"A narrative masterwork," Cynthia Ozick called Blake Bailey's "Philip Roth: The Biography" in the featured cover review in the New York Times Book Review of April 11. That was a major American writer making that claim at the age of 93.
In last Sunday's Times Book review, the sort of letter that warms the heart of any book editor appeared. "Simply put: this is the single best-written book review I have ever read in my entire life." It was signed by a self-described 50-year Times Book Review reader named Evan Charkes of Dobbs Ferry.
Space had been clearing for Bailey's biography in book sections and on bestseller lists for weeks. Surely a great, readable, revealing biography of a bestselling literary titan could command a lot of attention.
Roth, after all, is one of his generation's literary cornerstones. He'd married, among other women, actress Claire Bloom whose bestselling post-divorce memoir "Leaving a Doll's House" didn't exactly help the misogynistic reputation Roth had been dealing with since the near-epochal publication of "Portnoy's Complaint."
I've never been a huge Roth fan. At The News, for so many years, one of the great Roth experts, my late friend, Mark Shechner, usually reviewed his new work for us. Even I felt some excitement, though, with Bailey's book, for one reason – Bailey, not Roth.
Bailey has been a truly great literary biographer in an incredible era of literary biography. I've reviewed two of his books in these pages. I called his biography of John Cheever a "brilliantly detailed baggy monster of biography." (John Updike, in one of the last reviews he'd ever write, called it "a triumph of research and unblinkered appraisal.") To me, Bailey was "the finest biographer we're likely to have of America's miserable masters of literary suburbia."
I first felt that way in my previous review of a truly great Bailey literary bio of Richard Yates called "A Tragic Honesty." Telling the booze-soaked, druggy, sexually messy story of a certain American writerly generation seemed to be Bailey's gift, above almost all others.
Certainly, it was the main reason Roth picked Bailey to have unique access to his letters and other material for the authorized biography that was meant to combat what Bloom, among others, did to his reputation. (Another Bailey subject was Charles Jackson, author of the classic novel about alcoholism, "The Lost Weekend.")
The news for Bailey and his Roth bio publisher W. W. Norton couldn't have looked better at that point.
Not quite, it seems.
In the New York Times, Alexandra Alter and prize-winning "Me Too" reporter Rachel Adams wrote a truly dire story about Bailey's alleged sexual depredations so damaging that Norton felt it had no choice but to kill the biography's second printing and stop sending out copies of the first.
Bailey's literary agent dropped him.
I must tell you that as someone who so admired Bailey's Cheever and Yates books, I honestly didn't think this kind of top-level ash-canning of a publisher's list-leading release was possible. This is totally different from what happened to Woody Allen's memoir. That merely switched publishers. That can't happen here.
Read the stories about Bailey and you understand. They're very grim. Middle school students of his in New Orleans (he taught eighth grade years ago) charged he was allegedly grooming them for affairs when they came of age.
More recently, there was an allegation of rape in 2015 of a publicity executive who, along with Bailey, was staying overnight in the New Jersey home of Times book critic/editor Dwight Garner (who hastened to let the world know it was Bailey's only invitation to his home and that they were not friends).
Bailey has denied the allegations. But his e-mails have admitted to "behaving terribly" with women.
The full story includes publisher Norton's initial confusion about what on earth to do when confronted by a female publishing executive who says she was raped by one of one book season's major authors.
What happens when a book is launched into the movable pantheon of American culture, only to be met by a new tidal inundation of abuse claims against an author?
It is, as so many have observed, the very stuff of a Roth novel.
Meanwhile, up there in the stratosphere some call it a literary classic. Others say it's a numbing account of sexual encounters. Still others may yet turn it into a bestseller – of what's out there, anyway. The author, if you're the publisher, is an authentic master of the trade. What on earth do you do when the initial story seemed to aim at the police blotter?
Well, the publisher turned off the whole emergent publication machine. A writer's work was squashed as it was being born, because his life suddenly didn't begin to pass decency's muster.
By that time, the Times was left with having published a beautifully-wrought review by a writer often considered a master – Ozick, who was born five years before Roth (who died in 2018) and 25 years before Bailey.
Unprecedented in this tale's particularities? You bet. I've never seen anything quite like it before.
Where does all this ugliness leave those of us who have been telling everyone we knew who'd be interested that Bailey's biographies of Cheever and Yates are masterly?
It leaves me finding all this hugely depressing, as you might imagine.
But then, ever since #MeToo began its full swing with Bill Cosby's and Harvey Weinstein's banishment behind bars, I have been, along with so many middle-class males, both utterly astonished and totally dismayed by the amount of male toxicity that women took for granted among the innate sorrows of being born female in America.
I've known a few truly crummy guys in my time. I'd never offer myself as a paragon of behavior. But when Cosby and Weinstein opened the subject up, I heard of things whose everyday ugliness and profusion both flabbergasted me.
I'm sorry. I just didn't know. And I can't tell you how many sheltered middle-class American males never did either.
And I'm imploring women – the ones now saying, perhaps, believe women – to believe older men too, when they tell you they didn't know quite how vile it could be to grow up female in America.
It has become a very complicated problem in American culture. That's because, once upon a time, the free expression of sexuality was the first move modernizing and liberalizing everything in America from Civil Rights to drug laws.
The trouble was that the free expression of sexuality was defined by men whose concern for female discomfort was often minimal to nonexistent. The consequence of that led to what some people, male and female, refer to as "rape culture."
It seems to me what's been happening in a publishing and media world is a little like a newly colonized country having to learn a new language.
The grammar is getting mangled everywhere. Some don't want to hear or speak a new language. Some have no interest in trying to understand the old. The need for translators is universal and omnipresent. If genders can ever communicate, nothing's going to happen without good will.
Bailey, it seems, is still living in an older world. Professionally, he's a master. Personally, things are a lot different.
I'm sorry, I refuse to cancel forever all those who just couldn't learn the new language at all, let alone fast enough. They've lived lives other ways – often loathesomely, but with some success, too.
All sorts of people of both sexes and all ages have lived ugly private lives – poets, musicians, painters, politicians, judges, soldiers, game show hosts, sous chefs, professors, baristas, oboists, periodontists, firemen, defensive ends, truck drivers, cops, dieticians, nurses, TV news anchors, etc.
I can't tell you how sorry I am to read awful stories about Bailey. I'm still going to recommend to people his Cheever and Yates books. They're exemplary. They're just about everything I'd want them to be. So is Richard Wagner's music for "Tristan and Isolde" despite his antisemitism. So are a great many movies produced by Weinstein despite everything he did that locked him up behind bars. So are all those great early Cosby stand-up routines.