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Is biography having its very own reckoning?

Blake Bailey has become the latest figure to allegedly fall foul of the uncompromising moral standards of American publishing

Artillery Row

Juvenal famously wrote in his sixth Satire: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes”, which can be translated as, “Who watches the watchmen?” If Juvenal had been aware of the cult of biography that has developed over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, he might have retooled his expression as “Quis custodiet ipsos auctores”, or “Who will watch the writers?”

It has long been the role of the biographer to sit and pass judgement on his or her subject, whether implicitly or explicitly. Perhaps few have gone so far as Roger Lewis, who described one subject, the author Anthony Burgess, as “a complete fucking fool” and “a pretentious prick”. But they have composed their elegantly damning, or ecstatically approving, judgements without fear that they, too, might be pilloried one day.

It has not helped Bailey’s case that his latest subject was regarded as a thoroughgoing misogynist

This has now reached its own reckoning with the recent news that Blake Bailey, the author of the authorised biography of Philip Roth, has been accused of sexual misconduct. Although the offences that have been levelled at Bailey have nothing directly to do with his latest book, instead relating to purported misbehaviour stretching back decades, it seems unfortunate timing that the allegations have emerged around the publication of his most high-profile title, rather than, say, in 2009, when his magisterial life of John Cheever was published. The counter-argument, of course, is that if the accusations had been made a dozen years ago, that they would have been ignored or belittled, and that it is only in today’s climate they will be given the serious contemplation they deserve.

It has not helped Bailey’s case that his latest subject was regarded as a thoroughgoing misogynist, and that his own relationships with women, detailed at some length and not without sympathy in the new biography, would almost certainly have seen him held up to far greater scrutiny in both literary and professional circles than they did in his heyday. Although Bailey’s biography of Roth was published to critical acclaim in both Britain and America — the Washington Post called it “A colourful, confident and uncompromising biographical triumph” — there was a lingering suspicion from some reviewers that Bailey had been too soft on his subject. Roth, they argued, deserved excoriation, not explanation. And now Bailey’s downfall has squared the circle.

A subsequent piece in the Washington Post stated:

We all can be swayed by the skilful, gently persuasive phrasing that good writers know how to employ, and both Roth and Bailey are very good writers. 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.

The chance of anyone else high-profile choosing to produce his books in future is precisely nil

The question of whether Bailey is responsible for the crimes that he is accused of has been, for his American publisher WW Norton, an essentially irrelevant one. Their first response to the allegations was to pause publication of a book that had already sold thousands of copies, and now it has been pulped altogether, along with Bailey’s 2014 memoir, The Splendid Things We Planned. Around 50,000 copies had been printed, but only a small proportion will have been sold: literary biography, no matter how high-profile its author and subject, does not usually fly off the shelves with the alacrity of the new James Patterson or JK Rowling. Norton, after announcing that they were matching Bailey’s six-figure advance with a payment to charities that support victims of sexual abuse, left the most damning line until last: “Mr Bailey will be free to seek publication elsewhere if he chooses.”

If an author, even one as hitherto distinguished as Blake Bailey, is publicly and humiliatingly cancelled by his publisher over sexual abuse allegations, the chance of anyone else high-profile choosing to produce his books in future is precisely nil. He was also dropped by his literary agency, who terminated their relationship “even after we learned of the disturbing allegations”. Bailey has vehemently denied the allegations, which his lawyer has called “absurd, false and hurtful”, but he has become the latest figure to fall foul of the uncompromising moral standards of American publishing.

A similar issue arose last year over Woody Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing, which was cancelled by the Hachette Book Group after staff walked out in protest, and it was eventually published by the small independent publisher Arcade. Perhaps Bailey’s (by all accounts definitive) Roth biography will find a similar home. It is more likely, especially if the allegations against him are found to have substance, that it will disappear from view in America, and the relatively few copies that have been distributed will one day become collectors’ items, or testaments to their writer’s (and subject’s) infamy.

The situation in British publishing remains, both in general and in this instance, more nuanced. Bailey’s book is released in this country by Vintage, a division of the multinational Penguin Random House, and a spokesperson, while taking care to describe the allegations as “extremely serious and concerning”, also noted that, “At this stage they remain allegations, and we continue to publish Philip Roth: the Biography. We are assessing the situation closely.”

This would seem the right approach. If Bailey was to be convicted of the serious offences that he has been accused of, then it would be difficult, in the current climate, to continue to publish his work, although DJ Taylor made the convincing argument in The Times that a vast number of much-admired writers would today be cancelled for unacceptable behaviour, and called Norton’s actions “a new low in pusillanimity”. But if Bailey is innocent, then the witch-hunt against him is both professionally and personally devastating, to say nothing of depriving readers of the opportunity to read the definitive biography of a major American writer.

Bailey has been damned: both by association and by accusation

My first reaction to the downfall of Blake Bailey was to find it ironic that a writer chronicling the life of a “difficult” man should, in his turn, be accused of similarly appalling behaviour. But the precedent that has been set in his treatment is a disturbing one. I wrote two lives of Lord Rochester and Lord Byron, men who treated women (and other men) in appalling and exploitative ways, and indeed one critic said of my treatment of Rochester that I was “clearly charmed by his subject, at times uncomfortably so”. I plead guilty to such a charge. Today, I would approach the book, and its protagonist, differently.

But I would have hoped that nobody would take my interest in such literary figures as somehow symptomatic of my own perverted credentials, any more than one might imagine that a biographer of Jack the Ripper or Fred West might themselves wish to engage in serial murder in between finishing drafts. Yet Bailey has been damned: both by association and by accusation. It only remains to be seen whether future biographers tread any more carefully in their own choice of subjects. And it now seems quite clear that we have our answer, regrettable though it might be, to “Quis custodiet ipsos auctores.”

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