Publisher pulls Philip Roth book, cuts ties with biographer amid sexual abuse allegations

Biographer Blake Bailey, whose book came out in early April, has denied any wrongdoing.

The publisher of a highly anticipated and widely discussed biography of Philip Roth is pulling the book and cutting ties with author Blake Bailey, who faces multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault. W.W. Norton and Company previously released Bailey’s memoir The Splendid Things We Planned.

“Norton is permanently putting out of print our editions of Philip Roth: The Biography and The Splendid Things We Planned, Blake Bailey’s 2014 memoir,” the publisher announced on Tuesday. “Mr. Bailey will be free to seek publication elsewhere if he chooses. In addition, Norton will make a donation in the amount of the book advance for Philip Roth: The Biography to organisations that fight against sexual assault or harassment and work to protect survivors.”

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The stunning decision follows reports last week from The New York Times, The New Orleans Times-Picayune and The Associated Press among others that Bailey, who in the 1990s taught eighth grade English in New Orleans, had behaved inappropriately with students and later sought sexual relationships. Two former students and a publishing executive have alleged that he assaulted them. Bailey was quickly dropped by his literary agency, the Story Factory, and Norton announced last week it would pause publication and publicity as it reviewed allegations.

Norton has acknowledged being contacted, anonymously, by a woman in 2018 who alleged that Bailey had assaulted her three years earlier. The publisher never responded directly to the email, sent by Bloomsbury sales and marketing vice president Valentina Rice, and instead forwarded it to Bailey. Rice first went public with her allegations last week in The New York Times and confirmed her account with the AP.

The alleged assault took place at the home of Times book critic Dwight Garner, who was informed by Rice soon after it happened and, at Rice’s request, did not until recently tell anyone at the paper. The Times had covered Bailey’s book extensively, including a long profile of Bailey that ran in its Sunday magazine. Garner did not review the Roth biography.

“Our critic acted appropriately and ethically by honouring the wishes of his friend, Ms. Rice, who confided in him in 2015 and asked him not to share the allegation,” a Times spokesperson told the AP. “And it was at Ms. Rice’s request that Dwight spoke with The Times.”

Bailey, whose Roth book came out in early April, has denied any wrongdoing. His attorney, Billy Gibbens, condemned Norton, while noting that Philip Roth is still being sold overseas.

“Norton made the drastic, unilateral decision to take Mr. Bailey’s books out of print, based on the false and unsubstantiated allegations against him, without undertaking any investigation or offering Mr. Bailey the opportunity to refute the allegations,” he said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. “Mr. Bailey’s European publishers wisely have not taken such a rash course of action, and Norton’s knee-jerk reaction is troubling and unwarranted.”

The audiobook publisher, Recorded Books Inc, too is pulling the release. “Recorded Books contracted directly with WW Norton to publish the audiobook version of Philip Roth: The Biography. As such, we are following Norton’s lead on this title and are removing the audiobook version from sale,” according to a statement provided on Wednesday to The Associated Press.

Few literary biographies had been so awaited. Bailey, known previously for his acclaimed biographies of authors John Cheever and Richard Yates, had worked on the Roth book since 2012, had extensive access to the author’s papers and to Roth, who died in 2018. Philip Roth reached the New York Times bestseller list and reviews have been mostly positive, though some critics found him too indulgent of Roth and how he treated women. Debates over the relevance of an author’s private behaviour to his work, which Roth also confronted in his lifetime, now extend to Bailey.

Numerous authors have been dropped by their publishers since the rise of the #MeToo movement four years ago, including Mark Halperin and James Dashner. Sherman Alexie returned an American Library Association medal amid harassment allegations. Woody Allen, whose daughter Dylan Farrow has alleged he molested her as a child, had a planned memoir cancelled in 2020 by Hachette Book Group, but later acquired by Skyhorse Publishing.

Bailey has been universally condemned, but not everyone agreed that his book should have been withdrawn. The CEO of PEN America, Suzanne Nossel, said she was concerned that Norton’s decision could become a troubling precedent.

“If we were to apply that standard writ large there would be thousands of books by bigots, misogynists and miscreants that could be removed from circulation on those grounds,” Nossel said in a statement. “While these books may be picked up elsewhere, once that stigma is attached there may not be another publisher willing to touch them.”

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