April 24, 2021

"[W]hen an alleged rapist writes a book about a brilliant but problematic novelist, and when that book is lauded and celebrated up until..."

"... the moment two women say the author assaulted them — when all that happens, you wonder how the 900-page tome reads in hindsight." 

Writes Monica Hesse (in WaPo). She bought the book after the publisher withdrew it. You can still download the Kindle version. [ADDED: You can even buy the hardcover book at that link. Amazon has its stock to ship. But the publisher, Norton, isn't shipping any more books, and it's not doing publicity.]

That takes some of the heat out of the argument that the book has been censored. I stand by my opinion — expressed here — that the book should be sold no matter what the author, Blake Bailey, may have done. The book is not doing any sort of active harm — where we might have a real debate about censorship. It's just the argument that the author is a bad person, and these are only allegations. I would support publishing the book even if Bailey had shot a man on 5th Avenue in broad daylight. Roth is an overwhelmingly important writer, and this was the biographer he authorized, which caused many people to give interviews to Bailey. It's unfair to the Roth to deprive him of the story of himself that he chose Bailey to tell, and it's unfair to keep that story from us.

But we can get the Kindle version. And maybe we're more interested in it now. Monica Hesse got interested — interested in reading the book with "hindsight." I guess that means that all the time she's reading about Roth, she's thinking about how she's hearing the story of this "problematic" man as analyzed by another problematic man. Let's see what Hesse makes out of her assigned task of perceiving the problematic through an extra layer of problematizing:

You find yourself scrolling to a random page and reading a description of Roth’s first marriage: “Maggie’s sinuses were, of course, the least of their problems. Even at the best of times she couldn’t resist interrupting his work on the thinnest of pretexts (‘Could you go out and get half a pound of Parmesan cheese?’).” One could write a whole essay unpacking the premises propping up this sentence. Why is it unreasonable for Philip Roth to be asked to purchase an ingredient for the dinner he is presumably going to eat? Who purchased the rest of the groceries? One assumes it was Maggie. Was her day not “interrupted” when she shopped for and prepared the meal? What is the difference between a “thin pretext” and a valid request, other than whether the asker is Philip Roth or his shrewish, sinus-clogged wife? 

Ha ha ha. That is rich. That's some really good feminist writing. Bailey is damned by his "thinnest of pretexts." He assumes Maggie just wanted to interrupt Roth, that there couldn't possibly be a legitimate reason for the person cooking dinner to ask the other person in the house to go out and buy a missing ingredient. Bailey seems to think that a person in a house with a Genius at Work must know not even to ask for help with mundane household matters.

Here — if you're going to Amazon to download the Kindle of the Roth bio (or anything else) — why not buy this sign to tack onto your study door and see how it works out with your stuffed-up spouse:

More from Hesse:
When Roth began “openly dating other people” while still married, Maggie’s “demands for his attention took more and more bizarre forms,” Bailey writes — as if trying to rekindle affection from a serially philandering spouse is nonsensical and strange...

“Even at his worst, when [Roth] was ranting and raving at his ‘b---- of a wife,’ he was charming and funny and essentially benign,” Bailey told an interviewer with the Los Angeles Times....

Most people wouldn’t trust a sentence reading, “all women are nagging shrews,” but we all can be swayed by the skillful, 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: Harvey Weinstein dictated the content of movie theaters for decades; it turns out he was abusing women all along. Roger Ailes, Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer shaped coverage and discussion of sexual misconduct scandals throughout the 1990s and 2000s; they were later accused of sexual misconduct themselves.
Exactly. Very well put. 

This is well put too:

“We leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint,” as Roth himself wrote in the 2000 Pen/Faulkner Award-winning novel, “The Human Stain.” “Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen — there’s no other way to be here. We leave a stain.”

ADDED: It is so much better to get the book and to read it with insight than to suppress it. If readers don't know how to do something like what Hesse is doing — active, critical reading — then they really don't know how to read. So many people don't know how to read, and, as a consequence, when they are bothered by a text — or a writer — the answer they think of is censorship. 

Their call for censorship is a pathetic, unwitting confession of their inability to read. Of course, these people don't value reading. For them, reading is a lowly activity. They're heroes to themselves, doing us all a favor, sparing us from books that might put the wrong thoughts in our head.

FROM THE EMAIL: Temujin writes: 

"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...."

Exactly. Now do it for academia. Do it for feminist studies departments. Do it for our media and their coverage of politicians. Do it for sportswriters and their coverage of athletes. It appears to be a very consistently human behavior. I've read numerous times how the media, which is categorically left to far left in their opinions and voting habits, think of themselves as objective and middle of the road thinkers. They all agree with each other when gathering for cocktails, and they all seem like perfectly decent people to each other. No one notices any difference or any 'wayward' opinions or behavior. Their faults are allowed to go unexamined, and their premises spread.

Your comment, "Their call for censorship is a pathetic, unwitting confession of their inability to read." Agreed. it is also a confession of their inability to accept information and process it; i.e. to think.

Also, I love that a critic with a surname of 'Hesse' is reviewing a biography of Philip Roth. If only we had a person named Roth to review a biography on Hermann Hesse, we could then close the circle.

AND: Bob emails: "After two women say the author assaulted them — Bill Clinton got a $15 million advance for his autobiography."

ALSO: An emailer named John writes: 

I read your take on Monica Hesse's take on Blake Bailey's take on Philip Roth. I agree with you, with one exception.

I'm not a literary genius. But, in my experience in writing novels, writing was not treated as work by the people around me and my time spent writing was not respected unless I protected it. Family members who would never call me at my day job while I'm on the clock would interrupt me while I was writing. It got so bad I rented a desk at a coworking office to control my time. I got a lot of writing done, but it cost money, and being a sci-fi author doesn't pay very well.

The solution was to have a consistent time to write when I'm not disturbed. I got a good pair of noise-canceling headphones and when they are on my head I am to be left alone. This works, mostly, but I had to become more tolerant of interruptions, too. 

I buy the groceries and do the dishes. Writing doesn't get me out of housework. Nor does any other job. You and Hesse are right about that.

And Karen emails: 

Regarding “genius at work”, COVID restrictions might put a different spin on the matter. Since my husband had to start working from home, I’ve had to be conscious not to interrupt him unnecessarily. His paycheck (hence, his employer’s happiness with him) keeps the house and puts food on the table, so yes, I see a “genius at work” sign on his head all the time. I’m thankful to take care of household details so that he can manage his job, no “ thin pretexts” needed.

By the way, I’ve read your blog every day for 14 years. Great work, always interesting, never repetitive. Your fierce neutrality has helped us all navigate polarization and avoid total political meltdown.


FROM THE EMAIL: Zev writes: 

“They're heroes to themselves, doing us all a favor, sparing us from books that might put the wrong thoughts in our head.” 

I agree, although the sense I get in this case is not so much the suppression of wrongthink, but the desire to punish the bad man. It’s more cancel culture than censorship. 

Yes. But it is still censorship, just that the censorship is collateral to the punishment of the bad man. This is worse than the usual censorship, because it's taking away reading material that doesn't even have anything arguably damaging or dangerous about it.

With respect to “the thinnest of pretexts,” that might well have been Roth’s perception of it, which he conveyed to Bailey, and so shows nothing about Bailey’s own opinion. And if it was Roth’s perception, it probably arose from a context of what he perceived (perhaps unjustly) as many such unwarranted, attention-seeking interruptions. In other words, it was not just about a missing ingredient. Besides, who interrupts someone who is working at their actual job with a request that they stop working and go to the grocery. It’s just not done.

Well, I think it's pretty common to call your spouse at work and ask him/her to pick up some item of food on the way home. We ask each other to do errands, don't we? If you can see the person at their desk writing, you probably should develop a sense of when they're concentrating and when it's okay to speak.

I’ve been catching up the blog today – really enjoy your choices of material. Thank you

Thank you!