society.

    Not applying consequences is the same as taking no action.

    Taking no action against someone who has money and thus power to impact or reduce other people’s access to employment or opportunities allows that person to continue with impunity. Witness Harvey Weinstein and the effects his behaviour had on so many people’s careers. Courtney Love spoke out and her whole career was derailed. She was torn apart in the media because of the power brought to bear against us.

    Every time a predator is revealed, we see how they stifled creativity and professions, if not actual lives, of so many people.

    As a company, the publisher chose to take a stand that was NOT tacit approval of abuse. It’s no different from someone being suspended from a post while investigations are ongoing.

    Elie Wiesel said that “neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” I know this quote so well because I try to live it by supporting injured people who need it. It’s why I had three tenures as a union shop steward.

    People who take no sides end up helping the abuser or oppressor because the victim or persecuted already has their power stolen. We all saw how it worked out for the US in 2016 when idiotic people decided both election candidates were equally bad.

    While innocent until proven guilty is a necessary tenet, the justice system moves slowly and Universal justice is even slower. Victims feel abandoned.

    Individuals or corporations feel the need to take action to distance themselves from identified predators.

    Right now, while everything is coming to light, “business as usual” would not be the right thing.

    As for the art? The art of a living predator and oppressor can wait while the victims and persecuted are given the chance to feel safe and empowered. It often creates safer space for more people to come forward.

    The profit from art of a dead predator can be used to fund reparative and restorative justice, either directly to victims or to organisations doing the work.

    Social justice is necessary for empowerment of the marginalised.

    +18
    1. But what if the content isn’t harmful, isn’t predatory?
      Picasso was an abusive, exploitive bastard to the women in his life; two of them committed suicide. Do we lose Guernica?

      +6
      1. I’m not disagreeing, I genuinely don’t know what’s right, but is it harmful to victims to have their attacker’s work celebrated?

        What does that say to other potential predators or victims?

        What role do we have to protect victims, where that protection either requires a sacrifice (I want to reboot picasso damnit) or causes other harm (how many kids learn to love books through HP). It’s an ethical question – greatest good, individual rights etc.

        +9
        1. That’s the argument for not working with or supporting Woody Allen.

          It’s a really difficult question. I’m going to stick with content distinction because I think creative work has to stand on its own, outside of its creator. I can’t give up Guernica, but then I look at some of the other examples–Woody Allen movies with all those May-December romances–and think, “Yeah, knowing what I know now, I can’t enjoy that work any more.” For somebody like Rowling, the work itself isn’t anti-trans (as I remember) so the work stands for me.

          The other thing to be careful of is that none of this is proven, it’s all accusation. I believe it just because I believe most sexual assault accusations are true (why else would you lay yourself open to the horrible pushback you’re going to get?) and because there are multiple accusers, but that’s not proof.

          +4
          1. The HP books aren’t particularly trans-hating, I guess it’s her newer “adult mystery” books that are, though. Not that I plan on reading them.

            +4
          2. I don’t get it. She’s not homophobic, why the trans hate? It makes no sense.
            Don’t tell me what she’s saying. I don’t want to know. I have enough people in the media I’m furious with, I’ll just fold her in with the rest of them.

            +6
      2. Have you seen Nanette by Hannah Gadsby? I mention it because she specifically talks about the relationship between Picasso being awful and his art. She makes a beautifully well researched and complex argument that really helped clarify the situation for me at least. I’ll try to summarize something from it (though she puts it much better)…

        In the case of artists, there is such a cult of personality involved that it is hard to view the art without it. For instance, if we removed the name Picasso from Guernica, would we have cared about it as much? Would we even know it existed? Would it be worth as much money? Do we need to know it’s by Picasso for us to take it seriously? In which case, isn’t Picasso at the heart of the picture? Regardless of whether we think we can coldly separate them, they’ve been tied together from the first time it was exhibited under his name.

        Coincidentally, I used to go to a pub that had reproductions of art works on the walls. Our regular table was under Guernica and the strange juxtaposition of a pub with such a depressing picture amused us greatly. I suppose we could say that the pub decorators were genuinely able to divorce the art from its context and appreciate it for what it is 😉

        +6
        1. I tend not to think of fame/fan base when I think of creative work because I think that the relationship between a person and a work (song, story, painting,whtever)is personal; it’s the connection that is made between the two. If the work moves a person, enhances that person life, does it matter that the creator was a (fill in the blank).

          I thought about this while writing Faking It: if a work is a forgery, but it’s beautiful and somebody loves it, does it matter that it’s a forgery? If somebody buys a Picasso because it’s a Picasso, they’re buying fame-by-association to impress, not because they connected it with it and love the work itself. They’re forging the connection, the work isn’t letting them down.

          So to get back to Guernica, if it wasn’t by Picasso and one person saw it and connected with it, its work is done; I can’t imagine everybody who saw it not connecting with it, but then I love Guernica. I don’t care how much money it’s worth, I just think it’s breathtaking. So it exists outside of its artist unless the viewer forces the artist into the picture.

          +4
          1. This is true. I’ve seen reproductions of Guernica and found them powerful. But when I stood in front of that immense wall, the terror and violence was overwhelming. Art can be experienced separate from the artist. Think of all those Greek sculptures where no one knew the artist, Laocoon and His Sons, or The Dying Gaul, you can feel the anguish.

            +4
          2. I think that’s it for me in a nutshell: Somebody’s distaste for a horrible human being should not prevent somebody else from the wash of emotion that good art evokes (using art to encompass all creative work). I realize the Roth biography is not Guernica, but I think the argument still stands.

            +2
          3. Yes, and Francoise Gilot had two kids with Picasso, left him, and went on to have a mutually very happy marriage to Jonas Salk. I wouldn’t want to see the art disappear. If it gets to the point where publishers must do background checks on potential authors for character flaws, and base their publishing decisions on the background checks, of course we would be deprived of great art.

            +1
      3. Sorry for late response, was doing reports for end of term one at the start of term two because we only got our curriculum patch a few days before school closed for vacation.

        I say that we shouldn’t conflate deplatforming with censorship.

        This living person has the opportunity to do what they can to promote their art.

        A dead one? Well, it would be nice if the proceeds from their art sales/viewings would be used to help victims of their crime. But some are held in trusts or by heirs until copyright expires.

        In both cases the art still exists.

        The full quote from Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech is “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

        +6
        1. I agree. (I didn’t use “deplatforming,” I’m sure. Not my kind of word.)
          As long as we’re not preventing people from accessing work, we’re not censoring.

          But if the work itself is not evil, is it taking sides to say, “Protect the work?”
          Dr. Seuss is a good example. Some of his illustrations are definitely racist, and those have been pulled. They were good books in the way they were written (as I remember), but the racist imagery was harmful, toxic, so the books had to go. But the ones that weren’t? Horton Hears a Who is about people whose voices aren’t heard.

          Or take my personal conundrum: I love The Grand Sophy, but there’s a section in it that is blatantly anti-Semitic. So do we (a) ignore it [I can’t], cut it from the book or rewrite to remove the toxic [can’t do it, moral rights], or stop publishing the book (and there goes the best Georgette Heyer, which is saying something. I don’t know.

          Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin is misogynist and occasionally homophobic in that casual offhand way that seems innocuous and isn’t, and nothing can be done in a simple rewrite; it’s part of his character. I still read them, I just think less of Archie (and Stout).

          If the author’s toxicity permeates the work, then the work is toxic and should be dealt with.
          If it isn’t toxic, then leave it be. The author isn’t profiting from toxic ideas.

          +3
    2. Thank you – I was having trouble framing the consequences aspect well enough to comment, and this is it.

      For decades (centuries, millennia…), we have been rewarding bullying, predatory, evil jerks, mostly male. This is a course correction, from my perspective. I do see it as a “slippery slope,” but – and this is key – I don’t see that there is any other way to teach that some things just aren’t acceptable other than removing successes and prestige.

      Shunning, though deeply problematic, is a valid way for society to say “nope.”

      The equivalent situation in another arena: There has been a lot of amazing science and discovery done by awful people, and a common argument is “but then we wouldn’t have this amazing, important advance!” To which I reply “how many amazing advances did we lose because people we bullied and harassed out to support this one advance?”

      IDK, this is something I struggle with. I am deeply anti-censorship, but that’s not what this is. It is, finally, a natural consequence. We won’t laud people who are abhorrent (or we shouldn’t), we won’t keep rewarding them with visibility and yet more opportunities, and as a result we will allow others to flourish.

      +9
      1. You’re right, it’s not censorship. They gave him the book back, he’s free to self-publish or take it to another publisher. That’s an important distinction.

        +6
    3. Thank you!!! We live in a patriarchal Silo Culture that has heavily invested in the fallacy that A’s not connected to B, even if they’re right next to each other. This justification of the creator’s character not influencing the creation is a pleasant fiction that many can use as convenient camouflage. ESPECIALLY by predatory men. Such a warped personal perspective is a ripe breeding ground of misogynistic entitlement. WHO you are is intimately tied to WHAT you do because it determines HOW you do it. Especially if you’re a professionally multi-faced camouflager and an expert facade builder. This house of cards we call civilized society has more than enough of those already.

  8. Monica Hesse wrote a very good piece for the Washington Post about this whole thing: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/philip-roth-blake-bailey-women-issues-misogyny/2021/04/23/f53f44ec-a37c-11eb-85fc-06664ff4489d_story.html

    Titled “Philip Roth and the Sympathetic Biographer: This Is How Misogyny Gets Cemented in Our Culture,” her argument boils down to this: “This is how a misogynistic culture is conceptualized, created, cultivated and codified. It doesn’t happen because one dude does a bad thing. It happens when like-minded dudes are allowed to be one another’s gatekeepers, and the gatekeepers of broader culture, when faults are allowed to go unexamined, and so they instead spread…”

    So, 1) perhaps it isn’t that great a biography anyway, unless you’re a white male reader who has no problem with Philip Roth’s dickishness; and 2) maybe a dickish guy like Blake Bailey shouldn’t have been the one to tackle this subject in the first place.

    +11
    1. He wasn’t the first. I think Roth fired the first writer on this book.

      +4
      1. And maybe that speaks volumes about what he was looking for in a biographer …

        +6
    2. Yes, but . . .
      Her take is a bias in itself.

      I read that part about Roth being annoyed because his wife interrupted him to ask him to go out for cheese, and I thought, “I’d have killed her.” Once you’re in the zone writing, the house better be on fire before you’re interrupted. Hesse asks who bought all the other groceries, implying the wife had already done her part. I thought, “Who paid for all the damn groceries by writing, which this dumb ass just made harder?”
      I have no time for Roth, but I’d have been mad, too.

      I agree with Hesse that this biography is probably a paternalistic mess–look at the subject and the author–but not that it shouldn’t be published. That’s like saying romance novels shouldn’t be published because women will start to believe all men are well-endowed heroes. That is, I don’t believe in protective censorship.

      For some reason, this reminds me of my reaction to a John Updike short story called “A&P” that had this in it:
      “You never know for sure how girls’ minds work (do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?). . .”
      I’ve always disliked Updike’s fiction for its preppy paternalism, but that line stuck with me, from the mind of a fictional high school boy, showing me how alien he saw the high school girls he was watching. It’s obnoxious, but it’s good provocative writing. I still don’t like his fiction, but he’s a good writer, and I don’t think he shouldn’t be read because I don’t like his outlook.

      I get the idea that we’re surrounded by anti-feminist white males who have pressed their views of the world on us for hundreds of years; I just don’t get the idea that they shouldn’t be published because their heads are up their asses.

      +8
      1. To steal a line from Leverage, I think this is a case where we need to take the mob out of it. (In this case, “the mob” being “the publishing industry).

        Essentially, this is a business partnership dissolving. An author and a publisher entered into a contract for mutual financial gain. The publisher then decided to exit the partnership before the completion of the project. If the contract was broken when that happened, that’s a legal problem, and the author has the right to sue. If the contract was not violated when the publisher dissolved the partnership, then this is no different from every other business partnership that doesn’t end up working out for one reason or another.

        I think making and experiencing art is a unique practice deserving of special protections (i.e., free speech). But I think the process of selling art is ultimately just another business, and should be treated as such.

        +15
      2. In the 1980s I kept meeting John and his son. Charlie. I’d run into him at a cocktail parties and at one time he me about his new book “ Witches of Eastwick.” Updike is funny, charming and his books bear no resemblance whatsoever to his description of them. He thinks he is sympathetic to women.he truly believes he’s a feminist.

        +7
  9. I think it’s a complicated topic and people are bringing up a lot of valid points. For me, it helps to separate an issue like this into specific questions.

    As an individual, is it ok to consume/ purchase existing art created by an abuser/rapist? I think it’s up to the individual. Some people can mentally separate the work from the creator. Some people can’t. It’s good to avoid giving money to abusers. On the other hand, there are other people who worked on that project who probably don’t deserve to have their royalties plummet. Basically, I think both options are understandable and morally defensible.

    As a company, is it ok to pay a known abuser lots of money for their work? I think in this case the nature of the thing the person is being canceled/held to account for really matters. Say two celebrities get in a fight and they both come out looking like out-of-touch assholes. Or the story about Ann Rand refusing to loan her niece money for a prom dress (if I remember correctly) because Rand considered learning self-sufficiency a more important gift. Giving those people more money is not going to increase the odds that they hurt the people around them, because the way they are hurting people is garden-variety rudeness/general selfishness. It’s not rooted in an abuse of power. Things like emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, political corruption, etc. are rooted in an abuse of power. If the act the person is being canceled/held accountable for is rooted in an abuse of power, then for me this question comes down to, “Is it ethical to give someone who has grossly misused their power more power?” I think most of the time the answer is no. In a society where money and fame give you more power, paying and marketing someone’s work is not a neutral act if that person has a history of abusing power.

    Next question: Is it morally acceptable to pull a book from the shelves/ stop publishing/ stop marketing/ etc. based on the author’s behavior? Eh. There’s a lot to be said about this one, (Who might get the shelf space/ marketing dollars instead? What type of precedent does this set for other authors with controversial reputations?) but I think ultimately it’s a business decision, especially now that self-publishing is so simple. No one has the right to be published by a major publisher. And if you think your book has something to offer the world, or that people deserve to buy it, presumably you can self-publish it. If a publishing house won’t publish a work they bought AND won’t let the author get the rights back and publish it themselves, that feels much more like censorship. But simply not publishing a thing feels like fair game.

    I think in general, I’m skeptical of the slippery slope argument. The fact that millions of people can be into BDSM while also working really hard to end rape culture shows that our culture is better at context and nuance than I think many of us think. It’s good to be wary of mob energy and group-think. But I simply don’t buy the argument that halting publishing on a book because a person is accused of abuse will lead to halting publishing on a book because an author is accused of being bitchy.

    +12
    1. I doubt a publisher could refuse to revert the rights if they’ve refused to publish the book. There’s a contract; and I’m sure the rights would automatically revert. The printed copies would belong to the publisher. I guess the author would benefit from the editing the publisher provided. But your point about self-publishing was my immediate thought, too.

      +5
  10. I don’t think we should equate between a person and his/her creation. Those are two different things, and sometimes, the creation reflects a better part of its creator than his/her personal conduct. As if all their best qualities were put to one side, used up in creation, and then shut up to recharge, while the creators go about their everyday lives.
    Besides, sometimes sexual assault accusations are lies, and the accusers do it to attract attention. I know a man. He was a high school teacher. One of his students accused him of sexual assault, but it wasn’t true. Nevertheless, the police got involved, he lost his job, and he and his family were forced to move before it all straightened out. The girl lied, but the man’s life was ruined.

    +4
    1. False reporting is definitely an important risk to consider. I can’t find the article now, but I remember reading that people falsely report rape at roughly the same rate as they would falsely report that they’ve been robbed, assaulted, or been the victim of some other type of crime. So it definitely happens, but it’s very rare.

      This is an older article, but it has some good information about the rates of false reporting, and why even those results may be falsely inflated because of inconsistent rules for police reporting. https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/03/health/sexual-assault-false-reports/index.html

      But I know what you mean about how having something like that happen to someone you know has a way of outweighing any statistic. After one of my best friends was raped, I had a hard time believing any rape accusation could possibly be false. It took me a while to be able to read news stories about rape accusations on their own merit, instead of immediately viewing it through the lens of what happened to my friend.

      +8
  11. What a great discussion. I tried to read Roth long ago and hated it. Didn’t he treat women in his books poorly? I don’t remember but I had no use for him. NI ow I see people protesting political books by horrible people. I seem to share Jenny’s opinion on our last president and imagine the Pence book will be full of untruths. Should they publish it?

    +5
    1. I, for one, do not buy books of any stripe written by or ghost-written for any politician or their family members, of any party unless they have been in the grave at least 50 years. It’s not that I think Pence’s book will be more fiction than fact.There’s nothing he has to say that holds any interest for me.

      +9
  12. For me, if someone with a desk job were found to be a sexual predator and abuser, they’d likely be fired. So in this case the job is being a writer. The writer was found to be a sexual abuser and predator, so he needs to be fired.

    Just being a run of the mill asshole, that’s different. Lots of assholes have jobs. But sexual abuse and predation are illegal and immoral. If the pilot of my flight were a sexual abuser and predator, I’d want that person off the job. I hope that any organization would hold its employees accountable for illegal and immoral behavior, including publishers.

    +11
    1. Yes, but if it were somebody with a desk job, that person would have a physical presence and would possibly be a danger to others.
      The author is on the far side of the printed page, not posing a physical threat to the reader. (Emotional threats, we’re back to content of the work.)

      +2
      1. For me it’s not about content, it’s about committing a crime. It’s that simple for me. I won’t watch any Roman Polanski work (the man belongs in jail) and stopped bothering with Woody Allen as soon as he sexually abused his teenage step daughter. Criminal behavior like that is horrifying and I won’t be part of a system that ignores that behavior because the person committing it is talented.

        +4
        1. Right, but punish the crime, not the work. Put them both in jail, shun them, and if you can’t separate them from the work, shun that, too, but don’t bar the work from people who can separate creator and creation; don’t deprive them of the work.

          +4
      2. The trouble is, they can’t keep themselves out of their books. I thought JK Rowling was pretty harmless in book form until I read some extracts from her latest where she was clearly using the book to push her agenda on trans people. It’s not even subtle, just a straight out caricature made of things people fear. Whereas someone in an office has limited range, this book reaches thousands of people or more in one go.

        +5
        1. God yes, the new one is awful and an excellent illustration of how publishers are businesses and not moral adjudicators. But HP, I mean, other than the fact that Hermione is the actual hero, and my romance heart vociferously objects to her ending up with Ron (internal scream every time I think of it), isn’t.

          Of course, all this is in awareness that there’s a whole lot of (ahem, wrong ;p) people (terfs) who also think they are right, and that’s what we do as society, right? Discuss, set standards, evolve – and get pissy when they evolve in directions we don’t like!

          +4
        2. In that case, the work itself is toxic and should be pulled, not because of who wrote it but because it’s harmful in and of itself.

          I would not deprive generations of children of the fun of Harry Potter because Rowling turned out to be trans-phobic. The Potter books aren’t.

          +5
        3. Acquire enough fame and your publisher becomes more and more reluctant to edit your manuscripts!

          Example from science fiction: Robert A. Heinlein, whose early juvenile works may have been over censored (I read the uncut version of one and really couldn’t see why the editor wanted to bowdlerize it; I thought it would have been fine in a parsonage nursery), but whose later works, especially when his health took a ding, really should have been edited much more toughly.

          +2
  13. Very interesting discussion. The legal relationship between author and publisher means there is precedent for how the contract is or isn’t fulfilled. So consequences will be faced.

    I prefer answers — Al Franken lost his career without a single investigation completed. “While under investigation” might take a long time, but I believe that only a just inquiry will reveal the truth. By “just” I mean that I don’t buy investigations done by private groups. Institutions are too biased to justly judge their own, especially when they don’t make information public. (One example of what I’m referring to is the case of churches deciding whether their employees are sex offenders: why isn’t rape/molestation prosecuted by the state?)

    Tonight my husband and I were discussing the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma. Why aren’t people going to jail for having destroyed countless lives? Where are the consequences?

    +6
  14. I do understand your concern. But I have no obligation as a consumer to give someone I don’t like my money, especially when it goes to support their lifestyle and to enhance their power and ability to harm other people. Neither does the publisher.

    +7
    1. Oh, absolutely.
      I just don’t think the publisher should take that decision out of your hands.
      Look at it this way, now Bailey and his cohort think he’s a martyr. If book sales had fallen after the allegations, he wouldn’t have been a martyr, he’d have been rejected by the public. Much more powerful.

      +4
      1. His book is still going to be available in audio form from a separate publisher in the US and in print in other countries. So that may still happen.

        +4
          1. Or rather that other people can publish it if they want—even if they weren’t going to.

            +2
      2. Except the publishers then run the risk of tarnish by association. They have to consider their image and brand, and also the financial impact of losing money on a book that they’re pretty sure will be rejected by the public.

        +2
    2. Agreed. If the publisher doesn’t want to make money from this then I’m fine with their decision. I can well understand if they don’t want to be associated with it, or look to be supporting the author in any way. Certainly no one has a right to be published through traditional print media.

      +5
  15. In general, I agree that morally corrupt people can produce good content.

    In this case, I read the victims’ side in Slate and I believe them. He taught at middle school and encouraged them to write about their personal and romantic/early sexual experiences when they were 12. They have published photos of their diaries and his extensive comments. Then he kept in touch with them and, after they turned 17, raped at least 2 of them and met up with others in hopes of having sex with them too.

    At least one of them was an aspiring writer who relied on his literary opinion. All of them were originally tweens and teens looking for his approval.

    Then he became a powerful author who wrote a bio of a probable misogynist. Power begetting power once more.

    The first of his victims spoke up because she couldn’t stand it anymore.

    I can’t speak for that publisher, but if I owned that company, I would have shut him down too. I wouldn’t want to be associated with someone who grooms 12-year-olds and rapes them a few years later (while he was married, by the way, and they thought they were safe because he was their teacher).

    There are other talented writers who never get the spotlight and the advance. Let them shine instead.

    +21
  16. I’m stuck on the fence with this question.

    Firstly, it hasn’t yet been proven in court that he has done this. I’m not saying he didn’t just that it hasn’t been proven yet. Presumed innocence is one of the fundamentals of democratic judicial systems, but what’s happening more and more is trial by social media, which assumes guilt, rather than waiting for a court to decide.

    However, it’s a business’ right to decide who they want to deal with, I’d be curious to know though, did they decide not to publish the book, because they were afraid of public backlash, or because they thought that no-one would be interested in the book, so saving any potential losses.

    We have had a case in Aust, where a well known chef, who is a big believer of Paleo and has written many books on it, posted an anti Semitic image on his twitter feed, which when someone pointed it out, he made some smirky comment in reply, and left the image up. The backlash was pretty strong, resulting in his publisher saying that they didn’t want to deal with him anymore and were pulling his books from shelves – and encouraged booksellers to do the same. He’d had a bad case of foot in mouth disease on other topics (cures for Covid being one), prior to that point, but I was always curious whether the publisher was pulling the books because they’d had enough, or whether the backlash was bad enough that they decided it was easier to pull his books.

    +6
    1. There’s also the guilt-by-association. This person is, in his own words, a racist, do we want to be associated with racists? Saying “but he’s really good act explaining Paleo” smacks of “good people on both sides” (no, there are no good Nazis).

      +6
      1. I firmly believe in innocent until proven guilty. But it’s a standard for criminal law. It’s not the right standard for whether to publish a book. I think there is something in between taking one allegation at face value and requiring a full criminal case before acting. Also on sexual harassment cases or any case where people put themselves at risk when tbey make the allegation (eg police brutality subjecting people to retaliation) the allegation should get more weight because it’s more likely to be trustworthy.

  17. PS forgot to say, Jenny, arghink is not a bitchy space at all! So you can’t be all that bad.

    “It actually doesn’t take much to be considered a difficult woman. That’s why there are so many of us.” Jane Goodall

    +12
  18. God yes, the new one is awful and an excellent illustration of how publishers are businesses and not moral adjudicators. But HP, I mean, other than the fact that Hermione is the actual hero, and my romance heart vociferously objects to her ending up with Ron (internal scream every time I think of it), isn’t.

    Of course, all this is in awareness that there’s a whole lot of (ahem, wrong ;p) people (terfs) who also think they are right, and that’s what we do as society, right? Discuss, set standards, evolve – and get pissy when they evolve in directions we don’t like!

    +4
    1. I think it’s a shame that JKR was insistent that everyone marry a Weasley. Ginny’s nice but doesn’t get much personality shown, and I do not get why a “fight fight fight” relationship would appeal to anyone.

      Then again, would we have ever heard of “Hermione Granger and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by Joanne Rowling? Sigh.

      +3
      1. I think we would have. Novik’s A Deadly Education is doing just fine with a female protagonist, and once she gets the next two out, I think the series will be huge. I think the thing that sold the Potter books was outrage: Harry’s such a nice guy and he has an abusive home life and real evil is targeting him and it’s just not fair . . . that would have worked just as well if he’d been a Harriet. Hermione doesn’t get as much outrage because she’s powerful; she’s taunted an Other/Muggle, but she’s not persecuted like Harry.

        Of course, I think A Deadly Education is better than Potter, so factor that in.

        +9
        1. In general, girls are happy to read books with male protagonists at a higher rate than boys are willing to read books with female protagonists. It’s a problem (fiction being a way to see from others’ perspectives), but it also means that HP had a more universal appeal, and there are great female characters (lots, not just Hermione).

          +4
          1. That’s very true. It’s the problem of the Other.
            It’s because women live in a man’s world and are therefore forced to understand that world; men can ignore women’s realities because they don’t have to live in that world (until now, thank you, MeToo).

            I’ve always thought that Lady Macbeth died because she didn’t understand the different between her understanding of her husband’s world and his. She was used to him coming home covered with blood; his work was killing people. So when he was betrayed by his king, her solution was for him to kill the enemy, that was what he did. He’d been betrayed and she loved him and wanted him to get what he deserved. What she didn’t understand was that there were very clear rules about whom you could kill; if he killed the king, he was a traitor not a hero, doomed to Hell. So you get that great scene where he kills the king (and very clearly commits moral suicide) and comes out and she has to go back into the room to incriminate the guards. which gets blood on her hands. And she handles it all while Macbeth slowly goes mad from guilt until he kills Lady MacDuff and her little children. She pushed him to cross his line, and he crossed hers: You don’t kill women and children, you don’t bring your work home from the office. And she realizes what she’s done to the man she loves, she realizes that she’s responsible for all the death and the insanity of her soul mate, and she goes mad with guilt and grief. She did not understand his world.

            I think that’s why I’ve always liked that bees-in-a-jar line from A&P: it’s a male comtemplating a female world that’s a mystery to him and dismissing it as not something he needs to care about.

            +3
        2. I think the key thing here is the timing. Naomi Novik’s book is recent. The Potter books started in what, the 90’s? These days, it wouldn’t have been a problem. Back then it was clear enough to deny Joanne putting her own girly first name on her books.

          +1
  19. What a great post! I’ve loved reading every comment, and I’m so glad that there are so many thoughtful people thinking hard about some of the most complicated issues that our current societies are grappling with.

    I bristle every time I hear someone I consider an extremist carp about “cancel culture.”

    It bugs me in the same way the term “women’s libber” used to drive me crazy. I think the most interesting, but difficult part about these issues is that they are so time-related. Ten years ago Whedon was a social benefactor bringing queer-friendly and oddball-friendly stories to the national stage, but now the new information about his behind-the-scenes behavior, as well as a broad social consensus that was partly spread through the Me Too movement has given his name a “yuck” flavor that bothers many people.

    It’s all related to the kind of drama we’re seeing around Remove the statues?/Keep the statues! or Founding fathers Racist Creeps/Founding fathers revered symbols of freedom.

    I don’t think there’s an easy answer to a lot of the individual cases or situations. I pretty much second Jenny’s nuanced view of separating the creations from the creators wherever possible, but social change like we’re seeing is so dynamic, so multifaceted, that it’s hard to see a clear, defensible posture on all the canceling questions being raised these days. I just hope we can all find ways to discuss them without getting all snotty and superior and pointing fingers loudly while yelling “shame!” about the other side of any given issue.

    +7
    1. Sure Thing said that LaVar Burton suggested replacing “cancel culture” with “consequence culture.” I liked that.

      For one thing, it means we can discuss a spectrum of consequences, appropriate consequences.

      As in, if somebody shoplifts, is death an appropriate consequence?

      If somebody is an abusive sexist pig, should all his creative work be banned and destroyed?

      How about if he’s a rapist? Does he go to jail? Hell, yes. Should all his work be banned and destroyed if it doesn’t promote rape and abuse?

      I really like weighing the consequences, especially if the work, not the author, is what’s being weighed.

      +5
  20. I agree with Jenny. I’m also leary of well-timed accusation bombs designed to, if not destroy, then derail another’s success. I’m not a fan of Andrew Cuomo but I definitely see the potential for derailing him politically because some forces want him out of the way. Or he really is that pig in the office. Or it’s both! There’s a lot of amazing accomplishments performed by people who majorally eff’d up or who had feet of clay in the relationships department: Einstein, Picasso, Wellington, Bonaparte, Patton, Robert the Bruce, Genghis Khan, Dickens, Lindbergh, my ex-husband. We can’t cancel them all out even if the deserved some 2×4 management. I dunno. I can only look back to the French Revolution, the reign of terror and Robespierre.

    +10
  21. This Blake Bailey character had a right to write his book, even if he is proven to be a sexual predator. The book is not, after all, about ‘my life as a sexual predator.’ It’s about an author some people (not including me) consider an important voice in American literary history.

    Norton had a right to acquire the book; they also have a right to say, after it turns out that supporting said book may give the impression they’re tacitly approving the actions of a sexual predator, ‘nope, not putting any more time/money into this, see ya.’

    JKR has a right to be transphobic; I have the right to not buy any more of her books. I still think the HP books have value. Same with Orson Scott Card; he may be a homophobe, and since I found out about that I have ceased to be interested in him as a writer – but ‘Ender’s Game’ is still a damn good book. Lord Byron was a total dick; his poetry is still kind of great.

    There are tons of writers (musicians, actors, artists) out there whose every philosophical position I may not agree with. If they have not committed actual crimes, they are welcome to their shitty opinions, because I don’t have to engage with them.

    If they express their shitty opinions in a way that qualifies as an actual crime (simple assault, hate speech, harassment, doxxing), I’m delighted to see law enforcement do its thing.

    And if an author is outed as a shitty human being (and possibly a criminal) before his book is fully positioned for the patriarchal publishing establishment’s circle jerk, you know, yay.

    +6
  22. This is just a reaction: King Duncan didn’t betray Macbeth as far as I know. However, you, Macbeth, and/or Lady Macbeth may have interpreted Duncan’s choice of his son as his heir as a betrayal. I totally agree with your argument that Lady Macbeth was operating on a different understanding of the cost of murder than Macbeth was — I wish I had read your analysis when I was teaching the play. (Now that’s a book that should have been written: Jenny Crusie Explains English Literature: a primer for high school teachers. I so wish you had done it.)

    +4
    1. I loved teaching Macbeth. You can get a great discussion out of the third murderer alone.

      Duncan betrayed not only Macbeth but his country. From the critical stuff I read, Scotland didn’t have primogeniture; they chose the strongest man to be king. Macbeth was not only his general-in-charge, he’d let them to victories. Instead of a strong man who understood both court and battle, Duncan chose a seventeen-year-old boy to be king, probably with the understanding that Macbeth would support him. Not worth a death sentence, I agree, but Lady Macbeth thought differently.

      +5
  23. Neither agreeing or disagreeing, but it occurs to me that there is a similarity here to media that allow inflammatory personalities. All the disclaimers in the world won’t keep people from making an association.

    And I’m not claiming the publisher is taking any kind of high road or anything, but they do have their reputation to think of. And possibly liability? Don’t know how that works but they must have already invested in the book, so a decision to cancel likely has some financial aspect to it.

    In the end, they obviously had contractual language that allowed them to back out, so they have the right to do so for whatever reason.

    +2
    1. Oh, they have the legal right.
      We’re just talking about whether it was the right thing to do. Legal right does not always equal moral right.

      +2
  24. Excellent post, awesome thoughtful comments – thanks Jenny & fellow Arghers!

    +2

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