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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

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Should We 'Cancel' That Roth Biographer Just Because He's A Creep?

As a rule, I read few biographies, and certainly not of authors, people whose most significant life events are spent alone. In my case, Churchill, Swift, and Dostoyevsky are the exceptions that prove the rule; world-historical figures who can't be understood outside the context of their times.

So I'd already decided not to bother with Blake Bailey's ballyhooed new book, Philip Roth: The Biography—even though Roth was a friendly acquaintance who'd given me help and encouragement way back when. After all, his novels were semi-autobiographical; his memoirs a veritable hall of mirrors.

I agreed entirely with what Bill Clinton said in awarding Roth the National Medal of Arts: "What James Joyce did for Dublin, what William Faulkner did for Yoknapatawpha County, Philip Roth has done for Newark." (Actually, historian Eric Alterman wrote the lines.) Roth rendered the city's dense particularity universal through the stories he told.

To know Roth at his best, read his 1997 novel American Pastoral, a penetrating portrayal of the "the indigenous American berserk" of the 1960s.

Actually, it was Newark that got us acquainted. I'd reviewed his baseball book The Great American Novel, stressing that he wasn't so much a "Jewish novelist"—a label he resisted—as a "New Jersey regionalist."

New Jersey, the Smart Aleck State.

He wrote asking how somebody in Arkansas knew all that, and urged me to expand upon the theme. The result was an essay called "The Artificial Jewboy," about growing up Irish-Catholic among Jews in neighboring Elizabeth. (One character in American Pastoral, a former Miss New Jersey, has my exact biography, right down to St. Genevieve's parish.) My essay contains more clumsy sentences and awkward kicks at the stars than the rest of the book it's printed in. But Roth saw something worthwhile and helped get it published. I've remained eternally grateful.

He'd even helped me see an aspect of my wife's character I'd taken for granted. After a long lunch at his country place in Connecticut, we'd gone for a walk in the woods. An excellent mimic, Roth could be terribly funny. He got Diane in a single take. What he liked most about her, he said, was her reserve.

"She doesn't care how famous I am," he said. "She's trying to figure out if she likes me in spite of it."

He thought that she hadn't yet decided.

That's Diane, who tended to be leery of literary narcissists based upon a couple of hard-drinking celebrity authors we'd encountered along the way.

Through her daddy the coach, I told him, she'd grown up knowing famous ballplayers. Roth respected that. Groupies are the bane of all famous people.

Anyway, although we'd lost touch years before he died in 2018, I figured I had no need to read his biography.

I knew he'd had a couple of terrible marriages; for all his perceptiveness, he appeared to have terrible judgement about women. Or maybe it was a two-way street, as in my experience of life, it normally is. He'd always had fierce critics among feminists and professional Jews: the very fiercest have tended to be both.

A literary provocateur, Roth was far too easily provoked.

How bitterly ironic, then, that his seeming need to win arguments even after death led him to choose an authorized biographer who, within weeks of his book's successful launch, stood accused of rape and everything short of child molesting by a chorus of women—many of whom he'd pursued starting when they were his eighth grade students in a New Orleans middle school.

Faced with those accusations, which Blake Bailey and his attorney vigorously (if none too persuasively) deny, publisher W.W. Norton abruptly took the book out of print. At one level, the affair resembles Roth's novel The Human Stain, about a professor hounded for using the word "spook" (in the sense of "ghost") to describe missing students who turned out to be Black.

Is it right to "cancel" a book because the author's a creep? Put that way, no. The book exists independent of its author. As Eric Alterman puts it, "Many writers are terrible people. (I am perhaps not so great, myself.)"

I'll second that.

Or at least I would have before reading Eve Payton Crawford's Slate essay about Blake Bailey, her eighth grade teacher who raped her when she was a college girl of 19. "You really can't blame me," he said when she cried. "I've wanted you since the day we met."

She was 12 that day. "I still wore underwear with Minnie Mouse on them," Crawford writes. Along with an exhaustively-reported companion piece titled "Mr. Bailey's Class," Slate depicts a sexual predator in action, flattering young teens and becoming deeply involved in their personal lives for years before making his move.

A very sick puppy who made the mistake of soliciting fame, and the fate of whose Philip Roth biography interests me not at all.

Goodbye, Philip Roth: The Passing Of A Great American Novelist

The recent death of Philip Roth, America’s greatest living novelist, came as a shock. Although he was 85, and had written movingly of his failing health, the strength of his voice never faltered. “Old age isn’t a battle,” Roth wrote in his 2007 novel Everyman.  “Old age is a massacre.”

 A few years later, he’d made a wry joke about his forthcoming obituary: “Even in death, you get a bad review!”

 And so it was. Scarcely had news of Roth’s death registered among his millions of readers than both the New York Times and Washington Post weighed in with columns complaining of his literary sins. Both read like parodies of the kind of moralistic cant his work had always inspired.

In the Times, one Dara Horn complained that Roth failed to accurately portray persons like herself: “The Jewish New Jersey women I know are talented professionals in every field, and often in those two thankless professions that Roth quite likely required to thrive: teachers and therapists,” she scolded. Alas, the novelist “never had the imagination to give these women souls.”

Horn gave no sign of having read anything more recent than the anarchic 1969 satire Portnoy’s Complaint, leaving her roughly 30 books behind.

The Post weighed in with an essay by a male literary scholar at Notre Dame University agonizing about “the problem of aggressively heterosexual white men in American literature.”

Sigh. If the professors haven’t killed off American literature yet, it’s surely not for lack of trying.

On the other hand, maybe my kvetching about a couple of dopey columns in the face of the great outpouring of heartfelt responses Roth’s death inspired  makes me uncomfortably like one of his obsessed, irascible characters. The Times Book Review assembled a list of writers as various as Michael Lewis, Stephen King, Daphne Merkin, Richard Ford, and Joyce Carol Oates— 23 in all—to weigh in on their favorite Roth novels. 

For me, it’s My Life as a Man, along with Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 novel American Pastoral, an elegiac saga of American lives coming apart during the Vietnam years—a psychic wound that’s nowhere close to healing. It’s the story of how a man, a family, and a city can seemingly have everything, and then suddenly nothing under the awful pressure of what Roth called “the indigenous American berserk.”

American Pastoral will be read as long as people read novels.

We’d fallen out of touch in recent years, Philip and I. Back in 1973, I’d written a review of his baseball book The Great American Novel in the Arkansas Gazette. It argued that Roth was not so much a “Jewish” writer as a New Jersey regionalist—a state perched on the ragged edge of the continent, half-immigrant and half-midwestern. Unofficial motto: “Oh yeah, who says?”

A place where everybody was on the edge of becoming something else, where chutzpah was a virtue, and aggravating specimens like Roth’s frantic onanist Alexander Portnoy were everywhere. To my surprise, Roth wrote asking how somebody in Little Rock knew so much about New Jersey.

After an exchange of letters, he invited me to visit him at his East 79th Street apartment the next time I came to Manhattan. We got on easily. Phillip was a warm, witty conversationalist. He offered to help me place an essay called “The Artificial Jewboy”—the title cribbed from Flannery O’Connor, the themes from Portnoy —about growing up Irish Catholic in a Jewish neighborhood.

“So they said things about the goyim at the Portnoy dinner table as we said about the kikes—and apparently with a good deal more frequency and less ambivalence,” I wrote. “So what? I knew that already.”

It was Portnoy’s struggles with ethnic tribalism that I’d found liberating. Jewish? Irish? Everybody’s grandma knew how to fasten a straight-jacket.

Today, the piece strikes me as pretentious juvenilia. Even so, Philip saw promise, made a few suggestions, and persuaded Moment, a Jewish literary magazine, to publish it—the only kind of periodical that could have risked doing so. He helped with other essays too, and vouched for me with editors I’d never have approached on my own.

Many owed him a similar debt of gratitude; the writers and editors Roth nurtured are legion.

A year or two later, Diane and I visited Philip at his retreat in the Connecticut Berkshires. On a walk in the woods, he complimented my wife to me—an Arkansas girl occasionally patronized to her face by New England academics. He liked it that she wasn’t awed by his fame, and hadn’t yet decided what she thought of him apart from it.

I mentioned her childhood friendship with Brooks Robinson, the Hall of Fame baseball player. Philip Roth wasn’t her first celebrity.

But America’s infamous literary misogynist had grasped her emotional integrity in a single take, and told me how lucky I was to have her.