I guess anyone reading this will be familiar with the scandal surrounding Philip Roth and Blake Bailey, the biographer Roth handpicked to secure his legacy. Since that book’s publication, Bailey has been accused of multiple rapes, child grooming, and serial sexual harassment. There’s no way to know if Roth knew about any of that; perhaps he just vibed with it. What is certain is that Roth didn’t anticipate this type of public scandal would sully the book, and by extension his own reputation. This is widely understood to be a shame, both for Roth and a world full of people who wish to understand him. But I wonder if it was providence.
There’s a whole Internet full of takes out there about what the Roth/Bailey relationship means or implies about literature, and publishing, and academia, and criticism, and the fraught art of biography. (In summary: nothing good.) But there’s also the idea, a consensus even, among scholars and critics that Roth’s reputation and legacy don’t deserve to be closely tied to Blake Bailey for all eternity. There are many ways I could describe this view, but above all, it’s ahistorical.
Was Roth a misogynist? This question, which has long been on the table, is shallow and misguided. It’s more illuminating to consider the ways in which some of Roth’s actions were misogynistic. To that end, in a NYT article wondering “What Happens to Philip Roth’s Legacy Now?” a suggestive little sentence caught my eye:
Roth also gave Bailey copies of two unpublished manuscripts, “Notes for My Biographer,” a 295-page rebuttal of his ex-wife Claire Bloom’s 1996 memoir, and “Notes on a Slander-Monger,” a response to the notes and interviews Miller had compiled.
These two items are among the texts that the Philip Roth estate is actively suppressing from the public (and might eventually destroy, per Roth’s wishes). They’re now at the center of a second scandal tied to the Roth estate. I suppose it’s actually a third scandal, if you count the “censorship” of Bailey’s book by Norton. As ever, discussions about “censorship” and intellectual freedom tend to co-opt narratives that are, at heart, about sexual criminality. This is not an accident.
While I think the bald facts in that sentence quoted above really speak for themselves, let’s consider the materials under discussion more closely for just a moment. First, we have an unpublished novel-length manuscript—not a memoir, but a “rebuttal” to his ex-wife’s memoir—that was not meant for public access. Roth did not choose to share this particular story in his own voice, though apparently the manuscript was originally slated for publication (and only pulled on the advice of Roth’s friends). Beyond those minimal details, we can only speculate about why. I can certainly see the appeal of putting out his side of the story posthumously, through a proxy, in an official biography. It has a patina of objectivity and the imprimatur of canon. Roth’s ex-wife’s memoir, on the other hand, was characterized in its time as bitter, exploitative, and dubious, even if her portrait of Roth as a misogynist hit a nerve with readers (Roth himself most of all).
Second, “Notes on a Slander-Monger,” a collection of Roth’s “unpublished essays on such subjects as money, marriage and illness, and a list of his relationships with women, with commentary,” is owned (but not fully controlled) by Princeton University. These materials are currently locked down and inaccessible to researchers or anyone else, at the behest of the Roth estate.
“A list of his relationships with women, with commentary.” This phrase has the ring of euphemism, does it not? Can we really characterize such a thing as an “essay”? Because what that sounds like to me is that Philip Roth wrote a fuck list.
I don’t know, maybe that’s going too far. I hope at least we can agree that both unpublished manuscripts sound like nasty pieces of work. The words “rebuttal” and “slander” suggest a certain spiteful tone. The fact that they were more or less written for Blake Bailey’s eyes only is also suggestive. Most suggestive of all is the fact that the Roth estate is leaning on Princeton to suppress “Notes on a Slander-Monger,” a move that is by every indication aggressive and unusual.
Is it fair that the estate has restricted access to (and might go so far as to destroy) these texts? Scholars and writers would have you believe that these documents are hugely important to literary history, and that to destroy them would be a crime against humanity and, worse, Philip Roth himself. “It’s fundamental material relating to a major American writer,” said Ira Nadel, whose unauthorized biography on Roth will be released next year.
I mean…is it, though?
More specifically, the question I’d like to raise is this: Is there something inherently misogynistic about characterizing these texts as having immeasurable scholarly value?
What does it mean that, in the future, I might have to be granted a special pass from Princeton University to access an annotated list of every woman with whom Philip Roth ever slept? Should Roth’s unpublished screed against his ex-wife be assigned reading in American literature classes? Are these really the kinds of items that deserve to be preserved and lionized for posterity and, if so, what does that say about the kinds of information and sources that we value? And those that we do not?
The fact that the estate considers the fate of the Philip Roth Fuck List to require a decision at all indicates that they intend to honor the spirit, rather than the letter, of Roth’s wishes, which were to destroy the materials after Bailey’s biography was published. Plainly, the estate’s mandate is to protect Roth’s legacy, and they have latitude to do that in whatever way they see fit. While the estate hasn’t announced a timetable or any criteria for their deliberation, it seems fair to assume that it will remain on hold until the Bailey scandal has settled and some sense of Roth’s legacy as a person has cohered. (Roth’s legacy as an Important Artist is of course firmly settled, at least for now.) What else could they be waiting for?
Whenever it’s made, the estate’s decision will itself be an important source of information. These people have already demonstrated a keen aversion to values like open access and crowdsourcing. (Roth did too, as his efforts with the Bailey biography show.) If the estate chooses to release the materials, it will be because they think it will exonerate or at least improve the author’s reputation to some degree. If they destroy the materials, it will be because they believe they would damage his reputation further. That will be the calculus.
In my uneducated opinion, the latter option seems much more likely. When the decision to destroy the materials is announced (if it is announced?), the estate will emphasize how important it is to honor Roth’s dying wish. When the time comes, remember: demonstrably, that is not the estate’s priority.
In any case, the “debate” is moot. The fate of these papers is out of our hands, meaning it’s naturally the angle the commentariat has trained its focus on. A hallmark of public conversation in the wake of #MeToo is the Othering of its villains. There’s plenty to say along these lines about Blake Bailey and Philip Roth, as the Take Economy has shown. It’s much more delicate and unflattering work to examine what these news stories imply about our own values and institutions. All this handwringing over the future of the Philip Roth Fuck List is an indictment, not of Roth, but of a culture that refuses to reflect on its past or build a more equitable future. It is a culture that places absurd worth on preserving some people’s literal garbage at the expense of a very long list of people, some of whom are still alive, who never signed up for all this. It is a culture whose treasured objects have quite a lot to say about the eye of the beholder, but all that gets shrouded in institutional norms and high-minded arguments about cultural preservation and intellectual freedom.
I just don’t see the inherent value of these materials, at least with regard to Roth’s romantic life, that others seem to take as a given. I don’t see why these texts should be objects of study, or why a raft of scholars imagine they’re entitled to see them. I don’t think it’s some neutral, pro-intellectual, principled stance to assume that Roth’s private notes to an alleged rapist are valuable public property. That kind of thinking is itself the dumb vestige of patriarchy.
I think if it were up to me, I’d let the papers “burn,” not least of all because that’s what Roth wanted. Inevitably, people would worry about what might get destroyed next. We’re in a historical moment in which the canon has been destabilized, if not displaced, and what people envision on the blazing Farenheit-451 fires in their dim imaginations is much more than some genius’s Fuck List, or even the Classics. It’s a certain sense of self.
LOL. Let them sweat.